Innovation From The Inside Out: Gulf Marketing Group CEO Amin Nasser
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When I met with Amin Nasser at his Oud Metha office in Dubai, it had only been a few months since his appointment as the new Group CEO of Gulf Marketing Group (GMG), but he certainly didn’t seem like a newbie at the business- on the contrary, he was decidedly self-assured in his role, with plenty of ideas and strategies (many of which he had already put into action) to drive his company forward. Of course, GMG is already quite a successful enterprise- since its establishment in 1978 by Chairman Abdul Aziz Hassan Baker, the UAE-based company is today a diversified business conglomerate with a commanding presence in several countries of the GCC in a variety of sectors like sports retail (Sun & Sand Sports, which is perhaps GMG’s most recognizable brand), food trading and processing (Farm Fresh), pharmaceuticals (Super Care), logistics (Trilogi), education (Emirates British Nursery) and more.
But for all of its size and scale, it’s worth noting that GMG is a family business, and the Baker family intends to have it continue to be that way for the foreseeable future- and that’s where Nasser has an important role to play as GMG’s Group CEO. Prior to working at GMG, Nasser was a partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), where he headed up its Family Business Forum in the UAE, advising many of the region’s prominent family businesses on everything from setting up a corporate strategy to formulating good governance- and one of the companies he worked with was, indeed, GMG, with Nasser revealing that he has known Baker for more than 15 years. “In fact, GMG was a client of PwC when I was a partner there,” he remembers. “So what drove me to leave PwC and join GMG was, really, I wanted to, kind of, put the theory into practice, if you like. I had been advising a lot of families on [several] different areas, and I wanted to see what it would actually look like running an organization like that, and take the organization to the next level. Now, I know that this family, GMG, has been extremely passionate about what they are doing- a lot of aspirations are on growth, and that excited me. I wanted to be part of a company that had those plans for the future, and more importantly, their thirst to professionalize the business, to put good governance into play, [and] to make sure that they behave like a public-listed company but yet still be a family-owned business- that inspired me.”
Nasser’s entry at GMG comes at a time when the company is seeing quite a rapid rate of growth- it’s grown by double digits over the last year, and it has further expansion plans on the agenda as well. For the entrepreneurs among you, Nasser’s strategy in this regard is one worth taking note of- in the rush to scale up one’s business, one should be wary of losing sight of what the end goal is and not lose focus on attaining long-term growth. Given the variety of verticals GMG is currently involved in, Nasser intends on conducting a portfolio review and thereby figure out how the business is going to play out in the coming years. “One of the biggest things that I am going to do in the next few months is formulate our strategy going forward,” he explains. “We have recruited a head of strategy who’s joining us soon, and one of the first things that we are going to do with him is to get the family out and get the business unit leaders to meet together, and to discuss our strategy going forward for the next 5-10 years: what is it that we want to do, how are we going to develop this engine for growth around infrastructure, people, capital, funds and things like that. So that’s quite exciting- once we formulate the strategy, then we will execute that with laser focus. We’ll be very focused on achieving what we want to achieve in the next 5-10 years, and that may include going outside the region. At the moment, our prime focus is the UAE and Saudi Arabia- that’s where the footprint is, that’s where our focus is at the moment. But then, depending on opportunities, we will go outside,” with Nasser saying the company has an eye to move out of the GCC and into new markets in, say, Africa and Asia.
Nasser believes his efforts in bringing new systems, new procedures, new ways of doing things are necessary for a company of GMG’s stature so as to ensure its continued success, given the rate at which it is growing. “At the moment, we have about 220 stores- we opened 42 new stores in 2015,” he explains. “And we are looking at opening 80 new stores next year. By the end of next year, we are looking at having 300 stores. In terms of employees, we have over 5000 at the moment, and next year, we are looking to recruit 2200 [more]. So, with growth comes growing pains as well, and we have to be aware of that. And that’s one of the reasons I am here- to make sure that we have proper governance structures in place, put a structure in place for management. I’m [also] putting in place a board- they already had a board, but I’m formalizing it with independent directors and things like that. I’m also putting in place an executive committee which will comprise not just the family, but also business unit leaders, support services, etc. This committee will meet on a monthly basis to talk about operational issues, and that would be the driving body of the business. So we are trying to professionalize [things]- we want to make sure that we are doing the right things.”
Nasser is also keen on making innovation a key part of the agenda at GMG- this is especially noteworthy given that most family businesses in the Middle East have been rather slow on the uptake when it comes to staying on top of current trends in the market. According to Nasser, GMG is trying to act differently from its peers in the business in this particular area- for instance, he reveals that besides investing in the development of e-commerce platforms, GMG has also embarked on implementing SAP across its business to better streamline the enterprise. “Innovation is completely at the front of our agenda,” he says. “Family businesses haven’t been doing a lot of that in the past- in my view, they have been a bit complacent, and you know what happens when you get complacent. You know the trends, you know how it’s going to go in the next few years, and so if we don’t act now, we’re going to be behind the game. So we are doing a lot of work on the innovation side, and actually, we are very fortunate that Mohammed [Baker, Deputy Chairman, GMG], the founder’s son, is extremely passionate about innovation, and making sure we have cutting-edge technology in everything we do. So watch this space- we’ll be doing a lot of quite innovative things in the future.”
Now, talking about innovation is all well and good, but when it comes to actually implementing this at an organization, it’s important to remember that it is, in effect, driven by the workforce of the company, and Nasser believes this principle to be true at GMG as well. “I think, from my perspective, our store employees are the ones that really will drive our growth,” he says. “We want to make sure that we improve our sell-through: we get products from our brands, and we want to make sure those products are sold as soon as possible. Now, how do you do that? You want to make sure that the people dealing with the product are knowledgeable about it. They have good product knowledge, they can talk sensibly about the alternatives, and what I want to do is to make sure is that we have customers who keep coming back. My goal is to make sure that 70% of our trade is from repeat customers- customers who actually come in, see us and then come back again. And we have kind of achieved some of that already- but I want to do more. Now how do you do that? You want to make sure that your staff is happy, they are engaged and they are properly trained. So in terms of product knowledge, we have budgeted quite a significant amount of money to be set aside of training for next year.”
“We also want to make sure our employees are motivated and properly remunerated,” he continues. “So we are looking at incentive schemes to make sure that the employees are properly motivated, and that there’s a career path [for them]. I would like an employee to join us and say, look, this is what I am going to be doing in the next 10 years; this is how my career is going to progress. So we are setting up career paths for all our employees that will join the business, and then put training in place, and then put incentives in place as well, to make sure that they stay with us for a longer time. Because, I am quite passionate about people and making sure that our people are happy with us- happy employees mean happy customers, and customers bring in money. So that’s what I am looking at doing- it’s really around putting in the management processes that will enable us to execute our strategy. Because what happens when the company grows double-digit like we are -we are growing 25-30%, which is huge growth- so what tends to then creak or stretch or strain is your HR. Because you are going to end up recruiting a number of people and there’s a lot of traction there, and if you don’t have a really good HR, then the operations might suffer.”
For someone who’s only just joined the organization, it’s clear that Nasser has a lot of ideas on how to push GMG forward and keep it at the top of its game. But has he come across any roadblocks as he drives this agenda at GMG? “Change and bringing about it, getting minds to get together and collaborate with each other is challenging.” Nasser replies. “I think one of the things that is happening in the Group that I want to happen in a more productive way is the collaboration between the business unit leaders- that’s why I have set up the executive committee. And to be honest, I haven’t faced any challenges, and all I have faced is people actually saying to me that this is a really good thing, and we actually need to do that. One of the things that really impressed me about this Group is the talent that we have, and the hunger for growth. So a lot of our key people are really looking at growth, and all they need is a bit of guidance, a bit of mentoring and a bit of structure around it. I think we have got the recipe to make this quite successful. We’ve got great, fantastic brands, and a fantastic opportunity to grow… It is not as if I have come to an organization that is not growing- the organization is growing, significantly. The question is, is the growth sustainable- and we think it is. And my role is to make sure that this continues for the foreseeable future with a good structure in place, with good governance in place, with good board in place, with good reporting in place.”
By The Numbers: Gulf Marketing Group
220 The current total number of stores
42 The number of new stores opened in 2015
80 The number of additional stores to open in the UAE and Saudi Arabia by 2016
300 The total number of stores by 2016 (excluding acquisitions)
5000+ The number of GMG employees
2200 The approximate number of new staff to be hired by the end of 2016
35% The percentage of growth seen by GMG over the past year