Even though it was founded 90 years ago in Egypt, is owned by a United Arab Emirates-based investment fund, and is being run by a Brit, much if not most of the DNA in regional retailer Spinneys is entwined with Lebanon. The chain was reborn in Beirut in 1998; of its four countries with direct operations, Lebanon leads in number of stores and sales revenue; it suffered some of its most unwelcome challenges in the local scene; and notably, it puts all its new ideas in front of the Lebanese consumer first, before taking them to the Egyptian, Jordanian and Qatari markets.
According to CEO Michael Wright, Spinneys is a niche player in Qatar and Jordan, while Lebanon and Egypt are the current centers for revenues and profits. The brand’s largest presence is in the UAE, where almost 50 supermarkets and convenience stores carry the Spinneys logo and identity, far more than in the four other countries together. However, the group has no direct stake in the UAE market since the operation there is owned by Emirati businessman Ali Albwardy and run independently from the group under a basic franchise agreement.
Group-wide sales revenues, which do not include the UAE, were in the vicinity of $500 million in the group’s 2012/13 financial year, which ended last June, Wright told Executive in a far-ranging interview. He said Lebanon accounted for 45 to 50 percent of that, which suggests a turnover of somewhere between $200 and $275 million for the operation here, depending on whether the corner values cited by Wright were on the high or low side.
He competes in Lebanon against several domestically owned supermarket chains along with the Kuwaiti-owned Sultan Group and Carrefour, the French chain whose regional partner is the Majid Al Futtaim Group. For market share, Lebanon is Spinney’s main focus but these growth potentials are curtailed by the overall structure of the retail trade.
Evolution of ownership
In the first years after players like Spinneys rolled out super- and hypermarkets, there were strong expectations that these big stores would wipe out local stores but this has not happened in Lebanon. Large retailers with centralized buying and modern management control only around 30 percent of the Lebanese market and this number has been rather stable, Wright said. The retailer plans to increase the total number of stores from the current eight to 13 and also venture into the convenience store business in a repeat attempt at the local diversification plans that Wright first disclosed to Executive almost ten years ago.
Part of the retail brand’s story is a complicated ownership evolution whose recent chapters center on one of the region’s leading private equity players, Arif Naqvi, who is best known today as chairman of Abraaj Group. His older company, Cupola Investment acquired Spinneys in 1999 along with other assets for $116 million, in Naqvi’s first major deal from the United Kingdom-based automotive distributor and retailer Inchcape. It spun off the minority interest it held in the UAE operation of Spinneys — presumably the group’s filet piece in operational terms at the time — by selling it to the local majority partner Albwardy Group and embarked on expanding the brand’s presence in Lebanon and from there into Egypt, Qatar and Jordan.
Describing the company as a regional pace setter and innovator in major retail, Wright — who has been with the company for 26 years, beginning in Dubai after a training scheme with a British retailer —said that competitors copied the retail environment and work and training structures of Spinneys since the current operational mold was implemented in Lebanon in 1998. Retail managers with experience at Spinneys are sought after in the market and can often achieve a career leap when hiring on with other retail chains.
In 2004, Spinneys was acquired by the first Abraaj Buyout Fund (ABOF) based on diligence from which Naqvi excused himself to avert conflict of interest issues, according to Wright who was for two years a direct employee of Abraaj. According to a Middle East Economic Digest research document reproduced on the Abraaj website, Cupola retained 35 percent ownership of Spinneys Group while 46 percent was taken on by ABOF for a cash consideration of $27.1 million. Ten years on, the group is still owned by the Abraaj Fund as controlling shareholder and is actually the oldest participation among 146 portfolio companies shown on the Abraaj Group website.
The future ownership of Spinneys has been rife with expectations that Abraaj would seek an exit from the investment. This is in no way surprising given the nature of the private equity business but the current indications are that an optimum exit opportunity will come after the group realizes further expansions and when its main asset bases in Egypt and Lebanon allow for better valuations on virtue of improved macroeconomic and political realities.
Spinneys’ expansion plans over the past 15 years are a story in themselves, reflecting the vagaries of an environment where many international retailers have paid with high losses for ventures that got trapped in culture conflicts or misunderstandings of different commercial languages. Over the years, the management has been liberally trumpeting plans to penetrate a bewildering number of markets from Kazakhstan to Morocco and sub-Saharan Africa. Plans for several countries, such as Morocco, could not be realized at the times that they were envisioned for but current projects for various equity and franchising formulas are in place for Libya, Kuwait, Nigeria, and under negotiations for Pakistan, Iran, Tunisia, Algeria and elsewhere.
According to Wright, Spinneys would be valued in the ballpark of a quarter billion dollars if the investors sought to exit today but could represent a much higher value if an exit comes at an optimal time. The current restraints are the higher risk perception of the Lebanese and Egyptian markets while the future potential would be due to its brand and management experience with creating and operating modern retail stores in multiple markets that are not easy to tackle from the outside.
On the operational side, the group banks on a wildly successful loyalty program as a core marketing engine. The points-based scheme offers rewards to loyal spenders and stores are visibly busier on “double point days” when the company entices customers with the prospect of extra progress in earning these rewards, which in the base loyalty program range from household items to small consumer electronics. These rewards are moreover so popular and customer preferences for them so unpredictable that stores often run out of them near the end of a rewards campaign, to the effect of Wright acknowledging that “the loyalty scheme’s success has created its own problems.”
“We are very happy with the way the program is going. Almost everybody [among large retail groups] has a loyalty scheme but very few loyalty schemes will deliver to consumers the gratification where multiple products are very much in reach,” Wright said. Not at all bashful about the need for retailers to be aggressive, he conceded that Spinneys uses the program to incentivize customers to buy products where the group can achieve higher margins than the razor-thin ones that generally characterize the retail trade in fast moving consumer goods.
Spinneys has transported the concept to Egypt and Jordan and will soon launch it in Qatar. However, the loyalty program here remains the most advanced and the retailer is currently working to develop it further to tailor its suggestive power to customer behaviors on specific product types, by for example offering extra points to wine lovers to make them do more of their shopping for this margin-rich palate pleaser at the chain.
In other customer-facing matters, Spinneys has a policy to charge customers only the lower price if a product’s shelf price differs from the price shown at the cash register, a problem that is all too frequent in their stores. However, this policy is often not adhered to by store personnel, Wright admitted, saying that the company would do more to engrain policy-compliant behavior in staff members’ actual retail practices.
But while notes from customers on flawed pricing or quality of products, along with service complaints, are parts of Wright’s daily diet delivered to him from all customer communication logged at the chain’s call center, these were nothing compared to the accusations leveled against the Lebanese operation and Wright personally in 2012 of paying below the minimum wage, of bullying dissenting employees and disrespecting employee rights.
In his interview with Executive, Wright refuted the accusations as baseless and originating from a handful of activists and political players with partisan support from one or two media outlets. Wright claimed that the company was complying with all its tax and social obligations and was audited regularly by the authorities. “We may have been the only company that absolutely paid everything although it has a big workforce. We pay all the minimum wages, all the social security contributions, we pay additional medical care. We have always been and always wanted to be the preferred employer,” he said.