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Success Speaks For Itself: Whissle Hospitality Group

Success Speaks For Itself: Whissle Hospitality Group
Image credit: Whissle Hospitality Group

Ramzy Abdul-Majeed and Markus Thesleff set up Whissle Hospitality Group in Dubai in 2009 (with the vision for it starting in 2005); however, unless you are particularly familiar with the region’s hospitality and F&B scene, there is a good chance that you probably haven’t heard of the company before. But while other entrepreneurs with enterprises as old as Whissle may find this scenario a cause for concern, Abdul-Majeed and Thesleff don’t seem to be really perturbed by it at all- their reasoning is that though you may have not heard of Whissle, you certainly couldn’t have missed the many award-winning brands under this boutique hospitality group’s portfolio. 

For one, there’s Okku, the homegrown Japanese restaurant, bar and lounge that started Whissle’s story, which is today a Dubai institution with a slew of awards to its credit. Other concepts that fall under Whissle’s purview include Claw, an American-style barbecue and seafood eatery, Sophie’s Café, a gastro-café with a menu of wholesome home-style meals, Cielo Sky Lounge, a roof terrace destination, Casa de Tapas, a Spanish restaurant, Riva Beach Club, a Mediterranean cuisine-themed retreat, and- well, I could go on, but it should be clear by now that Whissle is behind some of the most popular F&B venues in Dubai. And given the success these concepts have seen, it’s fair to say that Abdul-Majeed and Thesleff’s strategy to let the world know of Whissle’s brands on their own merit –with the company as such (and themselves too) taking a backseat in the processhas indeed been a winning one. “Our focus has been on our brands,” Thesleff declares. “Let our brands speak for us because they don’t need to know us, but [they should know] our brands and our people.”

In a landscape where there is (arguably) a tendency for entrepreneurs to want the limelight to be shone on themselves as opposed to their businesses, such statements by Thesleff and Abdul-Majeed are a welcome departure from what is often the norm in this space. In terms of personalities, Abdul-Majeed is the one who seems calm and collected, while Thesleff looks to be the more emphatic, enthusiastic one of the two, and together, they make for a rather well-matched entrepreneurial duo, who were friends for a long while before they became business partners as well. While Abdul-Majeed comes from a finance background, Thesleff has had both family business and entrepreneurial experience, and the two had been talking about setting up a business together for a long while before they eventually did so with the launch of Okku in 2009.

Ramzy Abdul-Majeed, co-founder, Whissle Hospitality Group
Source: Whissle Hospitality Group

At the time, Dubai’s F&B scene was quite unlike what it is today- the tendency then was to bring in concepts from outside of the UAE and transplant it here, and the market was then more receptive to ideas brought forward by large, well-established players, as opposed to, well, people they hadn’t really heard a lot about. But Thesleff and Abdul-Majeed weren’t keen on being a part of the herd, so to speak- sure, they could have also imported existing concepts, but they had a different vision in mind. “We said, let’s create a hospitality group, and let’s do it based out of Dubai,” Abdul-Majeed remembers. “Let’s create our own brands, and then take them overseaswe wanted to actually have something born and bred in Dubai.”

And this was the principle that drove the creation of Okku (and Whissle, by default)- it was a singular ambition, and the co-founders readily admit that it was hard to get people to buy into them and their ideas. After all, a Japanese concept like Okku was completely new at the time in the market, but Thesleff and Abdul-Majeed were also using this fact to their benefit, as they were all set to be the first mover in this space in Dubai. However, this didn’t pan out as they hoped, and they had a whole other hurdle to face. Delays in construction caused them to postpone Okku’s launch date, and Zuma, a successful Japanese restaurant concept from London, unveiled its Dubai location in September 2008, five months before Okku was able to open its doors. “We were supposed to launch way before Zuma,” Abdul-Majeed says. “And then [when we opened], everyone was saying, oh, you just copied them. But you can’t do that in five months… So that was in itself a challenge, because suddenly, we were looked at, when we opened, as a copycat.”

At around the same time, another global Japanese concept, Nobu, also opened here in Dubai, and this was a less than ideal scenario, to say the least, and one can imagine how frazzled the Whissle co-founders were. “Our whole concept was [about] being the first mover,” Thesleff recalls. “Our whole strategy was about being these two guys, [with a] homegrown idea, and being a first mover… And all of a sudden, [we were] getting leapfrogged by not just names, but, like, superpower names.” But there was a silver lining: Thesleff notes that the opening of Zuma and Nobu gave Okku a benchmark to challenge, and they wholeheartedly embraced that opportunity. Fast forward a couple of years, and not only is the Okku brand now firmly on the same pedestal as both Zuma and Nobu, it has also garnered a slew of industry awards testifying to its excellence, which has in turn made Whissle a force to reckon with in the region’s F&B landscape. The manner in which the Whissle co-founders chose to tackle competition –and that too, at such an early stage of their business- should serve as an important lesson for other entrepreneurs. “Strategy-wise, the objective [we used] was to do what we wanted to do, create what we wanted to create, be who we are,” Abdul-Majeed says.

Markus Thesleff, co-founder, Whissle Hospitality Group
Source: Whissle Hospitality Group

“Don’t really care about the competition so much, because if you spend all your time worrying about them, you don’t do what’s right for you- that takes care of itself if you do a good enough job.” “You got to focus on yourself, because where focus goes, energy flows,” Thesleff adds. “You got to take care of yourself.” By following this principle, Abdul-Majeed and Thesleff managed to successfully elevate the Okku brand, but doing so didn’t mean they were done with their dreams though- they had a bigger vision for Whissle. “Most people would have taken Okku, and focused on Okku, and only done Okku, and expanded it,” Abdul-Majeed says.

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“We just had this vision of- we wanted to change the hospitality industry in the region. It can’t be this big hotel, big franchise thing, and that’s it- there’s got to be creativity here. We wanted to be pioneers in that.” As per Abdul-Majeed and Thesleff, if Dubai were to realize the aspirational goals that the UAE’s leaders had set for the Emirate, then with respect to the hospitality industry, the city needed to have an indigenous pool of talent to tap into- there had to be creative concepts that were born here, ideas that originated from here that could be exported to other parts of the world.

To say this dream is an ambitious one would probably be an understatement- but this is what drove (and indeed, continues to drive) Abdul-Majeed and Thesleff forward in building up the Whissle enterprise. Of course, their past experience does back them up well: the duo have previously seen success with Pangaea, the award-winning lounge and club concept in London, New York, and Marbella, and they’ve also had Aviva, a private members club in London at the Baglioni Hotel- this concept is set to open soon in Dubai as a roof terrace as well. Today, besides Okku, Whissle’s original concepts like Claw, Riva Beach Club, and others can be seen as Dubai institutions in their own right, with each of them having their own particular USPs that make them stand out from their peers in the market. However, this represents the realization of just one part of the Whissle vision.

OKKU Interior
Source: Whissle Hospitality Group

“We were doing two things,” Abdul-Majeed explains. “We were creating a bunch of brands here that we make successful in this market… Then, from that, the vision was, 8-9 years down the road, having created, roughly, a brand a year, then we start the expansion and franchising process aggressively.” And that is indeed the plan that the Whissle co-founders are now working on- the company is getting set to take its best brands outside of Dubai and the UAE, and make their presence felt not just in the neighboring GCC market, but internationally as well. Okku, for instance, is set to open a new flagship, Okku at the Fairmont Hotel on The Palm later this year, with the new addition of Okku Beach, providing a refined luxury chic pool and beach experience to discerning guests. Okku Riyadh is under construction as well, with it slated to open its doors in early 2018.

At the same time, a new Sophie’s is set to open by the end of this year at Barsha Heights in Dubai, while three new Claw locations are slated for the GCC region in the next two years. Besides scouting for locations around the world that would be a good fit for their existing concepts, Abdul-Majeed and Thesleff reveal that they are also building new brands to add to these new markets as well as their own repertoire- one of these, they tell me, will be Nama, a Japanese bistro concept that’s set to be an offshoot of Okku, which already has two locations in the pipeline- in fact, the Dubai Marina outlet is set to open mid-2018. As for longterm goals, Whissle hopes to be in the business of operating hotels someday- with the team having managed to excel as F&B operators, they believe that they are well-suited for delivering superior experiences as hoteliers as well. However, both Abdul-Majeed and Thesleff tell me that they are a long way away from realizing this particular dream- but it’s an aspiration they have in mind for Whissle all the same.

OKKU Interior
Source: Whissle Hospitality Group

It’s interesting to note here how these two entrepreneurs, while dreaming big in whatever they set out to do, are willing to take their time in realizing their ambitions. Consider what they have done with Whissle so far, for instance- Abdul-Majeed and Thesleff were keen on having the company set up a strong base, a strong foundation with their brands here in Dubai first, from which their further growth could be engineered in a successful manner. Be it with the setting (and maintenance) of strong standards at all of their different outlets, or with the laying out of proper governance structures and legal frameworks that ensure the business’ continuity and excellence, the Whissle co-founders have been (and continue to be) patient about building up their enterprise. But if there’s one factor that these entrepreneurs make a point to consistently focus on throughout their business lifecycle, then that would be on the people they have at Whissle.

As Thesleff and Abdul-Majeed point out, one of the paradigms that Whissle works with is that “we don’t hire staff, we recruit family,” and it is this principle that essentially governs their management styles in the organization. While they may be the ones with the grand visions and ideas in their heads, Abdul-Majeed and Thesleff are quite emphatic about the fact that the people they have on board the company are the ones that will actually help them realize it, and so, they don’t wish to cut corners when it comes to treating their staff well. “You won’t hear people working for us,” Thesleff says. “They work with us; we work with them. And that’s what we are about.” Given that they operate in a sector that’s all about treating customers to great experiences, it’s safe to say that Abdul-Majeed and Thesleff know a thing or two about treating people well, and this approach extends to their workforce as well. And if Whissle’s current status and planned trajectory is any indication, then yes, their modus operandi does seem to be paying off- and their future looks promising as well. 

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