By Kelly Ann Crane
Getting to the top is tough; staying there is even tougher. That’s the challenge now faced by Mohammed Sharif Al Zarooni, CEO, owner and founder of hotel supplies company Dimara International.
“It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it,” he jokes. Having secured the top spot of Dubai’s SME 100 2015, Al Zarooni, an Emirati who set up his company 10 years ago, said it’s onwards, upwards and business as usual.
Dimara International is a multi-faceted organization, but the main branch of the company creates and develops unique hospitality concepts for Middle East hotels.
“Any entrepreneur will tell you the same,” he said. “The award is wonderful and the recognition fabulous, but if you’re doing your job properly it doesn’t matter too much. Whether you’re first, 91st or not on the list at all, running a business takes dedication and commitment to the cause.”
The Dubai SME 100 ranking is a biennial initiative launched in 2011 by Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, crown prince of Dubai and chairman of the Dubai Executive Council. To be ranked, companies have to submit audited accounts that are then independently verified.
Dimara International was announced first in the Dubai SME ranking for 2015 at a ceremony held in November, after securing the 71st place in 2011 and the sixth spot in 2013.
“We are honored and I’m proud of what we’ve achieved,” the CEO said. “It’s a nod to our hard work of course.”
Journalist turned entrepreneur
A self-taught businessman, Al Zarooni began his career in the media industry as a reporter before moving into exhibitions and events. He spent many years operating and running high-profile initiatives and shows from both the Sharjah and Dubai expo centers until an entrepreneurial opportunity presented itself.
“I met many people from the hotel industry and the story was always the same,” he recalled. “There were big plans for big chain hotels, but nobody to supply them with all the necessities unless they sourced from Europe and beyond. I wondered why nobody had thought to produce and market products and essentials for them locally and decided to look into it.”
Aged 40 and with little to no experience in the hospitality business, Al Zarooni embarked on a new career. “It was exciting but it was very hard work. I worked 24 hours a day for the first four years. Things moved very slowly and it was difficult to get people to believe in us.”
Dimara International – a name Al Zarooni plucked from thin air – began with just three people, himself included, and a makeshift storage area in his garage at home. “I was everything from sales manager to car loader and I worked long hours, but I believed in what I was doing,” he said.
Getting big brands on board
Al Zarooni knew that in order to succeed, he had to offer something international companies, usually backed by big name cosmetic brands, did not.
“We needed to be different; better than the others.” Products were specialized and unique and made specifically for hotels rather than generic collections, something which began to set Dimara apart from the rest. But the real attraction was the company’s ability to supply at a moment’s notice.
“In the beginning, companies were not very trusting,” he confided. “I had no knowledge of the industry and they knew that. Before I was running to them and playing to their tune, now they come to us. Cavalli, Etro, Armani, Jo Malone – you name it, we can make it happen. If a hotel calls us, we can provide [whatever it needs]. We can restock with little notice, which means they no longer have to plan in advance and risk running out of things because they are being shipped or still on order from around the world.”
Staff numbers have also increased from two to more than 50 and instead of Al Zarooni’s garage, warehouse space now tops more than 15,000 square feet (sq ft) with showrooms and offices of more than 5,000 sq ft. There are four distinct divisions specializing in soft furnishings for the hotel industry (Dimara Supply), health concepts for hospitals, clinics and medical centers (Dimara Health Concepts), in-flight services including on-board amenities (Dimara Inflight), and procurement solutions for hotels (Dimara Consult). Dimara International supplies to Jumeirah, Al Habtoor Group, Four Seasons, Hilton and Ritz Carlton, to name only a few.
Today, Al Zarooni said his biggest challenge is keeping on top of best industry practice. “If we want to stay on top, we must make sure we are always evolving,” he said.
Dubai’s mark in the hotel sector
The 50-year-old chief executive believes Dubai has become a brand in its own right when it comes to the hotel and hospitality business, and he’s feeling the pressure.
“Just as Italy is famous for fashion and France for food, Dubai is known for providing the best hotels in the world,” he said. “[A five-star hotel] in Europe does not mean the same as it [is in] here. I believe hoteliers and companies around the world strive to meet the standards we set here.”
It’s an unwritten accolade that comes with a price for Al Zarooni. “It means I need to do better. Source more and aim higher all the time. I cannot drop the ball for a second.”
Dimara International had a turnover of AED 73million (USD 19.84 million) in 2014 and has enjoyed 15% year-on-year growth since inception – including through the recession.
“Dubai didn’t have a tough time, if you ask me. I sit here as a businessman and tell the truth. Nothing changed,” he said. “Hotels still opened, shopping centers welcomed more people. Maybe some businesses struggled, but the consumer and hotelier trade was still going strong. It didn’t affect us at all.”
While the financial downturn may have passed Dimara by, Al Zarooni admits he was no stranger to mistakes in the early years. “I brought stock before the market needed it,” he said. “I hired staff long before I needed them. I made promises that were hard to keep. You have to make mistakes to learn.”
So does he have any advice for budding entrepreneurs?
“Be prepared to work hard and treat all clients the same. It doesn’t matter whether they are an AED 5 million [USD 1.4 million] or an AED 500 [USD 136] customer, they are investing in you and deserve respect and service.”
Al Zarooni now plans to take Dimara International into the hotel fit-out and management side of the industry.
“We refurbished a 400-room hotel in Doha recently and we plan to do more in the near future. It’s possible because we manufacture our own products, which mean we don’t wait for others,” he said. “We are developing unique ‘scent packages’ for hotels, which will be uniform throughout the property from bed sheets and towels to spa robes and lobby fragrance. It will become synonymous with each property.”