Indian who sailed in a boat to Dubai and built a multi-billion retail empire

Ehtesham Shahid

Published: Updated:

Yusuff Ali M.A. has vivid memories of the ship he boarded ‎in Bombay that set sail for Dubai in the last week of 1973.

“The ship’s name was Dumra and it took a week to reach the shores of Dubai, on 31st of December 1973, to be precise,” he says. The UAE was already home to his family business.

“Like any other expatriate dreaming of a better opportunity, I came to the UAE in search of something new, which is why I joined our family business,” says the 62-year-old.

Back then, the UAE was a far cry from what we are seeing now.

“All the glitz and glamour—the prosperity, urban development, and world-class facilities, which we have now in the UAE, were not present in the early days,” says Yusuff Ali.

Like everyone else, he has had to survive without air conditioners at home and offices. Roads were fewer and the transport system was a struggle.

Sources of drinking water were primitive and so was sewage system he even remembers sleeping on the terrace.

“We kept pouring buckets of water on the floor during summer months to keep the atmosphere cool,” he says.

Cut to the present

One thing led to another and today – as Chairman & Managing Director of LuLu Group – Youssef Ali presides over a business with $7.42 billion annual global turnover.

The group has a 40,000-strong workforce from 37 different nations and operational bases extending in 21 countries. Earlier this month, Lulu Group opened its 150th Hypermarket in Riyadh.

It is fair to say that whatever Yusuff Ali touched turned to gold. However, nothing came out of the blue and his early days of struggle only made him more determined to succeed.

“Something kept telling me that the UAE will become a very prosperous and developed nation,” says Yusuff Ali.

“I have been witness to the UAE’s progress – from successful oil exporter to one of the world’s burgeoning destinations that specializes in different business sectors,” says Yusuff Ali.

He also feels blessed that he has been part of the transformation. “Those early days have taught me the value of hard work, dedication, and money,” he proclaims.

Entrepreneurial bug

The start may have been sedate for Yusuff Ali but several factors propelled him to where he stands today.

After being in his family business for a few years, the entrepreneurial bug inside him blossomed and pushed him to venture out into something new.

Oil was discovered and a lot of expatriates were coming and settling down in and around Abu Dhabi. He saw an opportunity in distribution of food products to cater to the needs of residents in the outskirts of Abu Dhabi.

“I could clearly remember those early days, involving in every aspect of the business — from ordering to getting things cleared from the port, sometimes even loading and driving pick-up truck and taking the products myself to the stores. I have done it all”, he says.

Society and philanthropy

Yusuff Ali is primarily a businessman and his main objective indeed is to launch and sustain the various ventures he is involved with.

However, he also holds on to the principle that a true businessperson shall not only make good money but also be a role model to the society.

“A businessman should be a social leader, philanthropist, and teacher. And most of all, he should be an example for the future generation,” he says.

His organization’s philanthropic footprint transcends geographies, be it Dubai Cares, Red Crescent, helping the refugees in Syria or elsewhere, he has always chipped in.

“On a personal front also, as a firm believer of the principles of Zakat, I patronize and support many charitable initiatives both in India and the GCC,” says Yusuff Ali.

Another principle he has believed in is to never aim for short-term goals and diversify into unknown territories that are not central to its core competencies.

“If you take a look at my business philosophy, I am proud to say that we have always grown and driven organically with a sustainable business paradigm focused around retail,” he says.

His organization has different verticals, from the hypermarkets and shopping malls to hospitality and trading.

Being Indian

Coming from the south Indian state of Kerala, which has had centuries-old relations with the Middle East, Yusuff Ali understands cultural sensitivities of both the sides.

“By nature, we, Indians, are adaptive and fast learners. It has taught me to deal with bigger sections of society, multiple issues, and hardships,” he says.

His long innings as a businessperson has also given him the opportunity to play a vital role in promoting strong relationship between India and the UAE.

He has served as board member of the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce and in the Indian Prime Minister’s Global Advisory Council (2008-2014), besides holding several other positions.

“Today, India is one of the biggest trade partners of the UAE and I am very happy to be part of this whole process. I will continue to do further in improving the business ties”, Yusuff Ali says.

At the end of the day, what makes him stand out as a cut above the rest is his belief that “business is not about money, products or services, it’s about people”.