Having entered the retail space with a convenience store, Hassan Ezzeldine is now at the helm Lebanon’s supermarket powerhouse Spinneys. In an exclusive interview with Hospitality News ME, he describes the company’s formidable position amid challenging market conditions, what drives him as a leader and why he’s optimistic about the future.
Your career journey is impressive. What can you tell us about it?
Although I started out in our family’s marine construction firm overseas, I decided to move to Lebanon around seven years ago and entered the retail world by establishing Grab’n Go. Then, the opportunity of Spinneys came up, so we went in as investors. At the time, Michael Wright was the CEO of the company. He left around a year later, and that’s when I stepped in. You could say that the story started with a convenience store and just grew from there.
What’s your motto?
You’re only as good as your team. We are proud to have created a culture of teamwork at Spinney’s. This stands at the heart of everything we do and our achievements.
How has the company evolved?
All of our brands, namely Spinneys, Happy, Grab’N Go, Coldstone — which we acquired not long ago — and Mackinzie Distribution fall under Gray Mackenzie. The company was there already, but we have developed a more corporate image in recent years.
Today, Gray Mackenzie has 2,850 employees and operates 40 stores across its Grab’N Go, Happy and Spinneys brands. Of course, Spinneys is the most known, as it is the oldest and lies at the core of the company.
How has the business been performing amid tough market conditions?
Prior to 2019, our turnover stood at USD 320 million. In 2021, the figure was less than half — USD 140 million. While the cost of our utilities used to be 3 percent, we are now at around 11 percent. We pay three to five times more for electricity than our overseas counterparts. Even salaries have suffered. However, as a company, we are trying to allocate the same percentage of our turnover to payroll to ensure that our staff is treated fairly in these difficult times. I can say that we are surviving.
I believe that downturns are followed by upturns. Things won’t continue this way forever; the crisis will end. As Lebanese, we will come out of this much stronger. Some people say I’m too optimistic, but I am certain there is there is light at the end of the tunnel.
What would you say are your greatest challenges?
You can’t plan in Lebanon. It is hard enough to think about the next three months, let alone the year ahead. Since 2019, we have had to navigate currency devaluation, coronavirus, the collapse of the banking system and a huge explosion. Companies that have survived have done an amazing job without any government support whatsoever. These challenges have forced us to be adaptable and flexible, to take quick decisions.
How profitable is online shopping?
Online shopping in Lebanon represents just 2-3 percent of the total market. At Spinneys, we underperform in this segment. We have two online portals: a slot system through Spinneys and Grab’N Go quick delivery, which does not account for more than 1 percent of our business. In my opinion, Lebanon does not have the infrastructure for a proper online platform.
How would you describe the current retail trends?
Lebanon was considered a test market for the Middle East, but since the crisis began, people have so many other things to worry about. Following trends is not a priority for most; only a minority can afford healthy, vegan and gluten-free items, for example. It is important to note that trends mirror the state of the country.
What we have seen, however, is a great deal of creativity. There are many new brands on the shelves, and contrary to what people think, prices today are cheaper in real USD terms by up to 40 percent. Before, it was much more difficult to enter the market. However, increasing competition is driving prices down.
What news can you share with us? Are you planning to open any new stores?
This depends on how things develop in the country. Over the past couple of years, we opened several new Happy stores; we felt that special prices and promotions were what consumers in Lebanon were looking for.
Concerning Spinneys, we have introduced a few new branches — Sahel Alma being the most recent. We will be opening a store in Zahle next year. In total, 12-14 new shops have popped up, mainly under our Happy brand. We have around 16 Grab’N Go branches and require another 40-50 to cover the whole country. However, it is not the right time to expand. This project will come at a later stage when the situation is clearer.
In terms of other news, we will be upgrading our loyalty program in 2023/2024 to allow our customers to not just benefit at Spinneys, but across many of our brands and beyond. We are also planning to expand overseas, so there’s plenty in the pipeline.