Axiom Telecom CEO reveals secret of his success
If you had the choice of any mobile phone in the world, which would you choose?
That's a hypothetical question for most people - but when 7DAYS met the boss of retailer Axiom Telecom we were looking forward to sneaking a look at his choice of handset.
As it happens, Faisal Al Bannai currently favours the new BlackBerry Z10. He was something of a Samsung loyalist he says, but the new phone has won him round.
You might have a different opinion. But regardless of the differing merits of the current generation of smartphones, they’re all a lot better than the models Al Bannai started selling back in 1997.
Back then, the humble handset was still considered a car accessory - indeed he was struck with the inspiration to start what today is the Gulf’s biggest mobile retail brand when he saw phones being sold at a garage.
More than 15 years later, the UAE market has been through nothing short of a revolution, with official stats putting the mobile phone penetration rate somewhere around 200 per cent - or two phones per person.
So why are we so obsessed? Al Bannai has a theory.
“This is an item you are carrying with you all the time, so it is also a fashion statement - it is like your watch, it is like your pen, it is like your cufflinks,” he says.
“I mean, not many people see the fridge in your house. The only time you buy a fridge is when your fridge breaks. But a phone is an item that is in your hand all the time, it’s your statement.”
It’s this impulse, he says, that “keeps the engine running” for his firm. Some would say it does substantially more than that - last year saw record sales across its now multinational operations of Dhs8 billion.
With firms such as Apple and Samsung launching a new phone every year, and new capabilities being added to handsets across the board, the Axiom boss says there are more “triggers” for us to upgrade our phones. The obsessives, he says, will buy a new phone “every few months”.
Whether you know it or not, if you’ve bought a phone in the UAE, Axiom has probably been involved somewhere along the line. In addition to about 600 retail stores across the Gulf, the firm provides the 1,700 small, independent phone stores in the UAE with their handsets, with delivery staff dropping off phones to small stores every day. A bit like a milkman in the UK, he says.
But, Al Bannai adds, his firm is really in the business of “selling the Axiom experience”.
“If you want this phone,” he says, waving his BlackBerry, “this phone is available in 1,700 other shops. So if all we do is just sell you this phone, we have no competitive advantage - you might as well walk to another shop.”
So, his outlets offer services like picking up your phone from your office or home to have it repaired, or transferring the contacts, texts and pictures from your old phone to your newer model. He’s serious about service, opening an Axiom outlet in London -“opposite Harrods,” he notes - to cater to UAE visitors to the British capital.
Apart from the Gulf, the firm is in India and Africa, with plans to deepen its footprint in both. But he still sees promise in what he calls the firm’s “backyard” of the UAE and its neighbours.
Their transient expat populations provide regular new customers.
Plus, he adds:“What you used your phone for 10 years ago was dramatically different from what you are using your phone for today.”
LIVE AND LEARN
Name: FAISAL AL BANNAI
Firm: AXIOM TELECOM
YOUR FIRST JOB?
What was my first job? This.
Q WHO HAS BEEN THE BIGGEST INFLUENCE ON YOUR CAREER?
I don’t want to be clichéd, but I have really been helped by the support I got from my father. To allow a young guy, out of university, with a few ideas, to do a few investments is not a very easy call to make. I know a lot of other colleagues who didn’t get that opportunity from their parents. And in the early days, Axiom had a bumpy ride, and to be able to convince your family that no, this is the right business, let’s continue investing is not very easy unless the sponsor of your initiative - who at that time was my father - is saying ‘OK, I believe you can make it, fine, let’s continue’.
Q WHAT WAS THE best day of your career?
When we sold a stake to Dubai Holding in 2005, that was the first time that technically you are crystallising the value of the company - before that it is just on paper, at the end of the day. That was an interesting moment when you say, forget on paper, forget financial estimates - someone said ‘yep, I’m paying this much for this’.
At that time I remember even telling the guys in Dubai Holding ‘I think you overpaid, I think it was too high.’ But when I look at the deal we did in 2011 [when Axiom sold a 35 per cent stake to Qatar’s Mannai Corporation] it is a fantastic return. So I think it was a wise decision by them.
Q LOOKING BACK, WOULD YOU DO ANYTHING DIFFERENTLY?
Q What advice do you have for someone starting out?
Work out why would someone come to you instead of someone else. You need to be different from the rest.