Water is the driving force of all things; “the new oil”, according to Ibrahim Ali Abdullah Bin Shaheen, founder and CEO of I General Trading (IGT). “Thousands have lived without many things, but not one without water,” he said. “It’s big business in the region.”
A business he saw massive potential in just five years ago, in 2010, when he invested in Turkish natural spring water company Sirma. “The water business is more profitable than oil… drinking water is not exclusive to anyone. We have no tap water here, [unlike] in Europe and it’s the reason the government [owns] water companies now. We are always going to need water. It’s essential to life itself,” he said.
Already a successful entrepreneur – selling and distributing imported meat, fruit and vegetables across the region – Shaheen found himself with a difficult decision to make. Having run IGT as a fresh food distributer for almost seven years (since 2003) he knew it was time for a change.
“I wanted to transition into something that could be branded,” he explained from his Sheikh Zayed Road offices. “Meat and fruit was all very well but it wasn’t something I could market as my own. The carcass would be imported and sold on the supermarket shelves, but nobody knew where it came from.”
Getting things in writing
Drawn by the challenge of creating his own brand – something that would one day become his legacy – he dropped all dealings in meat and chased his H2O dream. “I love water, I always have,” he said.
So in 2009, Shaheen set his sights on Turkish company Sirma and the two made history. Today, thanks to a 50-strong distribution fleet, numerous warehouses and more than 80 members of dedicated staff, the water brand has put IGT on the map. More than 120 containers jam-packed with 12 million bottles of naturally produced water are distributed across the region every month.
His turnover was more than AED 30 million (USD 8.2 million) in 2014 with a growth percentage of 35-40 from 2014 to 2015. Shaheen believes his success can be attributed to three factors: solid contracts, having control of distribution and love for his mother.
“I was an entrepreneur [since] 2003, in the IT industry, but I was burned by people I trusted,” he said. Ultimately it taught him the biggest life lesson of all, to “get everything in writing and get it stamped and stamped again,” he laughed.
“It’s easy to trust in this region because we think it’s peaceful and take people at their word,” he said. “But it’s not enough. Protect yourself. Make sure everything is on paper.”
Shaheen talks from experience as just a few years ago a “big player” made moves to buy the spring in Turkey he was using and everything that went with it. “Luckily I had a very strong contract – with exclusivity,” he said. “But I also had the trust and loyalty of the company in Turkey and they honored that.”
Unique selling point
But it’s his solid distribution arm that really gives Shaheen an edge. “It’s our point of difference and it’s worth more than anything else,” he said. Having his own means to distribute has allowed IGT to develop a unique 24-hour delivery service – something few companies can boast.
The Emirati businessman, 42, is the first to admit it’s been his biggest challenge yet but maintains it’s a huge strength. “Warehouse, staff, drivers, trucks [and] sales teams [are not] easy to implement and the logistics are sometimes very testing,” he said. “But it has allowed us to move faster than others, be there when others can’t. We may be an SME but we are very aggressive.”
His success with 24 hour distribution has not gone unnoticed and IGT has now been approached by other leading brands to distribute on their behalf. “It’s become a whole other business for me,” said Shaheen. “Hotels and restaurants are now using us as they often require urgent deliveries for customers.” Just as the water he bottles and puts on the supermarket shelf, Shaheen made a promise to himself, partners, staff and family, to be transparent in everything he does.
From year one – turning little to no profit – he put the company audit online for all to see. With a turnover of just AED 6 million (USD 1.6 million), he was immediately mocked by fellow businessmen. “My friends were making fun of me. They said I should hide the figures as they were embarrassing. But it didn’t matter to me. I wanted the world to see I had nothing to hide and that I would declare everything.”
This year (2016) Shaheen plans to have a turnover of AED 40 million (USD 10.9 million) and AED 50 million (USD 13.6 million) in 2017. “I will reach AED 100 million [USD 27.2 million] and I will do it honestly and honorably.”
IGT distributes products to more than 4,000 retail outlets across the UAE, including hypermarkets, supermarkets, petrol stations, gyms, schools and smaller groceries.
Words of advice
So does Shaheen have any final advice for budding entrepreneurs? “Don’t be a one-man show. Implement and respect the corporate governance structure. It’s great to enjoy the money and the success, but you’re not securing the future of the business for either yourself or your family. If something happens to you, it’s your team or family who will suffer.”
He believes customer service is also key and credits the success of Dubai with growing levels of client awareness and satisfaction. “Other countries are richer than us – so why are we growing faster? Service and quality. That’s what it’s all about. It’s not about making mistakes but how you deal with them. Be fair to everyone.”
Finally, and perhaps more poignantly, Shaheen believes everything he has achieved can be credited to the love of, and for, his family.
“Look after your parents,” he said. “Every day I [visit] my mother, who has Parkinson’s, and sit with her for 30 minutes. She prays for me. She feels something for me. It’s in this moment I realize it’s God who has given me success.
“I have 18 brothers and sisters and my parents gave us what they could. We grew up with no AC and we took all the power from my mother. So I believe if I honor her today, I will always have success. That’s not something Harvard could have taught me.”