Cover story: UAE-based businessman Ghassan Aboud on how a sound diversification strategy drives growth Cover story: UAE-based businessman Ghassan Aboud on how a sound diversification strategy drives growth
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Cover story: UAE-based businessman Ghassan Aboud on how a sound diversification strategy drives growth

Cover story: UAE-based businessman Ghassan Aboud on how a sound diversification strategy drives growth

In an exclusive interview, chairman and founder of Ghassan Aboud Group explains why success is only sustainable if it is inclusive

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It was the realisation that dawned on entrepreneur Ghassan Aboud, after arriving in the UAE in 1992, that became the starting point for what is now a successful international conglomerate.

Harbouring a strong hunch that he would fare better at business rather than employment was all it took for Aboud to end his short-lived career in media and start a trading company in 1994.

“The UAE was emerging as a hub for international traders to visit for sourcing products back then. I sensed the opportunity to establish a business that could meet this demand,” he explains.

Close to three decades later, the small business has evolved into Ghassan Aboud Group, a multi-disciplined group, spanning several key sectors with a market reach of more than 100 countries. Supporting the group’s hub in the UAE are offices in Belgium, Australia, Jordan, Turkey and Egypt. Aboud, the group’s chairman and founder, feels this journey was meant to be. “I come from a family that has been operating businesses for generations,” he says.

However, the effort and tenacity required to build a multi-business enterprise makes it hard to begrudge Aboud his success. At the helm of a team that comprises north of 2,500 employees, Aboud continues to expand his operations across diverse sectors and geographies.

Diversification mode
From humble beginnings in the automotive trade sector to spearheading the group across a gamut of industries, including hospitality, retail, food, media, logistics, automotive, healthcare as well as digital marketplaces, Aboud’s successful growth has required more than sheer human effort. Having landed on his feet within the automotive space, Aboud ventured into new areas after more than a decade.

In 2008, the group launched Live Point Art Production, a production house offering end-to-end content solutions and post-production services. However, the group’s diversification plans intensified in 2015.

The following year, Aboud launched Crystalbrook Collection, a hotel development and management company in Australia, which last month acquired the Rydges Sydney Harbour Hotel for a tag price of around AUD100m. The hospitality management company owns three hotels in Cairns as well as properties in Brisbane, Byron Bay, Newcastle and a boutique hotel in Sydney’s Surry Hills.

“Our [hotel] portfolio is set to grow in the coming years within Australia and the region. We are also pursuing ideas on international expansion through strategic collaborations,” says Aboud.

In 2016, Aboud also launched the group’s food and grocery retail concept. Grandiose Supermarket has since expanded and currently operates 18 multi-format stores – such as hypermarkets, supermarkets and convenience stores – across the UAE, with plans of further expansion. “We will continue consistently growing our supermarket footprint in the coming years, with a focus on neighbourhood supermarkets; larger stores with emphasis on engaging food experiences; and smaller stores in high traffic locations where we will focus on the ‘grab and go’ experience,” says Aboud.

“By end of 2022, Grandiose will have 30 operating stores across the UAE, and our plans include launching a further 15-20 stores in 2023. In the medium term, we will focus on densifying our store numbers within the UAE, but we intend to expand further across the MENA region in the longer term,” he adds. Grandiose Catering, meanwhile, offers packaged retail meals, banqueting and event management solutions to public sector and corporate clients.

But F&B for Aboud wasn’t just securing the retail landscape but rather, he envisioned, servicing the entire value chain. Earlier this year, the group partnered with Abu Dhabi-based AD Ports Group to establish one of the GCC’s largest wholesale food trading and logistics hub in KIZAD. The Abu Dhabi Food Hub – Kezad will convene stakeholders, including buyers, sellers, logistics players, consolidators and distributors from across the world, as well as feature trading pavilions, logistics services, refrigerated and ambient warehouses, waste recycling facilities and other amenities.

Aboud notes that the opening timeframe for the food hub is yet to be announced but the project is progressing on a priority basis with the involvement of all key stakeholders. “Abu Dhabi Food Hub – Kezad is designed to be a game changer within the regional food value chain. The hub will offer fully integrated logistics solutions across road, sea, air and rail, to facilitate trade within the MENA region,” he adds.

The group is also keen to build on its relationship with AD Ports Group as a key strategic partner. “We are also establishing an automotive hub in Abu Dhabi that is designed to attract players seeking organised services. The auto hub will have an integrated ecosystem that can accommodate all automotive products, including passenger and commercial vehicles, heavy equipment and machinery, spare parts, aftermarket and other mobility offerings,” explains Aboud.

The group’s efforts to diversify across industries and geographies have paid off. Diversification ensures business risks are well managed through the ups and downs of economic cycles, the chairman explains. “This has driven our growth in recent years, with our foray into new markets and business lines. Today we have a decent portfolio of investments that include sectors outside our initial focus area – the automotive business.”

Adjusting the landscape
Despite pursuing the group’s growth strategies with relentless will, Aboud faced several challenges along the way, the Covid-19 pandemic among the relatively recent ones. As the pandemic set in, like most other businesses, the group had to encounter unprecedented levels of uncertainty.

But Aboud promptly set in motion strategies to explore viable opportunities as well as prioritised technology and digital solutions as a catalyst for growth. “Our philosophy is to always think in the long term and therefore, we worked with a mindset of using the crisis as an opportunity to improve our processes and identify growth areas,” he notes.

“As a result [of the pandemic], we progressed with the expansion of our current businesses, whilst also pushing for speed in our new ventures – notably, the food and auto hub. These are unique public-private partnership (PPP) projects that have taken off and we hope to see the results in the coming months. We also increased our emphasis on technology as a business enabler,” he adds.

Keen to leverage consumer trends favouring e-commerce and to disrupt the traditional trade supply chain, the group launched B2B marketplace BuyGro in 2020, scoring its first home run in the digital marketplace sector. The platform has since onboarded over 12,000 buyers from grocery shops, cafes and restaurants in the UAE.

“BuyGro connects sellers and buyers on a single ‘user friendly’ digital platform, improving market coverage, reducing costs with scale, [providing] effective communication and offerings to the buyers. BuyGro has thousands of products across food, FMCG, commodities and non-food categories, meeting all the needs of retail and HORECA businesses,” explains Aboud.

Leveraging years of automotive trading experience, the group also launched an online auto parts marketplace, BuyParts24, last year. BuyParts24 connects distributors with garages, workshops, fleet owners and operators, helping to pare operational expenses and maximise market penetration.

“BuyParts24 was created to be the first mover in the UAE automotive parts ecosystem. The platform has currently over 35,000 SKUs from more than 135 original equipment manufacturers and aftermarket brands, in addition to tires and batteries. The product range and customer base grow daily. We have onboarded more than 4,000 garages within a short period,” adds Aboud.

The group’s growth strategies transcended other sectors too. “We also launched new businesses across the healthcare sector, in pharma distribution and clinics,” says Aboud.

However, challenges continued to persist in various forms. The Ukraine crisis not only impacted global supply chains but also led to oil price hikes, which fed into existing inflationary pressures. Despite oil prices scaling back significantly in recent weeks, businesses worldwide remain cautious.

“Businesses around the world and particularly in sectors like automotive and food have felt the impact of both geopolitics and rising inflation,” explains Aboud. “At Ghassan Aboud Group, we are proactively monitoring the developments to minimise any adverse impact on our businesses. We are also eying potential opportunities for investments.”

More than a numbers game

Aboud is as much an entrepreneur by choice as he is a philanthropist. Keen to give back to the community and create a better future ‘together’, Aboud has always championed social responsibility, which led him to establish the non-profit ‘Orient for Human Relief’ back in 2012 to help millions of displaced refugees.

However, the chairman is equally cognisant of the looming environmental crisis and has embedded his commitment across the breath of the group’s operations.

“We are on a proactive mission to curb our usage of single-use plastic wherever possible across our portfolio of brands in line with our sustainability focus,” explains Aboud.

Grandiose Supermarket eliminated single-use plastic bags at checkout counters in 2018, supplanting them with free-of-cost paper bags. It also invested in shopping trolleys made of recycled ocean plastic and recently introduced a mix of 100 energy-efficient bikes to control emissions, with the roll-out expected to be completed in Q4 of this year. “Grandiose Catering has also adopted eco-friendly and plant-based alternatives for food packaging and utensils, along with a structured system to repurpose recyclable and up-cyclable materials.”

Its hospitality arm Crystalbrook Collection, meanwhile, houses 100 per cent ‘waste-free’ bathrooms, while amenities are either biodegradable or recyclable, scrapping the use of over 250,000 plastic containers annually in each hotel across its portfolio. Crystalbrook operates free of single-use plastics, including straws and stirrers, and sources around 80 per cent of its restaurant produce within a three-hour drive of each hotel.

Future ready
Despite helming 16 companies, Aboud continues to be on an entrepreneurial quest, keen to identify opportunities across known territories as well as unchartered waters.

“We closely monitor the impact of digital technology in disrupting traditional business models to [help] identify potential areas for us to explore. Our team is actively working on several opportunities,” adds Aboud. “The group is [also] continuing to build digital assets and evaluating opportunities in the automotive, logistics hospitality, healthcare and food sectors,” he states.

Running a mammoth conglomerate and still exploring new frontiers, it doesn’t come as a surprise when the chairman’s tips to other leaders primarily focus around people and an unflinching approach towards obstacles.

“The future is in our hands, and we can turn every challenge into an opportunity. Also, to achieve growth it is important to build and nurture a capable team – acting in isolation restricts scalability,” concludes Aboud.

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