What makes Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons tick? I realised it was a rather silly question as soon as I posed it to Abdul Hamied Seddiqi, the vice chairman of the watch retailer omnipresent in every top-end shopping destination in the UAE. But he took it in his stride.
“Rolex is the number one product in our portfolio, and the distribution deal we have with them was the basis of the business,” he said, deliberately overlooking my little pun.
We were speaking after a rather grand reception in the Gate Village of the Dubai International Financial Centre for the launch of one of the world’s biggest events of the watch business: the “Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève”, where 69 of the world’s finest watches were on show.
The event is known as the “Oscars ceremony” of the worldwide industry, and it was the first time it was being held in the Middle East.
All the top brands were there. But for Mr Seddiqi’s company, Rolex will always have a special place. His firm has been synonymous with the glittering brand since the 1950s, when his father, the late Ahmed, first got the distribution deal that was the making of the business.
“My father started with one counter in the souq in Bur Dubai, and we just grew along with the emirate. Now we have 65 shops, either mono-brand [Rolex, for instance] or multi-brand. As the UAE grows, so do we,” he said.
From those humble origins grew one of the great trading names of the region. Now Mr Seddiqi has all the northern emirates covered, and he has recently branched out into Abu Dhabi with a jewellery store.
Rolex was the first big brand, but many others followed, and they have remained within the Seddiqi portfolio: Patek Philippe, Chopard, Harry Winston, Audemars Piguet, Hublot, Tag Heuer and Baume & Mercier. The brands read like a watch aficionado’s birthday wish list.
The range was extended with other “fashion” brands to give Seddiqi a full portfolio, from the ultra top-end down to more affordable timepieces.
The most expensive single item on regular sale is a diamond-encrusted Rolex, which Mr Seddiqi placed at “around Dh1 million”.
As anybody who frequents Dubai’s luxury malls will testify, the watch business is very big in the emirate, as it is worldwide.
One estimate of about US$50 billion per year was almost certainly an underestimate, and did not take into account the growing market for vintage and antique timepieces, which has become one of the new trends for wealthy investors.
Customers in Seddiqi stores sometimes seem to comprise overwhelmingly of Emiratis, with a high proportion of female buyers. But Mr Seddiqi believed it extended further than that: “We have all sorts of nationalities – local of course, but also other GCC clients, as well as Chinese and Russian. And we still get other Europeans – British and German – though maybe fewer than before.”
Mr Seddiqi is himself a cosmopolitan character. He had worked in the Foreign Ministry of the UAE in the 1970s, then went to Switzerland, the capital of the global watch business, to augment the business acumen his father had already instilled in him.
A bachelor’s degree in business management from Lemania College in Lausanne finally equipped him for a senior role at the company, which the family still manages and controls.
Many family businesses in the UAE are struggling with the issues of succession. As the vitality of the founding generation fades, there is often a debate over who should take on the business that has been the foundation of the wealth of the younger generation, which may not be equipped or inclined to run it.
It is not a problem that appears to have troubled Mr Seddiqi, or at least not yet. “We already have four generations on board, and we have been actively restructuring our company all the time. It is well run … [in line with] modern management, and we’ve done everything possible to ensure the future growth of the business,” Mr Seddiqi said.
Growth looks likely to come from outside the northern emirates hinterland. Mr Seddiqi has done deals with two jewellery firms in Abu Dhabi – Graff Diamonds and Al Manara – but could go farther afield. “In the future we will probably go outside the UAE. Saudi Arabia is my target for the next phase,” said Mr Seddiqi.
The company has largely been growing organically over the decades, with new stores opening and new brands acquired courtesy of the handsome cash flow the business generates.
There have been rumours in the Dubai financial community that Ahmed Seddiqi would be the next family business in the region to consider an initial public offering, enabling it to raise new capital on the local stock exchanges.
Mr Seddiqi did not rule it out. “I’ve been thinking, maybe one day. But we’re not ready now. Maybe that will be the job of the next generation. But for now, we want to keep it in the family,” he said.