Darin Group is a holding of reference in Kurdistan that operates in several sectors such as construction, telecom, industry and investment. However, there are other large scale conglomerates in Kurdistan, like Salahaddin Group or Ster Group. What does set you apart from your competitors?
We have a unique strategy and policy. Following our first operation in construction, we decided to diversify our activities to other industries such as investment. Prior to that, the construction sector was essentially non-existent in Kurdistan; there weren’t any representative buildings or factories. Once it was developed, we identified the business opportunities in other sectors, first in investment and later on in telecommunications. The flexibility of Darin Group enables us to change our strategy depending on the situation and to take any opportunity that we identify in the market.
Before 2003, there were neither businesses established nor economic opportunities in Kurdistan. After the American military intervention to break down Saddam and liberate Kurdistan and Iraq, Darin Group began to operate in the construction field; we built up factories for products that range from aluminium to ice cream.
As an example, in 2000, we created a flour factory with a capacity of 250 tons per day; ten years after, we boosted the production up to 1,000 tons per day without adapting or implementing new technology or machinary. Therefore, the contribution to the growth of Kurdistan was significant. The growth that Kurdistan experimented since the American intervention was exceptional; in 2003, the price of the square meter real state (land, property) in the 60-meter road of Erbil was around 100USD, while in 2011 it reached 10,000 USD, and the business increased during those years in a similar proportion.
The rapid expansion of Darin Group can be seen with businesses such as our amusement park: in 2006 we bought the first amusement park to Erbil, the first one in Kurdistan, and the return on investment was achieved in a year. The same park in Turkey received 700.000 visitors in one year, while we received 1.4 million visitors, without taking kids into consideration, I should highlight this point that Turkey population is two times more than Iraq.
The strategic guidance to governments and corporations in terms of investment is an area of expertise of Darin Group. How do you show to the international investors that Kurdistan is a safe region with investment opportunities?
In Darin Group, as a Kurdish enterprise, we are aware of the local needs, the gaps, and the requirements; it means that we have the expertise on how to create a successful business in Kurdistan, a highly valuable input for any sort of investor.
In 2010 we created Family Mall, the first shopping center in Erbil, which has finished its latest expansion in 2017. As the first step, we invited personally businesspeople from countries like the United States, Turkey or Lebanon. We put at their disposal a private plane to invite all those investors in order to show them the project in person. Again, we did the same for a conference in Beirut for Arab investors from the Gulf countries. This effort gave us the possibility to reach investment partners worldwide. One of the most representative landmarks was established in 2012 when we were able to bring Carrefour to Kurdistan, something totally unexpected back at that time.
As an example, LC Waikiki branch in Family Mall Erbil (it is a Turkish brand with 300 store in the Middle East), received 5th rank in 2014, it means however our population is less, but our customers are spending and consuming more than others.
“Family mall” is the most popular brand for shopping centers established in Erbil, Sulemani, and Duhok. And how has it changed the life in these cities and what are the landmarks of the company?
It changed the local culture. We still have a British consultant, who has 30 years’ experience in the Middle East, here that gave us a lot of advising and support, for example, in the introduction of automatic escalators and how society would receive that kind of technologies we found that Kurdish culture has a lot of potentials to take on new challenges, products, and technology.
Before opening the Family Mall, Kurdistan was a 100% male society. It was really rare to find a family in a restaurant, as there were not any spaces suitable for that purpose. The second factor is the weather. In Kurdistan, the climate is unpleasant, cold in the winter and extremely hot in the summer. Therefore, we prepared an indoor space where one can find plenty of families. We changed the culture of people step by step. It took time, but Darin Group has made a difference. We have achieved 197,000 visitors in one day during Christmas in 2016.
Another achievement of Daring Group has been to bring KFC to Erbil in Family Mall. In the first two weeks, the franchise sales were higher than in any other opening before. It was something new in Kurdistan and the reaction of the Kurdish society was so positive that eight more franchises were open in the following months.
One of the core values of Darin Group is innovation, and we are always looking for news areas of expansion. Once we have created a profitable business we can sell it in order to take on new challenges and opportunities.
In the telecommunications sector, in 2000, when the mobile phone technology has not arrived here, from Darin Group we suggested to the government that we would be able to bring switch cable lane for 5,000 landlines and then sell the network to the government. Later on, we used our experience and our expertise to be subcontractors of the main telecommunications companies in the region. Actually, nowadays Darin Group is a subcontractor of Ericson.
Mr. Mala, you are leading a holding of reference in Kurdistan, and Darin Group has changed the way of life in the cities of Kurdistan. What do you feel most proud of in your career?
Family Mall is the pride of my life. We got excellent feedback from the people and from the government; we pushed the development of our nation. During 2000, women did not work in any selling position, and Family Mall has changed this tradition. Now we have female workers from restaurant to security related jobs. In the last 10 years, we have pushed our nation forward, along with other businessmen.
I also feel very proud of producing the tents for the camps of the American army, as well as to provide services and assisting to army, including the 6,000 meals per day. It was a personal initiative that I could implement thanks to a long relation of trust and confidence in the American army since the beginning of the intervention in 2003, and the army has recognized all this effort with an appreciation letter.
HBR readers include the top decision makers and business leaders around the world. As a conclusion to this interview, what is the final message that you would like to transmit to our readers?
In Kurdistan, there are better economic opportunities than in many highly developed countries. The stage from 2003 to 2014 was the best in the Kurdistan history, a booming time in terms of economy. The ISIS attack, however, was the beginning of a really difficult time for the country between 2015 and 2016. However, we have figures that make us think that 2017 could be another 2003, and we are working to create a new golden era for Kurdistan.