TECH SAVVY

Lebanon 2016 | TOURISM | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Wassim G. Daher, Chairman of the Board of Azadea Group, on regional expansion, adapting brands, and e-commerce.

How has your business model contributed to your regional expansion and what have been your most significant milestones?

Azadea Group has always had a clear vision of where it wants to be. When we started back in 1978 with a franchise concept, the idea to develop this franchise grew on us and we decided to further learn the retail business and make a name of our own in this industry. We noticed that building a franchise was much easier than producing fabrics or manufacturing new brands that people would not recognize, so we brought some of the most popular brands from Europe to the Middle East, and we have had very successful expansion across the region. Our business model is based on setting a savvy team in each of the markets where we wish to operate and looking for new endeavors that will take Azadea further, whether by opening a new store, entering a new market, or bringing a new franchise. Today we have more than 50 international brands, and around 80% of them are in the fashion industry, with the rest being in the entertainment and food and beverages sectors. After achieving a fruitful expansion in the MENA region, we are now looking for opportunities to extend our networks in Sub-Saharan African countries such as Angola, Kenya, and others.

How do you market your franchises to be successful in any new market you wish to open?

There is a process that must be followed in order to bring in an already established brand and make it successful elsewhere. It is also a process that is learned over time, and it is necessary to have the right infrastructure and financial capacity to apply it. We have a dedicated team to each brand, and they are the ones doing the due diligence when entering a new market; they travel to meet the supplier, they get in-field training to fully understand the concept, they listen to the small details concerning the brand such as coordination, merchandising, pricing, and the like. This is pretty much how we set up stores for our franchises and why we have been successful in expanding to new markets.

How do you adapt brands to conquer a new market and satisfy the needs of a certain market?

It depends on how adaptable the brand is. Sometimes we can influence suppliers and they help us do a share of the collection adaptable to the market where we'll sell. For example, in Kuwait we sell maxi skirts, which we cannot sell in Europe but sell very well in the Gulf area. We cannot do the same window display in Saudi Arabia that we can do in Dubai or Beirut; each market has a different culture and we respect the culture of each market.

As a Lebanese company, how do you manage to open spaces in foreign markets?

We see ourselves as a regional company, which is why we set up offices in all the countries where we work, since we do not want to be an imported concept but a local one. This office serves our Lebanon operations but we have local headquarters in most countries of operation such as Dubai, Qatar, Jordan, and so on. Having said that, most of our employees are Lebanese, since we want to keep the spirit of Lebanese entrepreneurship at Azadea, complimented by over 100 nationalities that work at Azadea. Today, out of the 13 countries where we have presence, Lebanon represents only 12% of our operations.

Has the current situation in Lebanon affected your sales in the country?

This is an unpredictable market, and we have learned to live with this unpredictability over the years. Destiny plays a major role in the Lebanese market, as things might not always go as planned, but this does not mean that it has to be forever adverse. We are confident in the quality and marketable nature of the brands we sell. The country's volatility has never stopped Azadea Group from planning ahead and today we plan to incorporate five more brands into our portfolio, reaching a total of 55 by the end of the year.

Azadea Foundation has carried out some interesting CSR projects in Lebanon. Can you tell us more about them?

Our biggest landmark project is the Sanayeh Garden, a fully renovated 22,000sqm garden that we took under our possession to revive and inject green life into the central area of Beirut. The garden receives around 10,000 visitors daily, and we have created three different children's playgrounds with standards as high as those in Central Park in New York. There is a large fountain at the heart of the garden with greenery and grass all around it. Our commitment to this project involves taking over maintenance services to keep it alive and make it a sustainable project for years to come. We handle everything to do with the greenery and water maintenance, the cleanliness, and the security of the garden.

With the increasing use of e-commerce, how is Azadea Group adapting to these changes?

The access to purchase online has shifted some of the industry's needs in terms of attracting people. We used to open 50-100sqm stores in the past and this made it possible to have a greater number of them, but we have moved to bigger stores with different options within them, and a very high standard of customer service to cope with the changes in the market. The gap between e-commerce and traditional stores is still huge, and we need to bring the best practices into our outlets in order to coordinate stocks and have better availability than e-commerce shops.