Interview: Marina Home’s co-founder on shaking up the region’s home interior market

Marina Home co-founder Khurshid Vakil and head of brand development Sahar Vakil to discuss how the home-grown success story has stayed ahead of its rivals



Speak to just about anybody in Dubai about interior design and it won’t be long before the name Marina Home Interiors crops up.

The luxury home furniture retailer, part of the recently formalised holding group Marina Retail Corporation, has become synonymous with unique home interiors over the course of the past two decades, and for good reason.

Launched in Dubai in 1997 by brothers Khurshid, Imtiyaz and Mushtaq Vakil when the interiors market was largely offering mass produced items devoid of much personality, Marina Home burst onto the scene in a riot of colour. Its unique products secured it a loyal following, and the rest, as they say, is history. Not that it has been a journey without its challenges.

In the course of the past 21 years the company has had to grow, evolve, compete with an influx of global players, and innovate with its product mix in a bid to stay at the forefront of the luxury interiors segment. All while Dubai and the UAE grew around it at an astronomical rate.

I meet with co-founder and co-owner Khurshid Vakil, and head of brand development Sahar Vakil at the company’s stunning head office in Downtown Jebel Ali for a rare interview about this evolution, as well as the company’s future plans, and how the family’s second generation is starting to make an impact.

But before discussing the future, Khurshid looks back on the company’s origins.

“Our journey has been no less than a story. And in every story there are ups and downs, and challenges,” he begins.

“It started way back in 1997, when three bothers deliberately drew up the idea of a new business venture. And not just any other business venture. We were focused on this category of business, based on our own personal experiences.

“Around that time there was very little present in the market place. Dubai was in the early stages, as was the country and the region. And we found that the ‘home’ category was not very well represented.

“You had generic products available, and a handful of retailers that were in the marketplace, but their products were mass produced, run of the mill, and did not have an emotion. We wanted to bring something that was different, that was unique, that had storytelling. Something that was not visible in the marketplace, or was at least very fragmented and unorganised. The story starts from there.”

After researching the marketplace to understand what was available and unavailable at that time, and to discover exactly what customers were looking for, the brothers put together a business that revolved around a combination of what Khurshid calls “colonial, ethnic and rustic products”. 

They launched their first outlet in Umm Suqeim – a shop which gave Marina Home its core early following, and it still there today.

“We received an amazing response from the customers,” says Khurshid.

“We wanted to attract a niche category of customers – we wanted to be selective, to see how we could create a niche market segment that we could call our own. The intention from the beginning was not to copy anybody else’s concept but to create something very different and stay away from competition.

“The response was phenomenal and it led from one stage of learning to the next. We had to quickly gather our effort, time and manpower to understand what the customers were seeking. We had to not only meet their expectations but provide levels of service and standards of product in such a way that they became our brand ambassadors. And that is exactly what happened.”

The first few years of the company’s existence brought success and stability, as well as, according to Khurshid, ample planning time “to become a bigger player in the marketplace”. As such, the early 2000s saw Marina Home expand into much larger stores within malls.

“The large format stores in some of the top malls changed the game,” he continues.

“But it also became very challenging for us to withstand a different type of competition as the brand evolved.

“We kept in mind the number of new brands that were coming into the marketplace. Initially the international brands were not present here – we had competition from the local brands, some the home grown brands. But the likes of Pottery Barn, Crate and Barrel, Bloomingdales Home, or the likes of Armani Casa, and so on, came as we were growing, and we could see we were targeting the same kind of customers.

“So the competition was totally different – it was world-class competition – and our objective was to not only compete with them but to stand apart, stand away, and have our own presence in the marketplace.”

Evolution

Having managed to withstand the challenge presented by international brands over the past decade or so, Marina Home has held its position and reputation in an increasingly crowded segment.

Khurshid attributes this feat to the company’s determination to stay aware of people’s wants, while also innovating with trends and evolving as a brand. A difficult balance to strike, but one Marina Home has so far succeeded in achieving.

“We’re not complacent when it comes to competition,” he says.

“The sense of direction was to keep evolving each year, so that by the time the competition realises what we have done, it’s already two or three seasons down. And today’s customers are smart enough to understand where the original product is sold from.”

Picking up on the theme of evolution, head of brand development Sahar Vakil adds that there are various aspects to consider when moving the brand forward.

“We talk about being able to reinvent yourself and evolving as a brand, and it’s not only internal factors to consider, but external. For example the local clientele and how their dynamics are changing, and ensuring we are on top of global trends for the design industry,” she says.

“As home interiors have moved more towards fashion, it’s more effected by the way fashion is evolving around the world. In the past couple of years everybody has seen that fashion trends play such a big role in how the home direction has moved – whether it’s fabric, motifs, materials, or whatever it may be.

“Our role is to be ever evolving in the global trends, and to present that to our home base, but to be moving with our home base as well.”

Khurshid adds: “Much of what we do is about creativity; it’s storytelling, it’s reinventing at all times. And when we talk about creativity, we’re talking about a type of customer who is intelligent, who is educated, who is very worldly, well-travelled, who understands what the trends are. They don’t necessarily like trends in the sense that they don’t want their home to be just like their neighbours’ homes – they want something unique.

“So there’s lots of creativity involved, and at the forefront of our development is ‘how different can we be?’ How much can we surprise our customers at all times?”

Digital challenge

One particular area where retail brands are needing to be increasingly creative is technology. The impact of e-commerce, the growth of smart cities and the ubiquitous nature of mobile devices have forced retailers to think differently in recent years.

But it’s a topic the Marina Home team remains calm over, offering a balanced perspective as well as well as explaining how they are using technology to their benefit.

“There are many ways of looking at this question,” says Khurshid.

“On one hand, the region is in the infancy of digital transformation. Online business is very low as of now, especially when compared to Europe and America. This shows there is a long way to go.

“At the same time, it varies from category to category. Online business for electronics, for example, is doing very well here and growing year on year. But it’s not necessarily growing at the same pace for our type of business.

“For our positioning and price point, people still like to experience the touch, the feel, the smell, the aroma of a purchase. It’s a family purchase – not an impulse purchase. We are still at a stage where customers like to enter our stores and experience and understand the product.

“But we understand that digital is the future. We understand that the Z generation and the millennials are very aware of technology, online, digital, and we are preparing ourselves in line with the aspirations of these young people.”

Delving deeper into the topic, Sahar adds: “For retailers the question is how do we connect to the end consumer at every step of their journey.

“I think like most retailers, our intention has been to connect at multiple points of that consumer journey – from when they first come into contact with our brand, all the way to the after service.

“The transaction element of it, when you’re converting online, will probably be the last part for us to attach because that’s where we need to figure out where is the perfect marriage between how a customer wants to interact with a product and how they want to receive it in their home. But all the other elements where they research, they inspire, they explore – we want to make sure we’re accessible, present, interesting and informative.”

She explains that the onset of digital has added a huge number of touch points to the customer journey – a far cry from when people would visit a shop, see an item and choose whether to buy it.

“Now a customer hears about us, then they discuss it, then they go online, then they go to the store, then they shop around, then they go back, they’ll compare prices, they’ll take opinions of friends and family or on forums, they’ll read reviews, and then they might go and spend Dhs15,000 on a sofa, let’s say,” she says.

“So because we’re not in the ‘impulse’ price of category, we have to make sure we’re present in every one of those stages, so the customer is connected to us to retain that loyalty to the brand.”

And with the physical store still so important to Marina Home, it should come as no surprise to learn that it is here rather than the digisphere where the biggest transformations have come over the years.

“I think this is what has kept the passion and love in the minds of the consumers, in addition to the magic of the product,” says Sahar.

“The mix of ingredients has been the perfect formula all along – the products and the physical environment. The showrooms are becoming that much more exciting, as is the storytelling around them. And this experience is so critical for us to perfect, because all the parts to the puzzle are essential to make people come in and browse, spend time and explore, and walk away with the most positive memory they can have.

“You can never duplicate what you feel when you walk in and stimulate all five senses, as opposed to one or two that you might stimulate when you’re browsing on your mobile.

“So the physical aspect is an absolutely essential part of the success of our business.”

But for the instore experience to resonate so well with customers, what is the defining factor? For Sahar there is a key element at play here.

“One really important word is authenticity. I think the reason why the marriage of product and physical showroom has done so well is that at every stage there was authenticity.

“So at the beginning when we were only selling the colonial, ethnic, rustic range, we did right by it in the way it was presented. When we widened our product mix we went beyond to the storytelling element of the products that we source from all over the world. The way our showrooms were designed at that moment in time were the right fit out for the right proposition.

“As our ranges became more diverse, we started catering to a much wider audience than we ever had before. We came to a point where we had to study further store expansions that were underway. We had to ask ‘what is the new Marina Home? What does it look like?’ We had outgrown where we were before and it needed a facelift, as many homes do as time progresses. We worked with a wonderful external team to bring to life the vision everybody had, and the way our homes look now – all our stores – is a perfect representation of the diversity we bring into the stores.”

The generation game

In calling the stores their ‘homes’, Sahar emphasises the fact that the company is a family business, and like all family businesses Marina Home has had to prepare for a process that has been the undoing of some successful brands – generational transition.

Already in the midst of this potentially difficult shift, the company has installed three of its second generation into leadership positions – Sahar Vakil who heads brand development, as well as Sahil Vakil leading product development and Shayan Vakil managing retail operations.

“A successful business is one which understands what’s required in the marketplace next,” says Khurshid.

“Who else can understand the next generation of customers than our own next generation? They’re in a better place to understand how the world is moving forward and what likes and dislikes a consumer goes through. What purchase patterns are in the minds of the millennials and Z generation, and the customers to come in the years ahead. 

“We believe running a family business is a good challenge, and with the right understanding and the right transfer of knowledge, experience and authority, it is likely to succeed.”

One of the attributes Sahar is keen to carry forward from the founders is the refusal to be complacent.

“One of the reasons they were able to take such a strong beginning to the business is that there was no acceptance of complacency. No page was left unturned in every role they were playing individually and collectively.

“The threat of complacency is just as relevant now, if not more, and will continue to be.”

She adds that being a family business also gives them a common goal, with a strong level of commitment, saying it allows them to “achieve even more goals” every year.

Global ambition

And what of those future goals? According to Khurshid and Sahar, the two generations will be working together on some pretty ambitious growth plans, both in terms of its offering and its footprint.

“There are markets that are hungry for our kind of concept, and there are markets that strive for innovation, strive for businesses that can make an impact,” says Khurshid.

“As such, we have a very good growth plan. We will be consolidating our position in the markets we are already present, and in those markets that we are represented in a smaller way than we should be, we will further expand, as well as exploring opportunities in new markets where we believe there is a gap and we are a right fit.

“The other form of expansion is our franchise roll-out plan. We started a franchise plan five years ago and we’re very happy with the way we’ve learnt from it and its various successes. It is a way to go forward into new territories.”

As well as the Middle East, Khurshid namechecks the Indian subcontinent as “a market to watch that has huge potential”. Marina Home has already ventured into the region, with a presence in India and Pakistan, as well as across the GCC and Egypt.

But he revealed the company’s main focus would be elsewhere: “Our existing businesses have a huge following in the European and American markets.

“A majority of our customers today are European and North American. We have been studying the possibility of entering these markets for some time now and have been waiting for the right time to move into them.

“We understand these customers very well and they like our products. Being in some of those markets – the important markets – would be a natural extension of our business.”

Sahar adds: “The east is melting into the west, and the west is a little bit saturated with the oncoming of new brand development locally. There is a huge interest in bringing eastern brands into European markets – especially the UK.”

The duo cite the UK as one of the key markets Marina Home is targeting, but are less keen to suggest a timeframe.

“We don’t like to mention dates,” says KV, “but the world is going through phenomenal change these days.

“The region has the geopolitical situation, Europe is going through its own challenges, the UK is going through its own challenges because of Brexit, and so on. We wish that these challenges settle down a bit to be able to give us the right insights into how we wish to take the growth plans forward.”

In terms of product mix, Sahar adds that “it’s natural for us to develop over the years and introduce new product lines,” but also hints at new areas of interest.

“There is sub-brand growth that we want to do for new product mixes that tie into the home experience. That allow us to continue to the shopping journey for our customers and expand their journey with us,” she says.

But when pressed on the nature of the new retail ventures, Khurshid simply adds: “It’s too early for us to say.”

One thing the co-founder isn’t hesitant to proclaim, however, is his firm belief that Marina Home is in the right hands for the future – both in terms of the second generation, and the staff company-wide.

“We have an amazing talent pool, and we attribute much of our success to the talent that we have,” he says.

“The passion they have is amazing, and it’s obvious that when our coworkers have this passion, they convey the same in many ways to the customers. They are our true brand ambassadors.

“From our point of view as the founders, we also believe we have an amazing talent pool in the second generation that are already working alongside us, and many more in the making. We firmly believe that the brand is in the right hands with the next generation taking it forward.”

And it seems fitting that we end our conversation on such a note – one of evolution, confidence, and positivity; all things that have helped Marina Home carve out a stellar reputation 21 years in the making.