Indomitable Spirit of Yusuffali M A, Master of Arts (Retail)


Mathew (for, that’s how most non-Malayali friends address me, as a matter of convenience), we are shifting you from the wholesale to the retail store starting tomorrow,” Dr. Muhammed Tayeeb, the Chief Store Manager, informed me. ‘‘We need to have someone with PR and marketing sense in retail; old man Varghese is no good. Let him take over from you in wholesale, and you can move to retail. Good luck.”

I was not amused. In my view, wholesale was a senior and privileged space, while retail is for the run-of-the-mill store managers. However, the country being Libya, there was no room for protest or appeal; one has to meekly accept, or else, end up in the Tripoli Hilton, as the notorious central prison in the Libyan Capital was nick-named. Muammer Qathafi’s Islamic-Marxist-Military dictatorship would brook no disobedience whatsoever at any level. Disobey, and, if you are a Libyan, you ascend the gallows; if foreigner, Tripoli Hilton welcomes you!

My exile in Libya lasted for seven years, from 1975 to 1982. The store-keeping assignment was at the Tripoli Central Medical Depot run by the Government of Libya, holding stocks worth millions of dollars, meant for distribution to scores of hospitals and clinics across the country. There was a retail segment to cater to those institutions. I was initially put in charge of the wholesale division, with not much to do by way of work, and all the time in the world to read, write, day-dream and contemplate.

Murmuring my protest, to the amusement of Dr. Tayeeb, the chief, I took over retail, and soon discovered how naive I had been to suspect the assignment to be a punishment. In fact, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, with doctors and pharmacists from all over the country queuing up before me with lists of medicines they needed. I was immersed in allocating them stocks according to availability and need, creating invoices, instructing workers to pack the stocks to transfer to the vehicles and sending the visitors off with a reassurance of more supplies the next time. On the whole, I was in the midst of a beehive of non-stop action. There was room for making friends and influencing people, through a bit of favouritism and nepotism! The visitors would humbly salute me, addressing me as ‘Dr. Mathew’, so that I may be pleased to allot them extra cartons of short-supply items (For Libyans, anyone with some knowledge of medicine was a ‘doctor’ and hence, Dr. Mathew, yours faithfully!)

Ever since my foray into travel writing and editing, I have had innumerable occasions to observe and admire the art of retailing in shopping paradises such as Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Mumbai, Delhi, Dubai, Tel Aviv, Athens, Munich, Frankfurt, Johannesburg, Berlin, Dusseldorf, Cologne, London, Orlando, Dallas and Texas. The sprawling malls in Dubai particularly caught my imagination, discovering in the process that retailing is the biggest commercial activity in the world. The ninety minutes spent at the LuLu Hypermarket in Bur Dubai was an eye-opening experience, a moment of pride that nothing is impossible for the Malayali spirit, particularly so for never-say-die heroes like Yusuffali M A, the founder of the LuLu chain.

The indomitable individual with his inspiring trail of blazing achievements, Yusuffali is, in every sense, the global brand ambassador of the Malayali quest for excellence. I strongly believe that the M A following the name Yusuffali stands for Master of Arts (Retail), as he continues to teach us what it means to be humble, simple, single-minded and devoted, even as the Grand Kerala Shopping Festival celebrates the same quest with the retail barons of the State leading the way!