With successful five decades of growth and prosperity The House of S.T.Bhatia is one of the leading and diversified trading groups in the UAE. Servanne Sohier speaks to its managing director Rajeev Bhatia about this remarkable legacy and the look into the future.

Growing with the nation

Established in 1969 by Suresh Bhatia, a prominent name in the Middle East’s business
circles, The House of S.T. Bhatia is the very example of continuous innovation, dedication and determination to succeed. Notably being established only few years before the formation of the independent federation of the United Arab Emirates, it is fair to say that company shares a special bond with the UAE – a country that it has grown with and has been one of the significant contributors to the economic growth and prosperity of the UAE. This is also something that very few other business houses can scream about – that they have grown with the nation and proven the test of
times by standing strong and stable over the years.

“The House of S.T. Bhatia is the very example of continuous innovation, dedication and determination to succeed. ”

What started as a modest beverages business back then, today is one of the leading multifaceted business empires in the region, recognised for its innovative approach to trading, logistics and distribution, and its widespread operations in the Duty-Free sector. It claims to be its “own leader when it comes to providing services at all seaports in the UAE.” Today, the company operates within wholesale and retail, logistics and hospitality sectors, with duty-free trade and associated activities being the core business. Its cutting-edge seaport duty free operations, combined with solid
logistics capabilities with a long list of bonded warehouses all over the UAE, and a robust global distribution network consisting of some of the best suppliers and manufacturers in the world, providing the benefit of procuring better quality at lower costs, and in turn enabling the company to provide the best possible services to clientele across the
region have been the real drivers of success. Whether it is the latest model of iPhone, electronic gadget or a brand of wine & confectionery, The House of S.T. Bhatia really has it all. Also setting standards in the hospitality sector, The House of S.T. Bhatia has been serving guests through its impressive list of seamen clubs offering personable and memorable experience via impeccable services, superior cuisines and entertainment facilities.

Family business with youthful exuberance

Just as any business looking to grow further bringing in a new lifeblood is absolutely crucial. Rajeev Bhatia, the managing director who joined the business almost 20 years ago was keen to do exactly that. With a western education and a degree in marketing and communication, and a comprehensive leadership programme at Harvard Business School, Rajeev’s valuable insights, the know-how and diverse management experience have been instrumental to strengthening the image and recognition of the brand. Despite it being a family business, Rajeev went through the same recruitment process as any other job applicant and started from the grassroot level. “I started from the bottom, off the start where I worked in the shops, the warehouses. I worked in the restaurants as floor managers or waiters, assisting everybody in the kitchens and assisting my distribution business and understanding what it was like to be a salesman.” recalls Rajeev.

Talking about the challenges of his current role and ambitions for the future, Rajeev explains “the main challenge is to find growth outside the area; optimize what you have built and operational strength. So, the infrastructure which has been built has to be optimized, but it should be able to feed multiple locations to bring down the cost of this investment that we’ve made, or the return of investment multiplies it that much faster.” His main focus is on the active development and sustenance of the existing and potential clientele, with the introduction of relevant and viable agencies worldwide. “Hence now our exploration into Africa, Far East, into Europe and finding the right places
where we fit in. With the large port operators or airport operators, finding the right partnerships and saying that we can provide the solutions. And at the same time, have the strength to support that business, to show them our strength and to acquire as much as we can in terms of retail spaces outside now in duty free, to support the business. And then based on that, build domestic and duty-free distribution businesses within that country.”

Lookout for new opportunities

The company has traditionally applied a progressive approach, which is very much the case even today. The approach of being open to taking risks has undoubtedly opened doors to numerous viable opportunities for the business in the past, and so it is on a constant lookout for new business opportunities, new markets that have been unexplored.

“The main challenge is to find growth outside the area; optimize what you have built and operational strength”

Building on its success within the UAE, the business has expanded to external markets, which naturally includes Africa and India. “The Indian subcontinent obviously was the first choice because that’s where we’re from originally. So, we went to the Indian sub-continent and we created what we call the strategic partnerships and alliances with the
right people to grow the business, which already we had the foundation and to develop that same model
in the other countries.” explains Rajeev.

The expansion into India which was handled by a partner company has been a success, but it’s Africa that seems to enthuse Rajeev who continues “Africa is our new story where we’re building and starting to expand in to. Of course, Africa is the next big thing for everybody because that’s where the potential lies. It has its challenges both politically,
economically and geopolitics as well. But at the same time that’s what I find the most interesting and where the most opportunities are, is that if you’re able to find the right partners and the right timing and at the same time the right solution, I think you’ve hit the sweet spot.”

While keeping a close eye on opportunities within external markets, Rajeev also points out the diversification ambitions of the business into other segments such as the medical/healthcare field with the company just starting to set up clinics and pharmacies. For now the UAE being the key focus for this area of development, a wider roll out is
also an option. “If we can build a sizeable business here [the UAE] with a network, which we think can expand on – go out into the other countries where we already have presence, then why not?”. explains Rajeev

The biggest milestone for the business so far has been the business infrastructure that it had created. “That was a really ground-breaking development for us, and for the industry here in the UAE.” according to Rajeev. For a business with such rich legacy running through its blood, effective management of people and attention to quality have been the key to success, evident in the magnitude and pace at which The House of S.T. Bhatia has expanded within the UAE and internationally.

With such heritage as the foundation, positive outlook, exciting plans for the future and unexplored opportunities, the next milestones and what the next fifty years are going to be like for The House of S.T. Bhatia are truly unimaginable.

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