‘I’ve been delighted to open the doors for Irish companies in Dubai’

Wild Geese: Mayo native Colette Shannon works as Spinneys’s head of communications

Colette Shannon lives with her family in Dubai having moved there almost 13 years ago

Colette Shannon lives with her family in Dubai having moved there almost 13 years ago

 

Colette Shannon describes herself as an “original culchie”. Born in Kiltimagh, Co Mayo, “I grew up on a small farm a few miles outside of the town where we had milking cows, grew our own vegetables and my mother baked some of the best soda bread around.”

When she was 12, the family opened a convenience grocery shop in the local town and she feels it was inevitable from that point that she would end up in the food industry.

Shannon attended the St Louis Convent in the town and went on to study marketing at DIT, qualifying with a BSc Management after a course that included placements with C&C Ireland.

“I moved back to Mayo after college and worked as marketing manager for Cuinneog Butter, where I learned much from the owner, Tom Butler. He was not only a passionate foodie and entrepreneur but also a great mentor.”

Shannon then spent five years in Dublin with Bord Bia’s small business department – working with artisan food producers, from Irish farmhouse cheese-makers to chocolatiers, honey producers to organic farmers – before she moved to London.

“In London, I organised an Irish farmers’ market on the South Bank, involving 40 artisan producers selling their amazing products direct to the British consumer.”

After three years in London, Shannon applied for leave of absence to “sow her wild oats” further afield when her then boyfriend, now husband, was offered a job in Dubai.

“That was almost 13 years ago. I think the leave of absence may have expired but, as my current boss will attest, I still work passionately for Irish food.”

Jumped at the chance

On arrival in the UAE, Shannon did some ad hoc work for Bord Bia and Tourism Ireland before starting a role as regional marketing manager for Kenwood Kitchen Appliances, a role that involved travel all around the Middle East – including Saudi Arabia and Iran.

At Kenwood, she also managed the UAE market for the brand, and supplied all the main retailers including premium retailer Spinneys. Then one Thursday afternoon, she got a call asking if she’d like to join the supermarket chain.

“I jumped at the chance and, 10 years on, I’m still excited to go to work every day at Spinneys,” she says.

“I’ve been part of an exciting journey of growth, from 20 stores to over 70 and, as a locally owned company, it has a real family vibe. I’ve been delighted to open the doors for Irish companies and introduce them to the right buyer. I think we now have more Irish brands on the shelves than any UK retailer.”

As head of communications at Spinneys, she spearheads strategic communication initiatives and the management of integrated marketing, public relations and communications to ensure continuity across the brand.

That’s a diverse portfolio, including marketing content and messaging across all mediums including print, digital and social media.

“To extend the audience reach of our key messages, I also create and manage events, sponsorship and pop-up activations inside and outside the store, including the Spinneys Dubai 92 Cycle Challenge, Spinneys Cup and the staff annual Eat Well Live Well Festival, which hosts 4,000 guests over two days.”

Shannon is a regular contributor on radio, both in store and nationally on Dubai Eye’s Thursday Brunch.

She spoke last year at the Global Irish Civic Forum in Dublin Castle and her main advice then and now to anyone thinking of moving to the UAE is to check it out first.

Respect the culture

“It is a Muslim country and you must respect the culture. The Dubai Irish Exchange Facebook page is a great start and, of course, there are several flights a day leaving Dublin so it is easy to get here.”

Working hours in the UAE are longer – Shannon works a standard 10-hour day, so packs as much as possible into the Friday and Saturday weekend. The weather helps with planning activities: it’s hot or hotter, every day.

“Family is important here and there is a strong work ethic. That said, one gets six weeks’ maternity leave so, as a working mother, that is difficult. We’re lucky to have affordable home help, Estela has been with us for six years. My mother also comes out to help for a few weeks every year.”

Before anyone finally decides to move to Dubai, Shannon has strong advice. “Check your contract before signing it as breaking a contract has many serious implications,” she says. “You must have a resident visa to live here and have an employment visa to work. Alcohol licences are required to buy and drink alcohol for all residents.”

Shannon chairs the Irish Business Network food sector on a voluntary basis and has created events to raise the awareness of Irish business in the region, including the successful Taste of Ireland Green Box competition.

According to Shannon, the opportunities in Dubai are not as plentiful as they were a few years ago but they are growing in some areas.

“My son’s school has lots of Irish teachers (in his three years there, he has had an Irish teacher for two years).

“Of course, no matter how long we stay here, or the fact that our children were born here, we will never be citizens, which of course is very different to the diaspora of earlier years who tended to go to America, Australia or the UK.”

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