Al Madani threads its way through UAE history


- Hisham Wyne

Shaikh Abdul Rahman Al Madani is called the royal tailor for good reason. He has been making kanduras for royalty since the time of the late Sheikh Saeed Bin Maktoum Al Maktoum – Sheikh Mohammad’s grandfather.

Abdul Rahman Al Madani was working as a tailor at age 14. The year was 1948. Dubai’s population: approximately 60,000. The creek’s old course had it practically lapping at the doors of the little shop in Deira. Pointing at the parking lot and road beyond, Abdul Rahman’s son Mohammad Al Madani said: “All this is reclaimed land. Back then, the creek used to flow through here.”

Mohammad Al Madani, now chairman and CEO of a sprawling business operation extending into retail, fashion and F&B, has memories of watching the creek being deepened and redirected in the 1960s. “I remember going to school, walking past machines pumping all the sand out.”

A LEGACY OF HARD WORK

With old merchants popping their head around the door to say hello and exchange pleasantries, and in exchange being offered cups of sweet tea, octogenarian Abdul Rahman looks relaxed. He’s earned it. His life has involved multitudes of hours spent poring over intricate stitching. There are anecdotes of him completing a large order of kanduras by working through the night in the glow of a kerosene lamp.

The shop, then his uncle’s, was tiny. Air-conditioning was a thing of the future. The only escape from the stifling heat was to sit outside, under the shade of rudely constructed wooden shelters, operating manual foot-operated sewing machines in the company of fabric reams.

Mohammed Al Madani was never allowed to involve himself in the tailoring side of things. But he’d help in other ways. “I used to go to school, and come back to the shop, where I’d sit and do my homework. And also help my father with the invoicing. I’d write them out, and walk over to that building,” he said, pointing at a space now occupied by a squat little apartment block. “That used to be the office of Hamad Al Futtaim – Majid Al Futtaim’s uncle and the father of Abdullah Al Futtaim. We tailored for them.”

“It wasn’t their office, it was their house,” Shaikh Abdul interjects softly. “It was torn down when you were a child.”

BECOMING A ROYAL TAILOR

Mohammad Al Madani explains that Dubai’s then ruler Sheikh Rashid had parceled out the emirate’s administrative functions for better management. “Sheikh Rashid’s cousins were in charge of Deira at the time, and their offices were nearby. Sheikh Rashid would come visit, on his way to Al Arsah. That’s how we got introduced to the family.”

Al Arsah, said Mohammad Al Madani, translates to “the open area”, where one of Dubai’s oldest souks still exists. “The Bedouins would bring in wood, coal and dates from the desert. And they’d buy sugar, rice, tea and coffee. This used to be the center of everything. The place of transaction and activity,” he said.

“Sheikh Rashid used to cross over the creek, and walk by on his way to see his cousins,” Abul Rahman added, switching to Urdu while pointing out the late Sheikh’s trajectory through the window. “And he’d say hello. And then one day, he asked us to come to his diwan and measure him and the family out for kanduras. His boys were young then – Maktoum, Mohammad, Hamdan and Ahmed.”

A NEW GENERATION OF BUSINESS

In 1981, Mohammed Al Madani started a garment shop in Karama. “In Singapore, I saw a Taiwanese brand called Hang Ten. I liked it, and went to Taipei to talk to the owners, and signed an agreement to distribute it in the UAE.” The group now has around 25 Hang Ten stores across the UAE. At about the same time, in 1996, he started bringing in Levi’s from the wholesalers in America. In 2001, Al Madani Group became the official distributors for both Levi’s and Dockers. It was 1992 when Mohammad Al Madani opened a tailoring shop in Burjuman, the stalwart mall lodged in central Bur Dubai.

But it was the Mall of the Emirates that pushed him into F&B. “We were entering the mall with our retail stores in 2004, and they asked whether we had a food business. And I remembered I’d started negotiations years ago with Charley’s Subs in the United States. We hadn’t come to terms then, but now I had the incentive.” With negotiations successful, a Charley’s Subs opened up in Diyafah Street (now 2nd December Street), followed swiftly by Mall of the Emirates. Ibn Battuta was next.

A MOVE TO SUB-FRANCHISING

After eight Charley’s had opened in quick succession, Mohammad Al Madani applied for a master franchiser license. This enabled him to offer Charley’s to sub-franchisers while overseeing operations. Expansion continued apace and 27 Charley’s Subs outlets were added in two years, with moves into the UAE, Saudi, Oman and Mauritius.

A CITY THAT BOUNCES BACK

Al Madani Group is prospering. But Mohammad Al Madani says the group’s fortunes are tied to those of Dubai. And there have been blips. “When the Iraq War started in 2003, Dubai became a ghost town. Tourism died down. It was a very challenging six months. Then of course, there was the 2009-2011 period of recession. We had to recalibrate, and in some cases, shut down underperforming brands.”

But Dubai, said Mohammad Al Madani, has proved itself. “A few years ago, the international media had us dead and buried. And even I thought the ride was over. But we’re back, we’ve rebounded.”

Mohammad Al Madani sees a lot of opportunities in F&B. Fashion and tailoring, he says, are practically saturated. And he’s steering the group towards renewable energy. “Al Madani is getting into renewable energy projects. We’ll be doing solar projects region wide.” Simultaneously, he said, he’ll be expanding the Group’s retail brands, and also explore further sub-franchising opportunities.

RUNNING A SUCCESSFUL BUSINESS

Mohammad Al Madani was trained as an engineer and applies his lessons to business. It is essential, he said, to have a budget forecast, a plan and a review of how well the budget and plan worked. “Every quarter, I do a review with my brands to examine the budget, the plan and the actual result. And then we look at why we deviated. In business, don’t implement a culture of blame. Rather, grow a learning culture. Make mistakes, but learn from them.”

Mohammed Al Madani in the old Dubai creek shop

Mohammed Al Madani in the old Dubai creek shop

And while the rest of business continues apace, Shaikh Abdul Rahman is at home in his Deira domain. He shows up to his old tailoring shop near the creek at 10.30 every morning. Post an afternoon siesta, he’s there again in the evening. Much of the world has moved on. But there is a certain permanence about Al Madani tailors that gladdens the heart.

As seen on Zawya Business Pulse. To see more, please click here