Tue, 01 October 2013
The Landmark Group celebrates the 40th anniversary of its first store in Bahrain this month. Micky Jagtiani goes down memory lane with BTM, looking back on a life well lived.
Success hasn’t changed billionaire businessman Micky Jagtiani; the soft-spoken 62-year-old remains grounded and modest, faintly dismissive of his wealth and accomplishments.
Micky is due back in Bahrain this month, after a gap of more than a year, for the 40th anniversary celebrations of his business. “It’s been a wonderful journey. We never had many hiccups along the way,” he observes. “Forty years down the line, the Landmark Group runs 1,500 stores across the Middle East, India, Egypt, Turkey, Yemen and Pakistan.” I first met Micky in 1983, ten years after he had started the business in Bahrain together with his brother and the late Shaikh Rashid bin Hassan Al Khalifa.
As he looks back on his early days in the Kingdom, where his company began, it’s time to confront a host of memories, good and bad. “It was circumstances that brought me to Bahrain,” he reminisces. Born into an Indian immigrant family in Kuwait, Micky tried his hand at accounting in the UK before joining his brother in Bahrain.
“My brother was ill and I decided to stay back to help him with the business,” he says.
In a bitter twist of fate, he lost his brother and both his parents to illness within a span of 18 months. At 27, he was alone in Bahrain with meagre family savings and no prospects. He could have looked at his family business in Kuwait, but the retail stores there were on the verge of collapse.
His back against the wall, Micky decided to take over his brother’s retail space and filled it up with baby clothes, strollers and kids’ merchandise. This was the original Mothercare; the beginning of what would turn into one of the most profitable retail chains in the Middle East.
Bahrain proved a good training ground for the young entrepreneur, and 19 years later, in 1992, with six stores and 400 employees, he took the “biggest risk” of his life. On a leap of faith, Micky moved his family and company to Dubai. The Gulf War of 1990 had unsettled the regional economy and people were nervous. Everyone around advised him not to launch a business in Dubai, but he remained firm in his convictions.
By the mid-1990s, the global increase in oil prices had allowed Dubai to expand rapidly. In the absence of any organised retailing in the region, Micky had an early mover’s advantage. He opened the first Shoe Mart store in 1990 in the UAE and Splash was launched three years later. Today, over 20 years later on, the group has 400 stores in the UAE.
In hindsight, however, Micky does not credit the move to any planning on his part.
“I don’t think I was a good planner. It was one of those things; I just decided that I needed to leave Bahrain,” he says. “I guess I was plain lucky, being at the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing. No one looked at retail as a business in Dubai in those days; we did it and we did it well.”
It helped that he came from a trading family, based in Kuwait where he was born, that had been in the retail space since the 1950s. Retail was in his DNA, after all.
As one of the first players to tap into the South East Asian supply markets, Landmark was able to offer mid-range products at affordable prices. Micky’s mantra of “delivering exceptional value” seems to have given him the right balance, building Centrepoint, Home Centre, Splash, Lifestyle, Emax, Shoe Mart, Max and Shoe Express into trusted brands that have enjoyed long-term success.
“I’d say we opened up the South East Asian markets for the rest of the world. That’s where the others started to follow,” he opines.
In addition to the home-grown, value-driven brands in its portfolio, Landmark Group has added franchised international brands such as New Look, Reiss, Lipsy and Koton. The Shoe Mart international footwear division includes franchise footwear brands Kurt Geiger, Casadei, Ecco, Bata, Pablosky, Fabi, Dumond, Lewre, Foot Solutions, Vicini and Valencia.
Micky is quick to shrug off the “easy success” he enjoyed in Dubai at a time when it was a big, open market awaiting the players. In contrast, his forays into Europe and India have been anything but a cakewalk. Landmark remains one the largest retailers in the Indian department store business and one of the largest players among the hypermarkets, but it hasn’t been as profitable as in Dubai.
“India is a very difficult market. It doesn’t move as fast as Dubai does. We tried to venture into England and Portugal, but weren’t very successful. We’re now looking to scale up in Africa, if possible,” he says.
Then, there are fears that the retail sector in the Middle East has already seen its best days and the time ahead will never be as buoyant.
“I think whoever has been successful is living off his past glory. Things are not as easy as they used to be. In the last five to ten years, we have recorded a healthy double digit growth, but that’s nowhere near the earlier levels,” he notes.
The group has since diversified into the hospitality sector, with the Citimax chain of hotels targeting the mid-market segment for business and leisure travellers. It now runs three hotels in the UAE, with an inventory of over 1300 rooms.
Foodmark, the restaurant division, has franchise brands such as Mango Tree and The Meat Company.
Micky harbours plans for expansion in Bahrain, with the possibility of building a couple of shopping malls in the Kingdom. However, he’s put them on the backburner for the moment. But Bahrain continues to have a special place in his heart, he concedes.
To Micky, his wealth and success is a modest achievement, which he terms “quite coincidental” in his long career. The only difference it has made to his profile is the occasional appeal he receives for donations from various quarters.
The Landmark Group is now an enormous family with 45,000 people on its rolls. Micky derives special satisfaction in doing favours for his employees and in watching them settle down in life.
“You know, I don’t spend very much on myself. Most of it goes to people who I’ve worked with. I want to give back to society as much as I can, through social initiatives,” he says. Besides his wife Renuka and three children, the people who are closest to him are those who’ve worked alongside him over the years and to whom he’s given shares in his company.
“There are special people like Radha and Makeena, who contributed to my success and have become my partners. There’s another employee, Kader, who has joined me in the business,” he notes.
In 2000, he set up the Landmark International Foundation of Empowerment to support underprivileged children in India through school and healthcare development programmes. Micky has supported homes for destitute children in Bangalore, vocational and non-formal schools, community clinics and medical camps for slum dwellers and an old age home in Chennai. At his orphanage in Bangalore, he says he would sleep on the floor because it helped him stay grounded!
While Micky may not adhere to any set of specific religious beliefs, he’s a firm believer in karma. Above all, his deep commitment and devotion is to his business. “I can confidently say that I’ve never taken a shortcut in my business and have always tried to act honestly and with integrity,” he says.