Recognising George Horan, a man for all seasons

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Martin Moodie
Martin Moodie is the Founder & Chairman of The Moodie Report.

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In this week’s final edition of The Moodie e-Zine for 2015, we published our always eagerly awaited People of the Year. You can read the full list by clicking here but in this Blog I want to focus on just one of our choices, Dubai Duty Free President George Horan (bottom row left).

First the formal bit. This is what we wrote in explaining our choice:

George Horan: The Irishman came out to Dubai as one of the original Aer Rianta consulting team charged with setting up Dubai Duty Free in 1983 and has been there ever since.

Now President of the near US$2 billion business, this unassuming, quietly effective executive continues to play a pivotal role in the success of a prolonged industry phenomenon. This year he project managed the creation of a new 7,000sq m Dubai Duty Free operation at Dubai International Concourse D, arguably the retailer’s most ambitious projects to date. That work will come to fruition in February 2016, another lasting testament to this outstanding executive’s influence. Just as importantly, it will mark his 50th year in the airport sector, an amazing achievement.

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[George Horan joins Dubai Duty Free Executive Vice Chairman Colm McLoughlin and other senior management in cutting a celebratory cake to mark the retailer’s 32nd anniversary today, 20 December]

Now the informal bit. George is simply one of the truly good guys of travel retail. I challenge you to seek anyone who says otherwise. You’ll be looking a long time. Every great leader (and boy does Dubai Duty Free have a great leader in Colm McLoughlin) needs the perfect lieutenant, the ultimate off-sider (and I bet you thought that was All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw), someone who he can have implicit, absolute trust in. I have that man in Dermot Davitt and Colm has it in George. He is a man for all seasons, not just a fair weather character but someone who will be around and reliable when things get stormy. He just gets things done.

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In 2007 The Moodie Report published The World Rovers, a book about the Irish influence in the duty free industry. A whole chapter was dedicated to George and what a story it told. It is very instructive in many ways, not least to those who look at the modern day Dubai Duty Free success story and think that the retailer, being government owned, in some way has things easier than private operators. Here’s an excerpt:

Not long before the Dubai project team was created in 1983 Horan made a decision to quit Aer Rianta to concentrate on a family business that he and wife Carmel had begun in the early 1970s. “I was working in finance at Aer Rianta in Shannon, having begun with Brendan O’Regan’s Sales and Catering company,” he says. “But things were tight on one salary after Carmel and I were married, so we began a little supermarket business in the village of Clarecastle, which began trading in 1973.

“Carmel has to take all the credit for driving that business forward, as I was working full time at the airport. But there was a low profit margin in groceries, and the big chains such as Quinnsworth and Dunnes Stores were beginning to exert their influence; so we moved out of groceries and diversified, first into garden sheds and then into selling boats. “That business started to become a very good one, and we began selling accessories such as motors, life jackets, everything really. We learned the hard way, but it was a great grounding in understanding commercial realities.

“As the business grew I thought it might be time to leave Aer Rianta and concentrate full-time on our new business, which was doing well. I told my then boss Michael O’Gorman that I was going to leave. But he persuaded me to take some time away to consider my options rather than quitting there and then.”

George decided to stick with the day job, and in 1983 the opportunity arose to take part in the project team that was to leave for Dubai to consult on the airport’s commercial operations. “Our knowledge of Dubai back then was primitive, and we heard all kinds of terrible stories about it. The doctor who gave us our injections before we left was a Dr Flynn, who had been in the Gulf with the British Army; he gave us every jab imaginable, telling us that we were going into some kind of hellhole.”

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[George and Carmel]

It wasn’t like that, as George and the team soon realised, but the commercial facilities at Dubai Airport were poor. “There were 18 retailers all operating out of little shops, and the warehousing was a shed with a galvanised roof. I won’t forget how alien it all seemed when we arrived: the heat, the masses of people buzzing around the exit, it all seemed chaotic.”

“We liked the challenge of it all, and the lifestyle,” he recalled, “but Carmel wasn’t so impressed. I took her out there for the first time on St Patrick’s Day (March 17) 1984 and I hadn’t even told her I was going to be staying on, which wasn’t very wise. She was not impressed, and when she and our boys moved out it was very difficult for them. I had the job to occupy me all day, I was always on call, and we worked long hours; but she had no outlet, no friends, and the boys found it hard too, moving to the English education system from the Irish one. So in many ways they were pioneers every bit as much as we were.”

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[George with Carmel and Colm and Breeda McLoughlin]

In The World Rovers we also asked George what it is that makes the Irish such a success in overseas markets? Here’s his reply:

“I think Irish people working abroad have always been very conscientious, and probably work harder in many cases than they would at home. The common sense approach characterises many Irish people: we are flexible and have a good, personal approach to people. And a positive outlook on life helps, too.

“And of course the duty free business began at Shannon, which is something many Irish people in this industry recognise. It’s only now that Dr Brendan O’Regan is being recognised for his vision in our own country, and it’s high time he got the acclaim he deserves.

“But there are others too who made their mark since then: Liam Skelly, Bill Maloney at Shannon, Maurice Burke, John Sutcliffe, and Colm McLoughlin in Dubai itself. Colm is a very down-to-earth character, and doesn’t let anyone get ahead of themselves with the success that the company has had.

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[The original industry ‘Trinity’ – George Horan, Colm McLoughlin and John Sutcliffe’ – with an early Frontier Award in the late 1980s]

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[And the same Trinity 21st-century style – none of them has changed a bit]

“I don’t think people in Ireland realise how difficult it was for the people who came here in those early days, or went to Moscow, with the challenges of an alien environment, and managing in different cultures.

“We have made our contribution, but Dubai has been good to us too. The government, with its open attitude to tourism and duty free, has helped immensely. “Plus we have the great diverse mix of cultures at Dubai Duty Free, and we have learned from them too. It’s important that the staff feel they share in the company’s success, and they are central to any achievements we have had. Dubai is the place we call home now, and that sums up how we feel about it today.”

They’re nice, typically self-effacing words, generous of spirit in crediting others (including his beloved Carmel) rather than himself. I have interviewed George many times down the years and he’s always been reluctant – not in giving of his time but in putting himself in the limelight. It’s an endearing trait. In fact, and this says much about the man, I struggled in writing this Blog to find any pictures of him on his own. He is the low-profile man of the highest-profile travel retailer on the planet. But no less effective for it.

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[A rare sight: George Horan in front of the camera]

George, I can tell you, will be a little embarrassed (though I hope quietly delighted) about being named among The Moodie Report People of the Year. But in fact the accolade recognises not just one year but many. Half a century in the airport world next year (32 of them to date at Dubai Duty Free) and still going strong. A man for all seasons, George Horan.

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[George, third from right with Martin Moodie, Colm McLoughlin, Des Smyth, and Harry Diehl]

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