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Exclusive: Regional entrepreneur Donna Benton on how business owners must lead from the front

Exclusive: Regional entrepreneur Donna Benton on how business owners must lead from the front

Companies that do survive the economic fallout of the pandemic stand to gain handsomely at the other end, opines Benton

Donna Benton The Entertainer

There are three kinds of people – those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who say, ‘Oh, what happened?’,” says 46-year-old Donna Benton, founder of incredibly popular buy-one-get-one-free dealmaker The Entertainer.

It isn’t difficult to guess which among those three personality types best describes Benton.

She arrived in Dubai from Australia to take up a marketing job in 2000. Driving down Sheikh Zayed Road, she realised that although there were several restaurants, none of them really incentivised customers to visit. That’s when this first generation business owner decided to strike out on her own and begin The Entertainer in 2001.

She had a great idea, but needed funds.

“A friend invested Dhs120,000, and in turn received shares in the company. I managed to pay back 28 times that amount and buy out those shares five years later.”

One of the key reasons she tasted success and turned it into a profitable enterprise within the second year of its operations itself, Benton notes, was because of a highly curated approach to the outlets that she onboarded. While you’d expect a budding entrepreneur to begin modestly by signing up a local coffee shop, she wasn’t aiming for second best.

Her first signups were five outlets at the Marriott in Deira.

“In your mind, you have to back yourself. I loved the concept of The Entertainer. I thought it was a win-win for everybody. Some people said that it wasn’t going to work – hard work and believing in myself really helped me get through it.”

When asked if she was conflicted with the impostor syndrome in the early days of becoming an entrepreneur, she says she wasn’t, mainly because of a well-crafted masterplan and a strategy to execute it.

“I wasn’t visionary after five years – I was visionary a year in. I knew exactly what I wanted and the terms and conditions. I went through September 11, Gulf Wars, a recession and now the pandemic. We had many competitors along the way, but you have to focus on what your strengths are. You have to be agile in making decisions, but I never thought in my mind that I wasn’t going to work out.”

In 2012, Abraaj Capital announced that it would acquire a 50 per cent stake in The Entertainer through its Riyada Enterprise Development platform. That deal not only gave her the funds to go digital and transition from a physical print edition into an app, but also allowed her to scale the business. Six years later, she decided to sell an 85 per cent stake in The Entertainer for “a nine-figure mark in USD”, which meant at least $100m, to Bahrain’s GFH Financial Group – but not before she had grown it into a company that covered 40 destinations in 15 countries, contributing $1.3bn to the economy each year with an average profit growth of 25-30 per cent.

The UAE’s Al-Futtaim and Al Zarooni Emirates Investment subsequently picked up minority stakes from GFH, while she held onto her 15 per cent stake in the company. In September, however, Benton announced that she was making a full exit from the business and now reveals the reason she did so.

“As the founder of a company, you either need to have equal shares and have control over it or you need to be running the company. It really doesn’t work with minority shares. My vision was different from the shareholder’s vision. You can agree to disagree and be on board, but at the end of the day, as a founder, you are just so passionate about everything.

“Some decisions were being made that I didn’t agree with – and I’m not saying they were wrong. I concluded that if GFH wanted to take it forward, that’s great, but for me personally, it was probably best to exit and do other things that I love as well.”

Those other interests are now clubbed under The Benton Group (TBG), a holding company that she set up which has diversified into businesses ranging from hospitality and sports to fitness and fashion. Via the company, Benton invested into Sunset Hospitality Group, an F&B company behind Black Tap which recently opened at The Mall of the Emirates as well as Azure Beach Club, Luigia Ristorante and Drift. Sunset is also gearing up to open Sushi Samba on the 51st floor of the Palm Tower in Dubai next year, as well as a 360-degree infinity swimming pool and AURA Skypool in the same building, which at 210 metres above the ground, would rank among the world’s highest swimming pools.

Another investment that Benton has made is Dubai-based sports equipment supplier – Dawson Sports – which she invested into in the embryonic stages and which recently opened a store at Mercato Mall in Jumeirah. Apart from investing in businesses, she has also started up her own venture, Chloe’s Hair Beauty and Nails salon.

But it’s her latest business, which went live only a few weeks ago – swimwear company Caha Capo – which is poised to be the next big business for Benton. She says that apart from always wanting to set up her own swimwear company, she noticed a glaring gap in the market.

“Our fabric is Italian, so it’s high end, but we’re definitely affordable. We have a niche market and we go from size 6-18. For women in our bikini line, we have an essential line and we call them separates – so if you are a size 12 top and 10 bottom, you can swap tops and bottoms to match and you can also pick and choose different colours, style and sizes. “I also find the colours [of other swimwear currently in the market] not very appetising. We have 11 different colours in our essential range. We have 172 types of women’s swimwear alone, young girl’s swimwear, men’s and boys’ board shorts, resort wear and accessories – there’s something for everybody,” she says of the brand which is an acronym of the words, ‘caring, happy, casual, positive’.

While Benton is readying Caha Capo’s first flagship store to open at Dubai’s Mall of the Emirates, she adds that e-commerce will be a big growth driver for the brand. Three weeks into launching the website, people from 12 countries already purchased online (Caha Capo partnered with DHL to offer free international shipping and free exchanges or returns).

Enquiries for partnerships on the retail side have already started pouring in from places like the Cayman Islands, Australia and South Africa. But beyond building Caha Capo into the next 100-million-dollar brand (which, given Benton’s track record, isn’t a long shot), she explains that the bigger goal behind The Benton Group is to help other startups secure funding.

“So many people have great ideas, but they don’t know how to get funding. It’s a shark world out there sometimes. Someone might need Dhs100,000 and others may need Dhs500,000. I’m very passionate about helping other startups grow and that’s something that we will definitely be working on when TBG makes profits.”

But Benton knows exactly the kind of companies – and the people – she will back.

“I’m not a private equity firm. For me, it’s about the person. It’s about the idea, the energy, the longevity. It’s obviously about the finances as well, but also about the vision – what they have, where it can go and what they can do.”

It’s an outlook that has served her well as she was also one of seven panelists on the Motivate Media Group’s SME Revival initiative, which will provide $1m in advertising and marketing support to 20 homegrown UAE SMEs – the results of which were recently declared.

While Benton adds that she was impressed with the pool of nominations as well as the scale of the initiative itself, she has already been supporting homegrown businesses through the pandemic by buying products from different local companies to support them during a difficult period. And has this pandemic dampened her personal appetite for risk?

“I’m still a believer in no risk, no reward – if anything, especially at this time. You can’t be scared. You can’t stand still. You have to take an educated risk as well.”

For business owners, Benton says that this is also an opportune moment for them to lead from the front. While she says that employees must understand that pay cuts may be necessary during this time for several companies to survive, owners must equally try and mitigate the impact.

“I cut my salary. I didn’t take anything for four months to keep other people employed. I really stretched, I didn’t give any pay cuts,” she says of The Benton Group and Caha Capo which employ 17 people, as well as Chloe’s salon which has approximately 25 employees.

While she took a pay cut to save jobs, Benton is confident that companies that do survive the economic fallout of the pandemic stand to gain handsomely at the other end of this global health, financial and social crisis.

But in the meanwhile, Benton is making things happen.

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