Growth | February 2012 | By Robert Thomas
Bringing American Brands to the Middle East
Mohammad Al Madani is a worldly man. After graduating from the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, with a bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering, Madani went home to Dubai and launched an engineering consultancy firm, Apex International Engineering Consulting. Since then, Madani has become a prominent businessman in Dubai by building an impressive franchise portfolio that holds more than 10 companies, including Levi’s, Hang Ten, Dockers, and Charley’s Grilled Subs.
Madani, chairman and CEO of Al Madani Group (amg), shares how he has successfully grown Charley’s in the Dubai and Abu Dhabi markets, and how he’s setting the pace for the future.
1. Pick a New Brand for Your Markets
The choice of brand should not only fit into your portfolio as a business owner, but should also be something you like. What I liked about Charley’s was the uniqueness of it. The big brands already existed in the shopping centers, like McDonald’s, KFC, and Wendy’s. I didn’t want to bring another burger place into the shopping centers.
Charley’s had a different appeal because it was made right in front of you, and it brought a freshness factor that wasn’t there before.
The choices of brands are somewhat limited today with the amount of big brands all over the world. However, the biggest opportunities for international franchisees to take advantage of are the conferences and conventions that take place around the globe. I am a member of the International Franchise Association and plan to attend all of the major conventions during the upcoming year because it is the best way to see the platforms of many brands. Participating in those exhibitions and talking face to face with franchisors are the best ways to make your decision.
2. Go Where the People Are
Since I knew we had the right product, we needed to focus more on location. With the background that I’ve had, both educationally and professionally, I was familiar with American culture. Because of this, I knew that I wanted to centralize most of my locations in the beginning in shopping malls.
Dubai has become the biggest market for shopping. Yes, some shopping and retail opportunities are in the street markets, but six months out of the year, the temperature in Dubai doesn’t allow for comfortable shopping or eating outside. With the continual development of Dubai being the center of Arab culture and a window to the rest of the world, I knew our franchising start would have to be in these mega shopping centers with the most traffic.
We opened our first store in the main-street markets but didn’t see enough traffic. This is where we learned our first lesson in regards to the location of the stores. We opened our second store in 2005 inside the Mall of Emirates, and it became successful. Because of the new location, people started to see the Charley’s brand more often and became more familiar with what it had to offer.
3. Maintain High Operational Standards
Our success with Charley’s comes from our commitment to our operations. Other brands have come into Dubai and closed down shortly after, not because of marketing, but because they were run poorly.
We have even sent individuals to where the company is based in Columbus, Ohio, to receive training on how to manage Charley’s restaurants. They then come back and train their staff and run a great unit. We’ve followed the standards and hired the right people to grow our business.
The biggest challenge for international franchisees is serving the different nationalities. In Dubai, there are more than 125 nationalities and ethnicities. We’ve been able to serve all those types of individuals by not only offering a fresh product, but by running a sound operational system.
The food has the attraction, but our systems in place provided us with the expansion possibilities.
4. Get Creative in Introducing Food to New Customers
In the beginning stages, we relied a lot on sampling outside our stores, having someone outside the store or in front of the counter handing out the product. Most of the shoppers who sampled the product would then go and buy a meal. Sampling became an integral part in regards to the brand taking off and becoming more familiar.
With the clothing brands that we also operate, it is a bit more profitable in the beginning. With Charley’s, the advertisements, like billboards or print marketing, weren’t as easily accessible or cost-effective. Not only that, but in Dubai it is becoming very expensive to display advertisements, so we knew we had to market in a different way.
We’ve experimented with sponsoring surrounding schools with our product and giving away sandwiches for educational events. With Charley’s and the quick-serve industry in general, we’ve had the opportunity to be more direct with our strategies to get the brand out there, and we now exist in most major shopping malls across Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
5. Work with Your Brand to Set Growth Pace
We weren’t granted the right to sub-franchise at first, but after six years of dedicated operations, Charley’s trusted us with continual expansion and granted us an area development agreement.
Since then, we’ve been able to open seven stores in one year. We’ve also been in development to sub-franchise Charley’s at the gas stations around Dubai.
Our gas stations are a little different from the U.S. and are comparable to travel-stops on the highways in America. In Dubai, there are food shops, car service and maintenance shops, convenience stores, and more at these gas stations.
With this business prospect, we have the chance to work with [Emirate National Oil Company], which has more than 700 gas stations in its network and is a big opportunity for our company and our goal of continual growth.
Food & Beverage
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