Forbes Middle East

Business

Baby Steps

Hannah Stewart
Baby Steps
In a nation where an ageing minority rules a youthful mass, the words that flow from the lips of Eng. Mohammed Al Fitaihi echo the sentiments of many a young Saudi impresario. “I’m glad we are having this conversation,” begins the Founder, Chairman and CEO of children’s jewelry brands, Fitaihi Junior and Baby Fitaihi, “entrepreneurs are not well-recognized in this part of the world.” He may be the son of prominent Saudi businessman and jewelry extraordinaire, Sheikh Ahmed Hassan Fitaihi, but the road to success has been tough for the 44 year-old. In a world where innovative newcomers are met with hostile handshakes, Al Fitaihi has been to the brink and back, but today, he is heading for global success, stamping an indelible golden mark as he goes.

“God willing we will be a global brand,” asserts the determined entrepreneur. Inspired by his wife, Maali Kashoggi, who questioned the absence of children’s jewelry lines despite the deep-rooted tradition of gifting trinkets to newborns, the father of four launched Baby Fitaihi in 2005 with a vision that speaks of giant strides, not baby steps.

Targeting an audience of infants and doting mothers, Al Fitaihi’s vision places a chain of branded showrooms filled, as he puts it, with “the most innovative contemporary modern jewelry designs,” on the international stage. Ambitious it may be, but for the man from Jeddah who personally designs each product—he is a qualified goldsmith and gemologist after all—vision is turning into reality on the home front.

A total of 22 Baby Fitaihi stores have opened their doors across Jeddah and Riyadh, as well as Khobar, Dammam, Al-Ahsa and Madinah, with two more dedicated to Fitaihi Junior—the founder’s first brand that caters to Saudi youth. And as his string of stores expands, so too does his balance sheet. From brooches to earrings and rose gold to gemstones, Baby Fitaihi’s products aimed at mid-to high-income clientele, generated net profits of $346,000 last year up from $263,000 in 2011, while revenues reached $5.6 million, up from $4.96 million.

In a nation of jewelry lovers, his success is understandable. Research from Euromonitor indicates that Saudi Arabia’s jewelry market grew at an annual rate of 21% during the first decade of the 2000s, with sales reaching $880 million in 2011, marking it as the single largest jewelry market in the Middle East.

Against this backdrop, it is unsurprising that Fitaihi Group Holding, which was established by Mohammed’s father and grandfather in the 1960s, and now counts as Saudi Arabia’s first public shareholding jewelry company, raked in revenues of $36.7 million last year. Today, the group holds an 80% stake in the Baby and Junior Fitaihi brands, but it wasn’t always that way.

Expelled from the family’s corporate folds in the mid-90s by an employer keen for his children to learn the hard way, Al Fitaihi, who had been working for his father since graduating in engineering from George Washington University in ‘91, was forced to go it alone. “My father is a firm believer that if you pressure carbon with heat, you will get a diamond,” he remarks.

Two brands and two masters degrees later—one in entrepreneurship from Boston’s Babson College, and another in finance from Northeastern University—by Al Fitaihi’s estimations, business is now on “cruise control.” Baby Fitaihi is yet to venture outside of Saudi Arabia, but the Kingdom has presented the perfect audience so far; 72% of the population is under 30 with burgeoning numbers of girls under five and women in their early-20s—both prime targets for Al Fitaihi’s collections.

Muna Abusulayman, Partner at Saudi-based firm, Directions Consulting, and co-host of MBC show, Kalam Nawem, first met Al Fitaihi a year ago at the World Entrepreneurship Forum in Jeddah. “Giving baby presents is an important part of our culture, but finding beautiful trinkets was not easy…he has filled a niche,” remarks Abusulayman. “I love that it is a well-made Saudi brand,” adds the avid Baby Fitaihi fan.

Saudi Arabia has proven lucrative, but for the well-traveled entrepreneur who also worked as an investment banker in Geneva, sights have long been set further afield. “We plan to open two to five shops in the Gulf within the next two years,” explains Al Fitaihi, who places Qatar and the U.A.E. at the top of his list, with interest already emanating from a number of malls in Abu Dhabi.

But success rarely comes without failure. Al Fitaihi’s latest plans count as a third attempt at regional expansion. In 2009, he was set to launch in Dubai Mall but halted as the global financial crisis hit. Then, after opening in Bahrain, the 2011 protests resulted in closure.

Bouncing back and with regional plans now on track, the man who claims that entrepreneurs are “bored by nature” is looking to a global future. In addition to GCC expansion, Al Fitaihi aims to enter London in the next three years, and the U.S. in five to 10.

Alongside the franchise option which is already garnering attention, the key to global success for the jewelry pioneer includes a social media ramp up. “We are on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and we have an e-commerce website, but we’re not doing as much as we want in terms of selling online,” he stresses, pointing to the fact that over 70% of jewelry in the U.S. is sold via the Web.

With online presence a priority and expansion underway, the future for Al Fitaihi’s brands looks bright. But for the self-starter, understanding his present-day success requires a trip back in time. Baby Fitaihi, he explains, “is an accumulation of stories from the past.”

Save for a stint at Christie’s New York and a gold factory in Italy, for Al Fitaihi, the bulk of the 1990s were spent under the watchful eye of his father as he worked his way up the Al Fitaihi ranks, from delivery boy to department store general manager. It was then in 1996 that he was summoned for a conversation that would plunge him head first into the daunting world of entrepreneurship. “My father told me that I took it easy in life; that I had to start from scratch and go down the entrepreneurial path as he, my grandfather and great grandfather did,” recalls Baby Fitaihi’s founder.

With only intellectual capital and modest savings to work with, Al Fitaihi decided to do as his Arabian ancestors had done and looked to the trade epicenters of old—Yemen, Syria and Turkey—in pursuit of materials and inspiration.

Using his eclectic mix of jewels and designs, the globetrotting Saudi introduced Fitaihi Junior to Jeddah in February 1997, with unexpected results. After just three weeks, the flagship store was forced to close temporarily—everything had been sold. For Al Fitaihi, in addition to his unique designs, the reason was simple, “I targeted a segment nobody else targeted—the youngsters.” It wasn’t just his jewelry, but his shop design that defied tradition. “I wrote down everything that needs to be done for a jewelry store and did the opposite!” he laughs. It was the same innovative approach that earned him success, not to mention sold-out stock, with Baby Fitaihi’s debut seven years later.

Saudi TV celebrity, Ahmad AlShugairi, has known Al Fitaihi for more than a decade and throws his support behind the brands. “It’s nice to do something dedicated to kids. They are the future and an Arabic brand focusing on this market segment is creative and good to see.”

Today, seated in the comfort of his HQ, the founder of the Saudi brand set to go global doesn’t regret the trials and tribulations of the past two decades. “It’s a blessing from God to have been through this,” he remarks. Still, the struggles of up and coming entrepreneurs weigh on his mind. “Unfortunately, you find many people who can’t get a break because there is so much oligopoly and corruption going on,” laments Al Fitaihi. “This is an anti-entrepreneur society…If you look at the businessmen they are all in their 70s, 80s or even 90s!”

Doing his part to effect change, Al Fitaihi now mentors entrepreneurs with private venture capital incubator-accelerator, Qotuf; and government program SIRB. “He actively mentors start-ups from all backgrounds and gives it his all,” explains Tuba Ozlem Terekli, Co-Founder and CEO of Qotuf.  For Muna Abusulayman, Al Fitaihi’s impact is being felt. “Changing your career from engineering and finance into a soft ‘not as culturally prestigious’ path such as a baby jewelry designer takes guts,” she explains. “It shows how you need to follow your passion, and that change should not be feared but embraced.”

Embracing all the way, Al Fitaihi is innovating once more, adding a new brand to his portfolio—Mamluki, which centers on Islamic painting and calligraphy. But it doesn’t stop there. In addition to CSR activities including the provision of hearing aids to children for every pair of earrings sold, the tireless entrepreneur has joined forces with his wife in her own venture—Little Book, which counts as the Kingdom’s first chain of children’s bookstores.

Looking to the future, as Little Book opens another chapter in the Al Fitaihi saga, it’s the journey that counts for the man now stamping a golden mark on his nation. “I decided to chart a totally different course to my father, but you know what? He did a good job and I am trying to do the same,” he smiles. “I’m not the richest entrepreneur by far, I’m not the most famous entrepreneur by far, but I have paved the way for positive change.” The journey continues.
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