CHRISTOPHE NICAISE, CHIEF STRATEGY AND BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT OFFICER AT SEDDIQI HOLDING DISCUSSES MIZZEN; THE LATEST BUSINESS ENTITY THAT WILL SHAPE UP THE COMPANY’S RETAIL EXPERIENCE IN THE COMING YEARS.
Seddiqi Holding, is one of the most successful homegrown companies in the UAE. With a background in the luxury jewellery and watch industries, today the group comprises of a number of sectors including Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons; one of the country’s oldest and most established businesses. Headquartered in the UAE, Seddiqi Holding is managed by second, third and fourth-generation family members who are committed to delivering quality and value to their customers, while fulfilling the aspirations of its stakeholders. The Seddiqi family has maintained the vision of the late founder by building the group on integrity, loyalty and long-term strategy.
Seddiqi Holding was established in 2007 to consolidate the existing family businesses. The group operates a diverse collection of companies across various sectors. The business units include Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons – the longest standing and largest unit within the group, Seddiqi Properties, Swiss Watch Services, Dubai Watch Week and the latest retail division of the company; Mizzen.
Mizzen was launched as a division to further expand the group and is an important driver of growth for the company. The aim of Mizzen is to seek out potential partnerships with international retail businesses, e-commerce platforms and franchises that specialise in fashion, beauty, accessories, and wellness that are not yet present in the region. With a strong focus on luxury, Mizzen will seek to acquire brands from key markets in the world and bring them to the region for the first time.
Heading up the project is Christophe Nicaise, Chief Strategy & Business Development Officer, at Seddiqi Holding. Nicaise is responsible for the diversification and alignment of all the Seddiqi Holding Business units and its subsidiaries, with an emphasis on developing new divisions focusing on brands that share synonymous organisational values and objectives. He joined the business in 2008 and played an instrumental role in transitioning the operations of the flagship brand into an international corporate entity, whilst maintaining the vision and ethos of the late founder. Nicaise took on his current role in 2017 and has since had a strong focus on developing the Mizzen project. Nicaise led Mizzen to acquire its first brand; Aesop and subsequently beginning the expansion of the business and setting the bar for further acquisitions. In a rare interview with Nicaise we discussed his plans for the future of Mizzen and its importance to the growth of Seddiqi Holding.
Why Mizzen and what can you tell us about this business development entity, its vision, and future direction?
Mizzen has been an initiative that we started talking about around two years ago in order to start diversifying the activities of the Seddiqi group. It’s not a crazy 360 degree diversification, it’s a controlled diversification, capitalising on what we do best, which is luxury retail.
So the idea was to create a new retail division that focused on scouting and finding interesting luxury brands outside of our historical core business of watches and jewellery and bring these brands to the region.
When you look at Dubai’s retail landscape, you think “wow – what more can we have?” But if you’re a bit more attentive and you travel the world then you’ll find that there is unseen potential and this is what we are bringing to the Middle East with Mizzen.
What categories of the business will be under Mizzen?
The Mizzen mandate will be to develop strong retail luxury brands across four verticals. The first one was the beauty and cosmetic sector, the second is fashion, and the third vertical will be accessories – which could be leather goods, sunglasses, writing instruments. The fourth is food and beverage and wellness.
The accessories sector is the next project I’m actually working on. I cannot say any more for the time being, but we are working on something there. The F&B will be the last and probably the most tricky sector. We have to do it in a way that represents the company DNA. I think the market is moving more towards healthy food and wellness and I think if you have an innovative concept there are a lot of things that could potentially come here.
The idea is to look at these four verticals and find brands that actually cross-fertilise every vertical. So let’s say for example we find a good F&B or wellness concept then you can cross-fertilise your fashion division if you have a luxury athleisure brand. So you have the possibility to offer a whole experience where you bring in all aspects.
The first brand you acquired was Aesop – what else is in the pipeline for the future?
Yes the first brand we brought to The Middle East was Aesop. It was a very successful brand that already had more than 250 retail stores across the world but wasn’t yet present here in the region. When you associate the prestige and reputation of Seddiqi and the brand of Aesop – you have the right foundations to start attracting more brands.
The second brand we have signed is Olebar Brown – a UK based menswear brand specialising in resort and swimwear. It’s a contemporary and trendy brand that was created around ten years ago and was born on the digital space. It is going for a very strong expansion into brick and mortar. We are now in the rollout phase of this.
What is the criteria?
Firstly it has to be luxury. Secondly it has to be strong in retail. We are not looking at brands that are heavy on distribution because I think the core distribution today is online. The third and most critical point is that we have to find brands that have achieved a maturity level that is already quite advanced – especially in key markets for the region like the United Kingdom, the United States, some countries in Asia, France and Italy etc. So they have to have a certain level of maturity but not yet in the Middle East. It’s hard because as soon as a brand has matured it might have already arrived here or you might find competitors that are already looking to attract it so the timing needs to be just right.
How challenging is it to venture into new categories apart from the watch and jewellery industry?
It wasn’t too difficult because although our background was and still is, the watches and jewellery business, what characterises us is that we are a luxury retailer. So as long as we diversify within the sector of luxury retail, the key ingredients that make the business successful are still the same.
Is Mizzen planning to expand regionally beyond the UAE?
Yes the Mizzen mandate is regional. As part of our diversification it’s new industries but also new geographies that will help the group expand its footprint in other GCC territories.
With your vast expertise on the subject, what is your insight into Dubai’s market today despite the challenges of retail?
Indeed it is a challenging market, but for me the big problem is that for too long brands have been overpriced in the region. Before we had the internet consumers couldn’t check prices so easily so it worked to be more expensive but today the customer enters the store knowing how much something costs in London for example, so doesn’t see why they should pay more in Dubai.
So I therefore think the challenges of the market are more of a pricing issue. Of course there are things you cannot control like exchange rates which have an impact, but beyond that factor the retail price is sometimes too high. This is what has been negatively impacting the market and making it more challenging. Obviously if the price is not right in the store, the customer will divert to e-commerce and order the product online, or since we are talking to an affluent customer, they will buy the product when they are travelling. So this is one of the key focuses of Mizzen, to make sure we offer retail prices that are similar to the original market. It is a challenge for existing brands but I do think it is something everyone should look into and consider.
Yes the cost of operating a business in The Middle East has increased because of the success of Dubai, but I think it’s important for brands to re-evaluate the situation and see how they can correct this issue. Shopping is part of the lifestyle here, so people will still go to the malls, but obviously if the price is wrong they are going to shop somewhere else.
To what extent do you still see the walk-in retail experience crucial versus digital?
It’s more important than ever. Today when a customer enters the store they have already done their research online. They will come to the store to simply finalise the buying process. So I think boutiques have a different objective to what they have done previously – it’s now more of a “wow” experience, which will be the last deciding factor for the customer to make their purchase. They already know everything when they come to the store – the price, availability, size, colour etc. so when they enter the only way to make them take that last step and actually buy the product, is to provide them with an experience and a ‘wow factor’.
I actually think in the long term people who work in the stores should no longer be seen as or called sales people. They are more like personal shoppers or consultants. The sales pitch has been done already so for me, the frontline needs to have a different skill set than the traditional salespeople; one that focuses on customer experience rather than the actual selling of the product. What we are seeing today is a business model that has been turned upside down. E-commerce started as an extension of your brick and mortar presence, but today it is totally the opposite. Today your first point of call is digital, and the store becomes an extension of your digital presence. So that changed the whole strategy of how you look at business and how you serve the customer and what kind of experience you have to create. This is why the store will continue to be important, especially in the luxury segment.
How would you describe today’s digital market in the region?
I think it’s still very new in this market. It really started to be on the agenda of companies around two years ago. Traction started to be created by sites like souq.com for example. So I think that the market is still far behind what’s happening in Asia, the United States and Europe in terms of advancement, but it’s definitely here and it will be here to stay.
For luxury you have companies like Ounass getting a lot of traction. This is because the new distribution channel is online. So at Mizzen we have to have brands that will fit in a retail location and then an online location too. What used to be the middle distribution – the wholesaler, the multi-brand stores etc. – they have tough times ahead.
So are you looking to work with online platforms with the brand’s you are bring to the region as well as the stores?
Yes definitely, it’s part of the strategy of Mizzen. We need to make the brands that we are bringing to the region available online. Ten years ago you wouldn’t have even thought of putting an online aspect into a contract like this but today it’s your new channel of distribution, so it is important to secure the online channels for brands that are coming to the region.
Mobile penetration in the UAE is one of the highest in the world so the foundations are here to make digital shopping a big success.
What challenges do you face as a business when it comes to sourcing brands from abroad inviting them to the Middle East?
I think that for people or brands that have not yet been in the region, the most important point is to convince them of how the region has changed over the last twenty years and how Dubai has established itself as an international hub.
Once they understand the maturity of the market it’s good. Then how we convince them to work with Seddiqi – we have such a strong history behind us that speaks for itself. When you’ve been the exclusive distributor for over sixty years of brand like Rolex and Audemars Piguet – they know we have something special! I think once you explain the value of our company and pass on that message you make people feel extremely comfortable. So we have our history, our current value and a promising market and the pieces just click. I would say the first brand was probably the most difficult one. Yes we are known as the number one luxury watch retailer in the Middle East but why are we interested in a beauty brand – this is what we had to convince them of.
So how did the initial process happen?
Aesop are very careful in the way that they select their partner. It’s a brand that has been growing very quickly in the past ten or fifteen years but in a very strategic way. So it took us time to finalise because we had to show why Seddiqi was moving into this new direction, but once it was done everything moved quite quickly.
A fair deal is a win, win situation. So if one partner feels like he is giving more than the other, there will always be a sensation of giving away too much and the deal will eventually fall apart. I’m very transparent and open with brands and I’m always looking to strike a deal that is a win, win deal for both parties. Obviously they know they are partnering with a group that has been in the region for over sixty years, so this eventually leads to the success of the partnership.
What else are you currently working on?
I’m working on many things! Although my focus and immediate mandate is the diversification of the group with Mizzen, part of my role is also to look at the business development and the strategy of the group as a whole. So I still have a few key projects that I’m working on for the watches and jewellery business. I cannot say more for the time being but it’s not only Mizzen it’s also taking Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons to the next level. With everything that’s happening in the region and Dubai in particular, there is still a lot to do that could take the watch and jewellery business to a new dimension.
What is your professional motto?
Play to your best but play fair.
How do you think Dubai has shaped up who you are today and what did it add to your path?
I feel more at home here than in my home country. I have been working with the Seddiqi Group for ten years. I think before coming to the Middle East I knew that my personality would fit in this market but I would definitely say that the person I am today has been greatly influenced by my presence in this region. I’ve learned a lot about myself and the region and how business is done here. I think I have embraced the values of the Seddiqi Group and they are now part of me. The region has probably shaped who I am a great deal.
What would you like to achieve with Mizzen over the next year and the next five years?
In a year’s time I would like to have at least one brand in each of the verticals that we discussed but it’s not so much about the short term I’m looking more at the next five years.
We don’t want to become over-diversified, we want to stay very focused on luxury brands and niche markets with good potential. So ideally in five years Mizzen would have two to three brands per vertical but they need to be brands that really have an impact in terms of customer experience and innovation and bringing to Dubai a new retail experience that is not yet here.
We have a strong team to lead Mizzen who are the faces of the sector on a daily basis and they are building a strong relationship with the brands we have. For new brands I am usually the first face they meet and once this trust level is achieved and the negotiation is successful they know that I will always be around supporting the teams to achieve the goals that we as a brand have. They know that whenever and wherever, someone form the Seddiqi group is always there to take care of them.