On the cover: The journey of a retail icon – Ishwar Chugani

July 31, 2023 | By Rupkatha B

On the cover: The journey of a retail icon – Ishwar Chugani

“Times may have changed, but retail is still a people’s business. Trust is key. Relationships are vital. Technology is an enabler” – Ishwar Chugani, Chief Executive Officer & Managing Director – Giordano Middle East, Member of the Management Committee – Giordano International

It was a two-lane road to Abu Dhabi. Trade Centre was the only landmark in Dubai. Metropolitan Hotel was the last building on the way to Abu Dhabi. That’s how the UAE looked when Ishwar Chugani arrived here from the Philippines over four decades ago as a young graduate. It was frustrating as much as fascinating. There was a certain sense of adventure, he recollected.

What may come across as oddity, Chugani left his thriving family business – almost 100 years old now, founded by his late grandfather, one of the first Sindhi immigrants who went from Hyderabad to the Philippines in search of business opportunities – to move to Dubai that wasn’t even on the global retail map 45 years ago.

“Forget retail map, when I arrived in Dubai, people in the Philippines had only heard of the place in Encyclopaedia Brittanica,” Chugani said with his trademark smile. “But come to think of it, I always wanted to be different. So, I chose the Blue Ocean Strategy [that’s all about creating and capturing uncontested market space] and came to Dubai at a time when less fish swam here, compared to the US where many of my friends and family members went.”

In 1979 Chugani joined the ETA – Ascon Group, which invited him to open Sindbad’s Wonderland, the first family entertainment centre in the Middle East in the UAE’s first shopping mall, Al Ghurair Centre. From conceptualisation and logo creation – the inspiration for which he found in a postcard – to building the centre ground up was a tremendous learning experience for Chugani. Soon Sindbad’s Wonderland became a cool spot for the 80s kids growing up in Dubai.

As the Group continued building more properties, such as BurJuman Centre, Al Manal Centre, Chugani was entrusted with the job to find retail brands. Initially, the team thought of introducing a children’s brand and calling it ‘Sindbad’s. But eventually they decided to bring Giordano to the region, a brand that recently completed three decades of delighting customers in the Middle East.

“In 1992 when I first approached Giordano, the brand wasn’t prepared to enter this market. A few months later I contacted the CEO again and got an immediate response. And I flew down to meet him. Initially they gave us the rights to operate in the UAE and in 1993 we opened the first Giordano store in BurJuman Centre with a capital of AED3 million. Since then, we’ve never taken additional capital, loan or finance for our business,” Chugani reminisced. “After two years of operating the brand, the principal signed a joint venture with us taking a minority stake in the business and we got the rights to operate Giordano across the GCC. In 1995 we introduced the brand in Saudi Arabia. In 2012 we became a 100% subsidiary of Giordano International and aggressively expanded to many new markets including Mauritius, Pakistan, Ghana, Bangladesh, Kenya and continue to explore new markets through franchising.”

Chugani’s persistence, peppered by a few setbacks, paid off and the Giordano story continues to unfold!

Five key lessons learnt along the way

Chugani described his initial days in Dubai as a “humbling” experience, one that gave him strength, taught him to be observant and even take calculated risks.

Chugani spent a lot of time at his family’s department store in the Philippines learning the invaluable ground rules of how business must be conducted, how to plan inventory, manage money and importantly deal with people. But some of his biggest learnings came from doing business in the region.

Treat inventory as an asset: “When we first signed up Giordano in September 1992, Chairman Dr Peter Lau’s first words were: ‘If you really want to do this business, treat inventory as asset, not a liability.’ He always emphasises that we should never keep more than 10% inventory in the warehouse. For instance, if we are selling 50,000 pieces per week, we won’t bring in 70,000. If we need more, we can air freight and being a global company, we can share inventory across markets. If a crisis hits, we can stay agile owing to this principle. We never have more than 3% obsolete stock, which is a great industry average. Ideally, we keep 90 days of inventory but due to pandemic driven supply chain disruptions, we’ve increased that timeline to 120 days.” Giordano leverages an agile inventory management system that offers deep insights into per store inventory – what’s selling well, what’s in demand, what’s flattening and so on.

Make old new: Volkswagen Beetle is a great example of a car which enjoys tremendous resonance due to its sheer ability to make old desirable. Giordano too is a 42-year-old company, and still growing. “At Giordano we did three things that we think every organisation must do. We identified what’s important, made that obvious and made old new again. For example, during the pandemic we realised that customers were looking for comfort clothing such as jogging pants, shorts etc. So, through our store network globally we made it obvious that Giordano is selling these items. With simple things like change of fabric and logo, our t-shirts are still a category leader. Having said that, we’ve also created new lines. Realising that men’s innerwear is another category leader for us, this year we decided to expand the category with sports innerwear. Similarly, we introduced lightweight footwear, linen shirts and so much more.”

Closely watch trends: “Around seven years ago, our chairman came to Dubai in December and one day while strolling in a mall he asked: ‘Ishwar, what do you notice?’ I said, a lot of people. He said, ‘Yes, and more than half are walking around in shorts. So, why aren’t we selling shorts?’ He decided to ship 10,000 pieces of shorts to be placed at the shop windows. I was very apprehensive and negotiated the number down to 5,000 pieces, which sold out in two months instead of the original six months as we’d estimated. That was a huge learning for me, and ever since we closely watch trends, what’s selling and what’s not. Every week our global heads of business share their insights based on which crucial decisions are made.”

Keep it simple: “If a business is keen to operate efficiently and in an agile manner – quite like monkeys, you know – its crucial to be quick, nimble and flexible by keeping things simple and eliminating complications and barriers. This includes offering a direct line – what I mean is people should be able to talk to their leader directly instead of having to go through a maze of hierarchy. That’s how we can make quicker decisions to enter new markets where only a few dare to go.”

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should: “Another thing that I learned quite early is although a leader might have the authority to take all decisions because they can it doesn’t mean they should. In fact, it can be lonely and scary to take unilateral decisions. So, I created a management committee comprising members of our senior team and I run every decision by them. If we disagree, we talk it out. If we still can’t agree, we approach other senior members on the team or even the head office. But when a decision is taken, we take full responsibility of the consequences.”

Times may have changed, but retail is still a people’s business

Besides several awards and clipping of numerous media interviews done over the years, Chugani’s Sheikh Zayed Road office walls are replete with inspiring messages. Some that I found particularly inspiring were focused on the importance of empowering people, building relationships and creating a compelling company culture. In this context, he said, “I think every company must have a compelling story about their people, how the company has rallied behind its people in good and bad times. When people stay with an organisation for long enough, they develop a deep understanding about the business, and they also take ownership.”

When Giordano started operating in the Middle East for the first 15 years Chugani handpicked every employee, of whom 80-85% are still with the company, especially the management team.

“It is our policy to look internally at the local, regional and even global levels before filling up positions through external recruitment. This helps people to aspire for growth within the company. All our area managers started at the shop level. There are so many such examples of people rising through the ranks. Empowering our people and ensuring their growth is a big part of our company culture. Your competitors can poach your people, copy your products or services, but not your company culture. That’s why your company culture is the ultimate competitive advantage.”

Operating a mono brand in a crowded market, Chugani also spoke about how crucial it is to build and maintain good relationships with industry peers. “Even today I deal with every mall directly, instead of having a leasing manager. It helps in taking quick decisions based on open and honest conversations.”

Turning to the customer component, he made an interesting observation. “Customers are people; they are social animals and have a need to see and be seen in social settings, such as stores. It’s a reality that post-pandemic there has been a dramatic shift in the way people work, dress, shop and socialise. So, as retailers we’ve to think of ways to meaningfully engage with them through the right offerings at the right price points and by leveraging technology to ensure seamless connection across touchpoints.”

“Importantly, we’ve to bear in mind that today’s customers don’t buy from a company or a brand but from a person – someone they trust, someone who is knowledgeable and delivers on the promise. If anything, the pandemic has taught us the strength in relationships. It has also taught us to shred complexity in anything and everything to ensure quick yet strategic decision-making. Ultimately, only those retailers who have a deep understanding of their customers will thrive. At the end of the day, every challenge – be it an economic downturn or pandemic – brings to the surface tiny fractures that would otherwise go unnoticed in good times, therein offering a fertile ground to relearn lessons from the past and form wisdom for the future.”

A people’s person

Building relationships comes naturally to Chugani, one of IMAGES RetailME’s chosen Retail ICONS of 2023.

“Growing up in the Philippines, I was an extremely extroverted person. I had a lot of local friends and loved to socialise with them. I was an active child, part of the boys’ scout group, went to the world jamboree championship in Japan at the age of 13. I’d play pelota in school, badminton behind our department store and through it all I kept building relationships, something that keeps me going even today. I never forget how I met an individual – any individual – their names and often their birthdays too. These are some values that form the foundation of good relationships.”

Indeed, Chugani is someone who has a deep urge to build genuine connections and relationships. He thrives in bringing people together, opening doors for others and in doing so almost always turns possibilities into business opportunities.

What’s the secret recipe, I wondered and almost instinctively he said, “I always try to focus on what’s good for the industry knowing that if the industry benefits, we all will too.”

Perhaps that’s what makes him a people’s person and probably these are traits that also offer a peep into the sports enthusiast that Chugani is – a leader who believes in collaboration, team spirit and the power of passion infused with discipline.

In case you are wondering how disciplined he is, Chugani doesn’t have a secretary, yet he reaches for the exact files – be that his first photo in a UAE daily after winning a dart contest within the first month of arriving here to the first conversation with Giordano’s president as well as every media interview done over the years.

He chuckled and said, “I turned 65 recently! People may call it obsessive compulsive disorder. But I like to call it being organised, which helps when I’m looking for something. I like to be hands-on and that’s why I’ve 45 years of information archived in a manner that’s easy to locate. I even have a piece of paper on which I’d shared the growth projection of 50 Giordano stores within a decade of opening in the region. We met that goal in five years!”

Up close & personal

You left the Philippines and your family business to start a career in the UAE at a time when the country wasn’t even a popular destination for expatriates as it is today. Was failure an option?

While I always had a fallback option, in my mind failure wasn’t an option, because after I left for the UAE people in my community in the Philippines thought I must have had a fallout with my family which wasn’t the case. For a third-generation member of one of the oldest Indian business families in the Philippines, what I chose as career path was unexpected. It’s also true that at that time the perception of the Middle East was different, and people associated job opportunities in the region with contract workers in junior roles. So, I had to prove myself and from day one when I started my first job here, my mindset was ‘I work with them, not for them’. Many decades on, the same mindset prevails among my employees at Giordano, which is why most people have spent almost two decades with us.

Are you accepting of mistakes?

The more mistakes we make, the more we learn, become stronger and then apply the knowledge gained for better outcomes.

If you had the opportunity to go back in time and take a decision differently, what would it be?

In the past I’ve lost out on some opportunities due to my ego. I’ve learned a lot along the way, I’ve become more patient. Now I don’t take any decision without consulting my senior leadership team which has saved us a lot of money.

When the time comes to pass on the baton, do you have someone in mind already?

I’ve a very competent team. When the time comes to pass on the baton, the decision will fall on an unbiased judge. The company must continue to run.

Finally, is it easier to run a mono-brand versus multi-brand concept? Also, do tell us the recipe behind Giordano’s success year-after-year in a segment that very crowded?

Running a mono-brand isn’t easy but we had the first mover advantage. It’s our simplicity, our global reach, our people and their trust in us that continue to drive success for Giordano despite stiff competition.

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