How Dubai’s Seddiqi became one of the world’s biggest luxury watch retailers

As the CFO of Seddiqi Holding, Osama Ibrahim Seddiqi is responsible for scaling up the family business. Now, he oversees the bottom line of a homegrown Dubai-based group that is expanding into different areas of luxury

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It is not common for the CFO of a leading regional corporation to have a passion for helping independent brands to develop or for supporting educational ventures for the industry and consumers. Then again, there is nothing common about the success story of the business that the Seddiqi family has created which is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year.

There are several ethical values and a virtuous DNA in place. The rules of traditional business development apply: long-term vision, strategy, loyalty, patience and respect for customers and partners.

But in this case, things go further. Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons is one of the biggest players in watches and jewellery worldwide. Not many retailers can claim to have a 65-year-long uninterrupted relationship with Rolex and a similar tenure with Patek Philippe or Audemars Piguet. It is quite impressive and the Seddiqi family name inspires respect and admiration far beyond the UAE.

In the run-up to Expo 2020, and with many non-watch related projects in the pipeline, we sat with Osama to learn more about the how he, the family and a very talented team runs one of the most successful Emirati companies in the global luxury sector.

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CFO of Seddiqi Holding, Osama Ibrahim Seddiqi

Could you tell us about how the family business started?
My grandfather, Ahmed Seddiqi, started this business along the Dubai Creek. He began by purchasing small quantities of watches from Bahrain, India and Kuwait and then sold them from his cabinet, making a little profit with each one. Slowly, he increased the volume of pieces until he opened his shop in the old souk.

The business grew slowly from there. My uncles and my father, the late Ibrahim Seddiqi, joined the business. Our beginnings were very humble. My grandfather never travelled to Europe or anywhere related to the brands that are sold on retail under his name today.

When was the first big milestone for the company?
When we had an agency contract from Rolex, almost 65 years ago. We have a letter from His Highness Sheikh Rashid, the ruler of Dubai at that time, providing a reference to Rolex that Seddiqi is a well-known family and that he recommends us to hold the brand. Back then, along with Rolex, Patek Philippe and Omega were the three main pillars for us. Patek and Rolex still remain with us.

The company’s growth has been parallel to that of Dubai and the UAE…
We are extremely lucky to be in this country, the United Arab Emirates. Before the UAE was established, Dubai was a hub of commerce but it wasn’t as open as it became after the foundation of the United Arab Emirates. We have grown alongside Dubai. With the opening of the airport here and of Emirates Airline too, infrastructure was expanded and tourists started coming, creating more demand among retailers and giving us the opportunity to expand. We have grown with Dubai and we learnt a lot from the rulers of Dubai.

At what point did you start going to Switzerland and negotiating with the brands and bringing in larger volumes of watches?
Both my uncles, Abdulmagied and Abdul Hamied, studied French which made negotiations easier. When I was young, I used to travel with my father visiting the different brands. Brands would approach us because they knew the growth potential of Dubai and we were among the few families in the region working in the watch and jewellery industry. Having Rolex and Patek Philippe itself was a big deal and that opened the doors for other brands as well.

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How do you handle the business given the corrections that occur periodically in the global economy? How did you forecast these economic events?
These corrections happen because prices get inflated and exaggerated. It is predictable, in my opinion, because the moment you see the smaller things becoming exaggerated in price, you’ll know there’s something wrong. How do we protect ourselves? It is not what we do during the correction, but before the correction.

Our growth has always been based on our needs and never exaggerated. I’ve learned a lot from my uncles during the correction in 2008 who taught me not to panic, take one step at a time and solve the issues in an open-minded and transparent manner. We contacted our major clients and explained to them the problems. Things were bad for six to eight months that year and then they became very good. We hit historic numbers in 2010 and 2011.

Secondly, the old-school ways of doing business are still the correct way – be conservative, grow organically. Do not go beyond your core business. Diversify, but do not opt for over-diversification. Many businesses in Dubai suffered because they went out of their core businesses and into areas that they had no knowledge about and then took opinions of people without checking whether they were right or wrong. There are many things that we do beyond our core business like our service centre because this is something that will serve our core business and also real estate, because likewise old people will tell you, real estate can get sick but never die.

You’ve expanded into Abu Dhabi and have also started going into other sectors of luxury like retail fashion and beauty. How is this plan evolving?
We opened the business unit Mizzen when we identified the opportunity to expand beyond watches and jewellery and saw that would be able to maintain a high quality of luxury within these other sectors, offering a mix of brands for which there is consumer demand. Mizzen currently comprises three brands; Aesop, Orlebar Brown and Gentle Monster. We hope that one day we can say Mizzen will match Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons in terms of reputation and quality of service – that’s our aim.

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In terms of territorial expansion, would you go beyond the region?
Some contracts we have in place are for the GCC region and the Middle East. We have no current plans to expand beyond the region but if we do so, we will go with the same standards that we have in the UAE using the same principles we have here.

The recently concluded Dubai Watch Week is unlike other watch fairs and is an educational and cultural platform. From a CFO point of view, what is your view of this non-commercial initiative from Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons to create awareness about watch culture in the region?
Since this is a family business, the family image and the name of the family is always a priority and there is no cost attached to that. Everyone in the company believes that Dubai Watch Week is something important for Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons. It gives back to the industry in the form of education; bringing brands, watchmakers and enthusiasts together is our way of saying thank you for the support we have received over the years and also provides an added value to our loyal customers.

We are also proud that an idea such as Dubai Watch Week has grown alongside of the city of Dubai, helping to showcase the Emirate’s ability to host world class events and demonstrating the value to global luxury brands of the audience and interest for their products.

What is the strategy around independent brands?
Treating them with respect is in our DNA, that is how we were raised. I remember the time when Richard Mille was still a small brand. My uncles had a relationship with Richard Mille himself for over 40 years. So when he came and told them about the idea of Richard Mille, immediately both my uncles, who are chairman and vice chairman, supported him. See where Richard Mille is today.

Max [Büsser] is a dear friend. I really love sitting and chatting with him. I love his products. I even have a few products from his MAD gallery that we opened in Al Serkal and then later on in Dubai Mall. Büsser is a person you want to support. The way we deal with big brands and independents is like a friendship. We support them. When we are convinced about the brand and know that there is potential there, we look after them.

Independent brands also give a variety to customers and this is our job. If there is a person that has worked very hard to create an art piece, not just a timepiece, we will support them.

What is your position and vision on e-commerce for the watch industry?
Simple. We go with the flow. We are working towards it across some of our Mizzen brands and other more recent projects. We were at a retail forum and expo in New York last year and we have seen a lot of new technology around e-commerce and we were very impressed with the developments in Europe and America. We will get there too and are already spending on the infrastructure.

Was 2019 a satisfactory year for Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons and what is the outlook for 2020 so far?
Yes, it was a satisfactory year for us. It was a tough market, but we have done fairly well. I’m positive about 2020; Dubai is soon going to host Expo 2020 and a lot of tourists will come. We’re also focusing on the heart of our business and trying to ensure that everything we do, we execute to the best of our ability.

How will you define the composition of your clients at Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons?
Simple. It’s global and loyal. We have loyal customers from Dubai and the region. The same way we treat our brands, we treat our customers too.

Do you consider limited edition and bespoke timepieces as a service or a business?
We consider this to be a complementary service. The strength of our relationships with brands means that our customers have access to limited edition and bespoke timepieces but it’s not the main area of our focus as a business.

You studied in Denver and then went into banking. At what point did you decide to enter the family business?
When I came back to Dubai I joined National Bank of Dubai which is now Emirates NBD. I never thought I would enter the family business. It was my destiny though to work with my father and I worked with him during the last year of his life. I learned a lot. I thought I can give more to my family than give to myself or my employer. So the aim was improving the family business using the knowledge I had gained by working for seven years in different areas of the banking sector.

 

MB&F founder Maximilian Büsser on his evolving relationship with the Seddiqi family:

Twenty years ago, even though he barely knew me, Abdulmagied Seddiqi was one of the few retail partners who believed in my trying to revive Harry Winston timepieces. I had just arrived at the helm of that company and even though their stores were barely selling two-three pieces a year, he gave me one of my biggest orders ever to help me out. I will never ever forget that particular moment in Abdulmagied’s office in Bur Dubai. Harry Winston timepieces went on to become a great success, but it would not have been possible without a few people like Abdulmagied helping me.

In 2005, Abdulmagied, Mohammed (his son) and I were having tea in their Capricorn tower office. I had left Harry Winston to follow my dream, MB&F, where I injected my life’s savings that are by far not enough. I desperately needed to find retail partners who would not only order my first crazy creation, Horological Machine No1, but who were insane enough to pay me 30 per cent in advance at least two years before I deliver – based on a drawing! Guess who was one of the only six retailers around the world who answered “Ok you’re nuts, but let’s do this…”

Fast forward, 10 years later, Mohammed suggests to me one day to open a M.A.D. Gallery in Dubai. I remember telling him cautiously “I hope you are not expecting to make any money out of it, because you won’t…”. He laughed out loud and just said “Of course not! Dubai needs a M.A.D. Gallery and our whole family loves it.” The rest is history.

Any retailer who carries powerhouse brands like Rolex, Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet and Richard Mille, really does not need any other brand. The Seddiqi family do not consider independent watchmaking as a business and clearly it isn’t one. I have the feeling they champion it because it makes them proud and embodies everything real watchmaking lovers like them enjoy: artisanship, humanity, art, innovation. The whole family spends a proportionally inordinate amount of time and energy on helping independent watchmakers to follow their creative dreams. They act much more as patrons than business partners.