Aurora Magazine

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Journey to the high end

From basic wheat and ghee wholesale shop, Aurora charts the journey of S. Abdulla & Co. to high-end home retail.
Updated 05 Aug, 2019 12:10pm

Walking into the newly-opened S. Abdulla Home in Phase VI, DHA, Karachi is like stepping into an art gallery; the difference is that instead of paintings, you are visually treated to an array of tile designs beautifully displayed on sliding panels – from kitchens to bathrooms, from cotemporary to classic arranged in a diverse range of colours, textures and combinations. Explore further and you find an amazing collection of bathtubs, bathroom accessories, state-of-the-art showers and hydro-massage solutions, bathroom enclosures and suites along with a variety of flooring options.

A brand of S. Abdullah & Co. – a household name among interior designers, architects and home makers since decades and reputed for their diverse range of top-of-the-line imported tiles, tubs and bathroom fittings – S. Abdulla Home's latest venture has quickly become a go-to destination for anyone contemplating giving their home a makeover and represents yet another milestone in the story of this company.

Family-run, S. Abdullah & Co. dates to the twenties and is a testament to the vision, acumen and hard work of the founders. It begins when Sheikh Muhammad Abdulla opened his shop in the Sir Jehangir H. Kothari Building on Bunder Road. Abdulla began his business as a wholesaler trading in grocery items (ghee, oil, rice and wheat) procured from interior Sindh. He also supplied metal trunks, then used extensively as luggage.

Sheikh Muhammad Abdulla, Founder, S. Abdulla & Co.
Sheikh Muhammad Abdulla, Founder, S. Abdulla & Co.

Some years later, he went into the cigarette distribution business, when Imperial Tobacco (British American Tobacco Company) were looking for distributors in Karachi. In 1940, his son Abdulla Abdul Ghani joined him followed by his brother-in-law Mohammad Saeed Allawala and it was at the latter’s suggestion that Abdullah began to import tiles.

“Although Partition had taken place, British influence and trade was still prevalent and they were doing whatever they could to market their home-grown products in the Subcontinent,” says Abdul Ghani’s son, Tariq Abdulla, Director, S. Abdulla & Co.

Tariq Abdulla, Director, S. Abdulla & Co.
Tariq Abdulla, Director, S. Abdulla & Co.

Abdulla imported tiles from Johnson Tiles (UK) along with sanitary ware from China.

Local tile manufacturers did not exist then and although the market was small, the business did well. According to Tariq Abdulla, the only customers for tiles were people who travelled from interior Sindh (mainly Hyderabad and Sukkur) and bought tiles in bulk to cover graves, tombs and shrines – a practice that is still prevalent.

In the early fifties, Abdulla relinquished his cigarette distribution business to his cousins who ran United Distributors Limited (UDL) and from then on dealt only in tiles.

With the onset of the seventies, Karachi began its transformation. The master plan was put into action, residential schemes were announced and construction began. In those days, says Tariq Abdulla, there were only about three to four tile importers in Pakistan and the business flourished. As a result, Abdul Ghani decided to invest in property and bought a plot in 1975 in Phase V, DHA, Karachi. It was a ground-plus-one structure, which could be viewed even from Gizri “as nothing else existed around it.”

As development began in DHA, Rashid Abdulla (Abdulla’s nephew) asked Abdul Ghani whether he was prepared to rent out his still vacant property to UDL. Abdul Ghani agreed and Entreprise 6 (Pakistan’s first concept supermarket according to the family) opened there. Designed by Rashid’s brothers Arshad and Shahid Abdulla, the supermarket proved to be an initial success, but was forced to close down a few years later due to a high incidence of robberies. Despite this, another branch of the supermarket was opened in Mohammad Ali Housing Society.

In the meantime, local tile manufacturing had begun and in the eighties the government established Swat Ceramics. The new company appointed S. Abdulla & Co as their distributors. To promote Swat Ceramics, the government restricted the import of tiles, granting licences to only a few companies. This led to a huge demand and supply gap, and in Tariq Abdulla’s words, “if the daily requirement was 100 square metres, Swat Ceramics only produced 10 or 15; therefore the shortfall was 80 to 85%, with the result that 50% of Swat Ceramics tiles were sold in the black market.”

By the mid-eighties Karachi’s commercial aspect was further changing and S. Abdulla’s shop on Bunder Road began to see a drop in footfall, mainly because of traffic and congestion issues. Adding to these problems was the fact that most new hotels and hospitals were given licences by the government to import their own tiles, thereby bypassing local dealers. Another problem was that whereas in the past 80% of the tile business came from bulk purchasers from other parts of Pakistan (Faisalabad, Gujranwala, Multan, Rawalpindi and Sialkot), they now began developing their own tile markets rendering travel to Karachi unnecessary.

Given the changing scenario, in 1988, Yahya Abdulla (Tariq Abdulla’s elder brother) opened a showroom at the vacant property in Phase V, DHA. It was a first of its kind; in those early days, the concept of retail was very different, says Taqir Abdulla. “There was no concept of browsing. Clients would come in, sit down and we would show them sample tiles and the order would be placed.”

The new store’s advantage was the location and soon afterwards Imperial Tiles, Khandwalas and Shabbir Tiles opened stores in the vicinity. By this time, local tile production had significantly increased and in 1989, the government relaxed import restrictions and Yahya Abdullah flew to Dubai the next day of the announcement, returning with four to five containers of imported tiles. “Our competitors were stunned by how quickly we did it. None of them had the range we offered.” Today S. Abdulla order 450 containers worth of tiles and bathroom fittings and fixtures annually.

According to the family, the nineties were a turning point for the business. Firstly, the business started acquiring commissions to supply both commercial and residential projects for their tiles, bathroom fixtures and fittings. Secondly, in 1992 the company introduced Roca to Pakistan and with it the concept of complete bathroom solutions. Thirdly, a new generation had taken over. Yahya Abdulla’s two sons joined the business as did Faisal Khalid, who was the son of Khalid Abdulla (Tariq’s younger brother). Khalid is Partner, S. Abdulla & Co.

He had joined UDL after graduating in the US. In 1998, he took a new direction and launched OPTP, a local fast food chain that now has 55 branches across Pakistan. In 2004, he joined S. Abdulla to oversee an expansion programme and it was under his watch that another showroom (designed by Shahid Abdulla) opened in 2005 in Lahore.

Khalid’s challenge was to make the business sufficiently viable to sustain expansion to other cities. According to him, until then the shops were run like any other run of the mill shop, devoid of systems, computers or inventory. After the success of the Lahore store, in 2007 Khalid opened a furniture store on the top floor of the Lahore showroom. “At the time, furniture showrooms in Lahore dealt only in solid wood and the designs were similar. I saw the potential for modern furniture, although I was not sure whether it would work or not.”

Faisal Khalid, Partner,  S. Abdulla & Co.
Faisal Khalid, Partner, S. Abdulla & Co.

Nevertheless, he bought the franchise for Singways Furniture, a Chinese K/D furniture supplier. The response he says was phenomenal. “The novelty factor gave us the edge. Customers were tired of the monotony and desperate for something new.” Khalid adds that unlike other tile merchants, S. Abdulla went beyond the B2B segment and that by deploying marketing techniques the company developed a major segment in high-end retail.

Subsequently, the company opened stores in Faisalabad, Islamabad, Rawalpindi and another on Stadium Road in Karachi. Plans now include opening stores in Multan and Peshawar.

Today S. Abdulla work with almost 50 to 60 suppliers and import tiles and bathroom solutions from China, Egypt, Italy, Malaysia and Turkey. They are exclusive distributors for Educational Furniture, Grohe, Johnson Suisse, MML, Roca and SSWW Sanitary Ware. Although accounting for only 10% of the business, furniture is seeing steady growth and Khalid is setting his sights on restaurant furnishings.

From 1920 to 2019, it has been quite a journey for Sheikh Muhammad Abdulla and his progeny.