This family business story started with a man, who had a passion: Ahmed Qasim Seddiqi, founder of Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons started collecting Swiss watches from a young age. His collection soon became so well-known that it attracted attention from other watch enthusiasts, who began to buy selected pieces. What started out so simply turned out to be the cornerstone of what was to become a very successful family business: 60 years later the Seddiqui family can look back at their great business history and look forward into a promising future. Tharawat magazine walks along a family business time line and speaks to Osama Ibrahim Seddiqi, Vice President of Finance and Administration, Ahmed Seddiqi & Co., about what makes his family and business tick.
The Emirati family business Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons is celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2012, and has, over the last decade, successfully set up a holding structure encompassing their businesses in retail, investment, real estate as well as their shares in various joint ventures. However, in spite of its success in all its activities, it is the true love for watches that has set this family apart from others.
Today, the family counts over 50 luxury watch brands amongst its portfolio, which it represents in over 50 locations across the UAE. Thinking back to the small shop opened by Ahmed Qasim Seddiqi and his eldest son, Ibrahim, in the 50s, and comparing it to the company‘s current size leaves no doubt about the family‘s flair for business. Today Ahmed Seddiqi&Sons has a workforce of around 500 employees some of which have been with the company for nearly 40 years. The business is currently run by family members of the 2nd, 3rd, and even 4th generation. In spite of the many changes and the expansion it went through, at heart, the Seddiqi family is still very much the same as it ever was: precise, reflective, and so very fond of watches.
Interview with Osama Ibrahim Seddiqi, VP Finance and Administration, Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons, UAE
Osama Ibrahim Seddiqi never intended to join the family business. However, he left the well-established bank he had been working at for over seven years to join his family‘s firm in 2005. Looking back on his career, he confesses with a smile that this had not been a planned move. It was only once he had joined his father and uncles in the business that he realised that everything he had learned in his career so far had ultimately prepared him for and led him to this point. When Osama started his work with Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons, he was hired to look after the finance department. Soon it became apparent to him that the company would benefit from a clear holding structure that would take care of the family‘s activities in real estate, investment, and retail. Osama explains that bringing change to the family business had been a challenge initially but adds that, fortunately, his family had a natural inclination towards innovation. Bringing in a team of lawyers Osama brought about a significant professionalisation of the business structure and administration. Today, Osama Ibrahim Seddiqi is the Vice President for Finance and Administration of Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons. He speaks to Tharawat magazine about his love for watches, his family, the business, and the next generation.
What are the core values and main characteristics of the Seddiqi family?
We have fear of God, we are honest, and we provide the best possible quality in customer services and products. We have been dealing with the Swiss and their watch products for over 60 years, which has helped to instil a love for precision and perfection in us. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we don’t make mistakes, which we work towards fixing constantly. We are always striving for improvement and for new things we want to implement in the company. Innovation is one of our chief characteristics.
What have been the main ingredients leading to the Seddiqi’s continuous success and growth?
Patience is the number one ingredient with us! To be wise and not to do things too fast, to take our time and think before we take any step, then to take the step firmly and to look back without regrets. This is how we work. When we open our shops, we don’t do it blindly; we study the why and how.
Do you have a family council to help make family-related decisions?
We have an executive committee and we meet frequently. If, for instance, one of my cousins is having difficulties in his or her department and they need an opinion from others, we call for a meeting. It is very casual; we have an executive committee meeting on a small scale on most days. It allows us to benefit from each other’s specialisations and experiences. We strongly believe that it is this strong communication that has led to our success. One of the good things in our company is that rather than just being a family-owned business, it is first and foremost a family-run business! We are not sitting on the bench and letting other people run our company for us. Naturally, we have professional people that bring in their know-how but we head the departments and we take the decisions with their help. We do not consider ourselves the owners of the company; we are its custodians. It is better to punch in and out just like everyone else, and to be accountable like everyone else. It makes us more credible in our leadership.
The name Seddiqi is synonymous with the image of luxury watches. The family has collaborated with and represented luxury watch brands for over 60 years. Some of your partnerships, like the one with reputable Swiss watchmaker Pathek Phillippe, have lasted for many decades. How would you describe your relationship with your partners?
It’s friendship, it’s not only business. Our relationships with our partners are very personalised. I remember, when I was a little boy, my father used to bring the representatives to our house; we didn’t have all these nice hotels and restaurants back then so they used to come over and we all used to have lunch together. We grew up knowing these people and are on very close terms with most of them. When they come to the office we speak about business and deals but when they come to our home they are part of our family. This is one of the great benefits of being a family business.
Do you think the family‘s passion for watch-making will continue throughout future generations?
I hope so, and, to be honest, I can already see it in my children; they have the love of watches. They like to wear watches and they are very loyal to the Seddiqi brand. They see me taking out my watch collection looking at them and cleaning them. My little daughters already know how to adjust the time on my watches. Being in touch with the products at an early stage inspires passion in them. I myself am very passionate about it: Sometimes my sisters need small repairs and adjustments to their watches and I take care of it with my small toolkit. I hear the same thing from my cousin Mohammed about how his children love the watches and how they talk about them.
They open the newspaper or they go to shopping malls and see the Ahmed Seddiqi brand; they know that it’s their family and they are proud of it. My eldest daughter once saw the Rolex brand in Paris and she asked me whether that was our brand as well. I explained to her how they are manufactured and who is manufacturing them and why the Rolex agency in Dubai is different from the one in Paris. Now she understands. The young generation have questions that we have to answer in a way that they can absorb, so we have to know how to talk to them. At the end of the day, however, it is human to be different from one another. Maybe some of our young generation members won’t like watches or real state or anything else we do; maybe they will want to do something else. We have to support them if they want to start out their own projects.
Many young generation members of the Seddiqi family have joined the business in the last 10 years, including yourself. How do you think this has influenced the family business?
Our family, compared to others, is rather small and the age differences are very big in the third generation. Many family members came into the business because they all finished their studies and external experiences around the same time. Most of the company‘s growth happened in the last 10 years, which is also related to the development of Dubai. The city required a wider range of offers; it was time for us to come and contribute to the family. When my grandfather started the business, he didn’t start it for himself he started it for his children. Every generation who comes and works in this company is a custodian that will hand it over to the next generation. I am not working here for myself because my father before me didn’t work for himself. I am working, not only for my own children, but for my cousins, my nephews and nieces; for the whole family. I am continuing the vision with which my grandfather established this company.
Are there conditions to be fulfilled by young family business members in order to join the company?
We have a family protocol; it is not finalised but it is in the final stages. Of course, you can’t have every family member work for you; there are limitations. You pick and choose who is the best person for the job. When I joined the finance department, I was selected because I had the right experience. Our family protocol will assign for instance my successor, if I decide to retire. I am one of the members working on the protocol and it is very tough. We don’t want anyone to just come in here and feel entitled because he or she has the family name. Business is changing every day and we need to be swift in adapting to it and make sure we have the right people on board.
When you hire a non-family member how do you transmit the company and family culture to them?
When I recruit someone I look for a person that is professional with the right background and experience. Once I find the right person, I take my time. I sit with the new employees every day for the first 2 weeks. I tell them what I like and don’t like, how things should run, and then I leave them to discover the company. In addition, I hold weekly meetings with the finance director, the operations director, and a weekly meeting with the IT team. It is a great way to keep on top of things and to make sure that our employees understand our decisions. We have employees who have been working with us for the last 40 years. They have become part of the family.
The world continues to change at a fast pace: What are your recommendations for Arab family businesses?
If you look at our region you will find that there is an exceptionally high percentage of family businesses. The good thing about our culture is that we encourage large families, which enables us to find in each generation people who want to carry on the family business. My recommendation to family businesses is: look after your family and, especially, look after your young generation. You should prepare them and educate them for the future, deal with them in harmony, make them love what you do, and explain the business to them. It is so important to encourage them to work hard and study hard so that, one day, they can join the business. I strongly believe that family business owners should always think of themselves as the custodians of the business they want to pass on to the next generation.
Tharawat Magazine, Issue 13, 2012