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This article is a part of the 2023 edition of Entrepreneur Middle East’s annual Follow The Leader series, in which enterprise head honchos from the region talk strategy, industry-specific tactics, and professional challenges as they lead their respective businesses to success.
Survival of the fittest is an adage that applies quite well to the world of business: after all, the ability to innovate and adapt is essential for success. And it’s with that mindset that second-generation Emirati businessman Mohammad A. Baker, Deputy Chairman and CEO of GMG, has embraced change, and transformed a local UAE retail company into a global well-being firm.
To put that into context, GMG started life in 1977 as a single butcher’s shop, and today, it is a family-owned retail conglomerate with an expanding global presence. And despite its current wide footprint (GMG has expanded across verticals, and it also has a presence in 12 countries with more than 600 stores), Baker insists on running the company like, well, a larger version of a typical entrepreneurial enterprise. “We are not scared of mistakes or new ideas,” Baker says. “In a way, our mentality is more like that of a startup.”
Baker’s ethos comes at a time when the MENA startup ecosystem is experiencing rapid growth, driven by increased entrepreneurial activity, favorable investment conditions, technological innovation, and supportive government initiatives. “While challenges persist, the region’s potential for further development, and its vibrant entrepreneurial spirit make it an exciting and promising landscape for startups and investors alike,” he notes. “At GMG too, despite our global presence, we still operate like a large startup- believing that everything is achievable. We are an organization that always dares to challenge the status quo. We strongly believe that ‘we must be the change we wish to see’- this is a big part of our GMG DNA, and reflective of our startup and entrepreneurial mentality.”
Of course, GMG was very much a startup when it was launched more than four decades ago. After its start as a single shop, it started retailing, distributing, and manufacturing a portfolio of international and homegrown brands across the sport, food, and health sectors.
Today, GMG encompasses five key verticals: GMG Sports, GMG Everyday Goods, GMG Health and Beauty, GMG Properties, and GMG Logistics. “Sports is the biggest by volume and brands, but also by footfall and footprint,” Baker explains, adding that with more than 90+ brands and 500+ stores globally, GMG Sports has become the cornerstone of the company’s success. However, its Everyday Goods division, covering retail operations, food manufacturing, and distribution functions, is rapidly growing, which is enabling GMG to cover the entire food consumption chain “from farm to fork.”
Mohammad A. Baker, Deputy Chairman and CEO of GMG (L) and Salmeen Obaid Alameri, CEO of Silal (R) at the MoU signing ceremony. Source: GMG
The journey of this homegrown company has been fueled by high-profile acquisitions, onboarding prominent international brands, and geographical expansions- its vast portfolio includes notable homegrown brands such as Sun & Sand Sports, Dropkick, Supercare Pharmacy, Farm Fresh, Klassic, and international brands like Nike, Columbia, Converse, Timberland, Vans, Mama Sita’s, and McCain. All of these have served to make GMG a prominent player in the MENA and, now, Asia- the company entered the latter market in December 2020 with its acquisition of Singapore-headquartered Royal Sporting House (one of the largest multi-brand sports retailers in Southeast Asia), which was the first step in GMG’s global expansion. “Asia presents immense potential for GMG, with Asian consumers offering a $10 trillion growth opportunity,” Baker says. “We continued our momentum by acquiring Nike-exclusive stores from SUTL Corporation in Singapore and Malaysia in April 2022. And, recently, we announced our plans to accelerate growth in Southeast Asia by opening 100 stores by 2025.”
Baker’s efforts also show a firm commitment to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) markets. In 2021, GMG entered Iraq and Egypt, marking significant milestones for the company. Notably, GMG launched Iraq’s first Sun & Sand Sports store, and it also revealed its plans to open seven more stores in prominent locations within three years. Furthermore, GMG revealed plans to open more than 100 sports retail stores in Egypt by 2026, while also establishing its African headquarters in Cairo in March 2023.
In July 2023, GMG announced a franchise agreement with UK-based global sports retailer JD Sports to bring their stores to the Middle East. Under the agreement, GMG will open around 50 JD Sports stores in the region, further expanding the company’s retail presence. GMG also entered the food retail industry in April 2022 through its acquisition of the Middle East operations of French retailing giant Groupe Casino‘s brands, which include Géant, Franprix, Monoprix, and Monop.
Mohammad A. Baker, Deputy Chairman and CEO of GMG at the Monop store. Source: GMG
In July this year, the company also ventured into the houseware market with the launch of Monoprix Maison, opening the first of the concept outside France in Dubai. Earlier, in February 2023, GMG acquired retail firm aswaaq LLC, including its companies operating in retail, trading, and properties.
This year has also seen Baker fortifying GMG’s commitment to supporting the UAE’s National Food Security Strategy 2051 through the launch of five food manufacturing factories in the UAE. This includes the world’s second-largest fully automated Himalayan pink salt manufacturing facility in Mina Jebel Ali, one of UAE’s largest food manufacturing facilities to process added-value meat, poultry, and seafood items in Dubai Investment Park, as well as a dedicated herbs and spices factory in Jebel Ali Free Zone (JAFZA).
Baker acknowledges that GMG’s global expansion journey has been filled with challenges and discoveries. Navigating different regulatory frameworks, cultural nuances, and business practices in various countries were something to seriously consider amid this process. “When you expand a local operation to a global scale, you are bound to be faced with some hurdles,” Baker says. “It is, therefore, important to look at these as opportunities, and never be afraid of them.” Here, he references the company’s entry into the Asian market, saying, “For example, at the end of 2020, when business sentiment was low, and markets were down, we saw an opportunity, and we took a bold step by entering Asia through the acquisition of the popular Royal Sporting House brand.”
To ensure smooth operations in this new market, GMG put a lot of investment into a variety of strategies. “We invested in thorough market research, formed strategic partnerships with local entities, and hired professionals with local expertise,” Baker explains. “Building strong relationships with stakeholders, and continuously learning from our experiences were crucial in overcoming these obstacles. To adapt and cater to different cultures and business environments, we employed strategies such as hiring diverse talent from local communities, fostering a culture of inclusion and respect, and conducting extensive market research to understand consumer preferences and behavior.”
Mohammad A. Baker, Deputy Chairman and CEO, GMG poses with the Supercare Pharmacy team at Arab Health 2023 in January, at Dubai World Trade Centre (DWTC). Source: GMG
Baker adds that such tactics have ended up being instrumental in GMG’s success in Asia, allowing the company to tailor products and services to meet specific market needs and expectations, while still maintaining its core values and brand identity. As for the road ahead, in a renewed global focus on personal well-being, GMG is set to continue its journey of growth and evolution.
The company aims to double its global workforce by 2025, Baker says, and it also aims to expand its sports retail footprint globally, particularly in Asia. Additionally, GMG will continue to invest in the MENA markets. “Through our new HQ office for Saudi Arabia, we are aiming to double our office workforce there,” Baker says. “We also continue to invest in the MENA markets such as Iraq and Egypt, where we have expanded our presence in multiple industries.”
All of this points to a positive future for the company. “GMG is fundamentally a growth company with long-term global ambitions,” Baker notes. “Our new strategy involves setting a new purpose-centric vision for GMG to inspire people to win in ways that make the world better, daring ourselves and others to develop better products and experiences that change lives.”
The Executive Summary: Mohammad Al Baker’s tips for entrepreneurs
Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo “Keep your finger on the pulse of the market, and never be afraid to challenge the status quo, and push yourself outside your comfort zone.”
Nurture your ecosystem and communities “A business cannot function in a silo; it’s important to collaborate and nurture our ecosystem of partners, principals, public entities, and institutions, and the communities we operate in.”
Be people-centric “Ultimately, no business can succeed without its employees. As a family-owned business, we live by our core principle of ‘One Family.’ Our 10,000+ employees spread across 12 countries are united with one purpose– we play to win, and we win together.”