Adeeb Ahamed Is Taking LuLu Group Further with Food, Toys and Fashion

After a decade of strategic, number-crunching growth in finance, hospitality and F&B, Adeeb Ahamed found himself studying the importance of a signature print in a fashion collection, and the nuances of lingerie retail to make it appeal equally to teenagers and their mothers. The 37-year-old Abu Dhabi-based businessman, who is on the board of the retail conglomerate Lulu Group International, has been rather busy since 2008 as the managing director of Lulu Exchange Holdings – with 20 percent year-on-year growth, the financial-services firm has gone from one to 150 stores across nine countries under his watch and had a turnover of USD 4.7 billion last year.

Next, the NRI launched Twenty14 Holdings, which has invested in eight hotels across the world, and then joined his wife Shafeena Yusuff Ali in her F&B venture Tablez, expanding it quickly by bringing in some of the world’s most popular food-and-beverage chains to India and the Middle East. He’s now set to do the same in apparel and toys.

Last month, Ahamed along with Eduardo Sanchez Morano, deputy head of mission from the Embassy of Spain, and Antonis Kyprianou, group general manager of franchising for Grupo Cortefiel, inaugurated the first stores for Springfield and Women’Secret at Phoenix MarketCity Mall, Bengaluru. Tablez, headed by Ahamed, will lead the foray of the two Spanish apparel labels into India, with six more stores slated for this year, and a total of 75 by 2021.

“What attracted us to Springfield was its youth appeal,” says Ahamed seated at a conference table at Shangri-La Hotel, where he is staying for the duration of the Bengaluru store launch. “Unlike other international high-street brands, there is a generous dose of colour, which also fits Indian sensibilities. Then there’s the use of linen in men’s shirts, which suits the Indian weather,” he goes on, explaining that his company had initially only focused on the casual-wear lifestyle brand Springfield, which has a presence in 941 stores across 73 countries, but later also decided to launch Women’Secret, an intimate-wear brand that has a presence in 630 stores across 82 countries and also offers swimwear and sleepwear.

“In India, mothers and adolescent daughters go shopping for lingerie together, and this store is not intimidating. We thought we could align with those kind of values,” says Ahamed.

His company Tablez has also signed a master franchisee agreement with the US children retail brand Toys ‘R’ Us for India and Sri Lanka, and plans to open 65 Toys ‘R’ Us and Babies ‘R’ Us outlets in India in the next eight to 10 years, starting with a 15,000 sq ft store in Phoenix MarketCity Mall in Bengaluru this year. “Toys play an important part of all our lives, not just children,” says Ahamed, who has four children in the age group three to nine. He hopes the launch of Toys ‘R’ Us here will organise and regulate the toys sector in India, which – except for the more expensive brand Hamleys – has no toys chain in the affordable segment. Tablez has earmarked a minimum investment of Rs 300 crore over the next five years across all its F&B and retail brands.

Ahamed’s family hails from Nattika, a small village known for its annual beach festival in Thrissur district of Kerala. Brought up between Kerala and Abu Dhabi, Ahamed completed his Bachelor’s in Business Administration from Les Roches, Switzerland, and then did his MBA in International Management from Royal Holloway, University of London. Thereafter, he worked in the hospitality sector with international brands such as Grosvenor House, JW Marriott and Baglioni Hotel in London, UK. Around this time, he married Shafeena, whose father is the founder of the Kochi- and UAE-based Lulu Group, which operates around 130 hypermarkets in 21 countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

Ahamed returned to Abu Dhabi to raise his family and found himself “accidentally” at the reins of Lulu Exchange Holdings, which he proceeded to catapult to the second position in the financial services sector across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). He also took over prestigious hotel properties including the Great Scotland Yard in London, the Steigenberger Hotel Business Bay in Dubai and Sheraton Oman in Muscat, under his new company Twenty14 Holdings. A few years ago, he set his eyes on expanding Tablez, which his wife had launched in 2010 for her homegrown brands Bloomsbury’s, an English artisanal coffee shop, and Peppermill, a fine-dining colonial Indian themed restaurant.

“I realised there was huge scope in tying up with global players,” says Ahamed, who introduced F&B brands Cold Stone Creamery, Famous Dave’s, Galito’s, Sugar Factory, Genghis Grill and Pancake House to the Middle East and Indian market, including outlets at the group’s own malls in Kerala and UAE. Tablez currently operates more than 35 outlets globally and plans to expand to 250 outlets by 2020, but Ahamed is firm that he’s looking at net profits over valuation or market cap: “We are thinking long-term, and for that one has to learn, adapt, reorganise and realign frequently.” In the meantime, Adeeb’s growing influence as an engaging business leader earned him a position on the senior advisory board of the South Asia Regional Strategy Group at the World Economic Forum.

Friendly and articulate, Ahamed applied business skills learnt in London to his growing Indian multinational company, tempering his ambition with pragmatism and a rootedness in global winds of change. “We’ve been expanding so far; now it’s time to consolidate. Where the global market goes is anyone’s guess,” he says, citing the Qatar-GCC standoff as something he and his family have been watching very closely. So far, Indian businesses in Qatar are safe, but only precariously so, he says.

On the other side of the globe, Brexit has been another cause for concern for Twenty14 Holdings, which has hospitality interests in UK, while the American withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement is poised to affect the group’s investments in Europe, Middle East and Africa. Tensions with Indian neighbours – both China and Pakistan – will also hurt Indian businesses with interests on other sides of the border, Ahamed fears. Financial sectors are stressed worldwide, he says, adding, “Whatever happens anywhere in the world affects all of us.”

On the other hand, he also sees signs of progress within India. “The introduction of GST was a wonderful move,” he says, congratulating the central and state governments for coming together. While he rues the losses India faced during demonetisation, he thinks it was necessary to shake businesses out of their outmoded ways of working. “It has woken up the Indian economy,” he says, predicting it will work out in the long run. He is also optimistic about the shift of the financial year to January-December in keeping with global standards, and hopes the government will consider bringing down corporate taxation once more businesses fall in the tax ambit. However, he believes it’s not easy for startups in India, as high interest rates and taxes leave them crippled. “Larger companies can absorb such expenses but it is punishing for SMEs,” he says, calling for a systemic change to encourage new businesses.

With over 2,000 employees across his three companies, Ahamed finds himself unable to “take his eyes off” at any time, but adds that he doesn’t feel overly burdened by it. “My work allows me to travel and meet people, both of which I love,” he says. He’s also unperturbed by business competition. “One has to tread cautiously these days, and besides, two to three new store openings every month are good enough,” he smiles, citing Tablez’s growth trajectory. For the moment, Ahamed is content to sit back and watch how Indians take to Spanish-designed knit tops and striped jumpsuits.

First published in The Economic Times

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