Dreaming big in Dubai
Wild Geese: Owen Bennett, Pulsar Foodstuff, Dubai
Owen Bennett and his late wife, Fionnuala
Originally from Clontarf, Owen Bennett studied marketing in Eccles Street and, on completion in 1976, opened a supermarket in Ballybough with his three brothers, Colm, Pierce and Daragh.
“My mother ran her own grocery shop, Bennett’s on Vernon Avenue in Clontarf, and was the inspiration for our first venture,” he recalls.
It was an ill-fated first attempt at business, with his brother Pierce devising marketing ploys such as sticking a then legal tender 50 pence piece to the floor to attract customers.
Bennett went on to start a number of businesses in Dublin in the 1980s – ventures among which a restaurant, self-repair garage and a pub-catering company were the more noteworthy.
“I was thinking that being in business shouldn’t be this difficult when one night my wife, Fionnuala, and I sat down to watch Shirley Valentine. It inspired us to get up off our backsides and make something work before it was late.”
Bennett decided to follow brother Daragh to Dubai in 1992, once the Gulf War had ended. Fionnuala, a teacher at the time, took a career break and the couple headed for the unknown.
Dubai was barely a blip on the map but the country was about to make its presence felt, evolving from a small fishing and pearl village to the metropolis it is today.
“I believe a bit of the Irish luck followed me to the desert, as I’d only just got off the plane when I met fellow countryman Colm McLoughlin, the CEO of Dubai Duty Free,” says Bennett.
Dubai Duty Free would go on to host the Dubai Tennis Championship and sponsor the Irish Derby among other events. Bennett became the general manager of the Aviation Club, a social club attached to Dubai Duty Free.
“I worked there for 18 months, and learned so much from that company and from Colm McLoughlin in particular. He taught me a great deal about business in general and about delegating to staff.”
As good as the experience was, Bennett wanted his own business and it came about organically.
“I was helping a friend in a hotel which was still under construction when the hotel manager asked for some snacks for the rooms. I saw a gap in the market to provide these.”
Items like peanuts for the hotel bar and chocolates for turn down service were the basis of the business. The year was 1997 and, at the time, it was necessary to have a local sponsor that owned 51 per cent of the company before it could trade.
“I took over a licence at Pulsar Trading, which supplied parts to the aircraft industry. I had to use a pre-registered name with the local government and later changed it to Pulsar Foodstuff Trading.”
The early years were incredibly tough, but Bennett believed that this was the right time, in the right city, working on products that he was passionate about.
“I was also inspired by the rulers of this city who had a vision of where Dubai was going. If you look at pictures of 1990 Dubai and now, the changes are dramatic. We really bought into this vision and dreamed big.”
At one stage, Bennett was operating the business out of his car.
“I’d a boot full of samples. The back seat contained hundreds of invoices and accounts. In the mornings I’d pack product, clear out the car mid-morning and complete deliveries by the afternoon. Afterwards I’d start some sales calls and leave my nights at home for running through the accounts and emails.”
As the business grew, Bennett felt that it needed some fresh thinking and someone who could allow him to plan for retirement. He brought his nephew, Stephen, on board in 2012, a graduate from DIT College, who’d started his career with Coca Cola Ireland.
“We worked closely together for the first year before I let him take the reins.” The company now employs 13 full-time staff in sales, operations, accounts, design, along with 20-plus packers and delivery drivers. Pulsar Foodstuff supplies more than 200 hotels and restaurants in the region and is still growing.
“No dream is big enough for Dubai: anything is possible,” Bennett says.
He credits this to the vision of Sheikh Mohammed, whose goal is to make Dubai the happiest capital in the world. Another vision is to build a city outside Dubai for the 2020 World Fair under the theme of enlightenment and connectivity.
Bennett advises on the importance of a third level qualification, stamped by the UAE embassy in London, before moving to Dubai.
There are good ex-pat networks, especially the Irish Business Network, of which Bennett is a member, but he warns not to expect the perfect job automatically. Living expenses are high with the price of a glass of house wine ranging from €10 to €12.
At present there is no tax. However, VAT is coming in next year at 5 per cent even though it isn’t clear what they will be putting it on yet.
Sadly after the passing of his wife, Fionnuala, last year, Bennett won’t be retiring to Italy as they had planned but he does intend to look into starting another business.