IN FOCUS Excellence Awards Interview

Just Drinks Excellence Awards 2023: African + Eastern

African + Eastern is a market leading beverage importer, marketer, distributor and retailer and a Category Award Winner in Business Expansion and Marketing in the 2023 Just Drinks Excellence Awards

Just Drinks: Tell us about your company.

Jason Dixon: African + Eastern are the largest importer, distributor and retailer of alcohol brands in the Middle East and Arabian Gulf Region. Our roots actually date back almost 300 years ago as a trading company based out of Africa, however we have been operating as a prominent Middle East liquor distributor since the early 1970s. We have four offices and seven distribution centres in the UAE & Oman ensuring that we are able to effectively and efficiently service the markets in which we operate. Via our Travel Retail business unit we currently have a presence in 14 countries across the region with Sri Lanka & The Maldives being the most recent expansions in recent months.  A+E offer a wide range of ~4,000 SKUs across the beer, wine, champagne & spirit categories and we value the supply partnerships we have, including but not limited to Diageo, Beam Suntory, AB Inbev, Carlsberg, Asahi Beverages, Treasury Wine Estates/Penfolds, Accolade, Constellation & Laurent Perrier.

Jason Dixon, CEO of African + Eastern

Our company is driven by our vision to be the best partner for our consumers, trade customers, suppliers and employees. We are passionate about service & quality, and we strive to exceed expectations. We have a talented and diverse team of professionals who bring our brand owners’ vision to life in each and every touch point that we can influence.  

We are proud of our achievements and our sustainable growth which has now stretched over many years, and we are always looking for new opportunities to expand our business and reach new markets. We believe that African + Eastern is more than just a company, we are a perfect blend of people hailing from all over the world and share a common goal with a common culture.

Just Drinks: What makes your company stand out from its competitors?

Jason Dixon: A few things spring to mind. Firstly our people. With >650 employees hailing from 26 countries, we strive to make A+E a great place to work and deliver results for our shareholders, brand owners, customers & colleagues. We believe that a high level of engagement is core to organisational & business success and our people practices and work culture reflects this belief. All of this is underpinned by our values – Passion, Winning Ambition, Accountability & Respect. This has been reflected in our most recent engagement survey where we saw a 99% participation rate and produced an overall engagement rate +4% vs. Global best employers, +1% vs. Middle Easts best employers and +20% vs. the global beverage industry.  

Secondly, African + Eastern is fortunate to partner with world leading beverage producers who are at the forefront of quality, category development & brand execution. Through these partnerships we are able to borrow from and build upon, the best and most relevant parts of their strategies for our markets and integrate within our plans to win in market. We have been nurturing these partnerships for many years and have been able to structure and execute mutually beneficial go to market plans. We don’t see ourselves as just a box moving distributor, we are truly a brand and category led business.  

And finally, we are well known in the marketplace for our exemplary service levels. This is really important for us and has been instrumental in helping us to develop enduring and mutually beneficial relationships with our customer universe.

Just Drinks: What are your company's goals in the next 5 years?

Jason Dixon: For many years Dubai has been a dynamic and exciting market and based on forward population & tourism projections it will continue to be so for a long time to come. We see four key areas that will drive growth within the Dubai market. 

  1. Population Growth – The Dubai population is expected to increase by 5.8 Million people by 2040 which represents a more than 2x growth in residents. 
  2. Tourism Growth - Dubai has an aggressive plan to become the most visited city in the world by 2025 via the attraction of 23 Million visitors annually. In 2023 from Jan-Nov Dubai welcomed 15.37 Million overnight guests, which represents a +7% growth versus the 2022 full year, with December results still to drop in. The 2025 target would see a massive 60% growth in visitors in just three years. There is a lot to look forward to as Dubai, the UAE as a whole and the region roll out their exciting and visionary plans.   
  3. Benefits of deregulation – the recent deregulation of the Dubai market with respect to a more inclusive liquor license process and the removal of a layer of sales tax to better align with other UAE Emirates will mean more resident sourcing and consumption of liquor will remain within the emirate. 
  4. Partnership & Portfolio evolution – As mentioned earlier, Dubai is a dynamic, rapidly changing market so the continued optimisation and evolution of our portfolio strategy will be key to ensuring we are equipped to offer shoppers the right products, in the right places and the right times. We will continue to work with our valued existing partners as well as seek out new partners where we believe it will add value for consumers, customers & A+E

In order to maximise the above sources of growth our 5 year plan will see a continuation of our current focus areas as well as an acceleration in;

  1. Off Premise Store Formats – We will evolve our retail offering from a largely convenience format to a more varied offering, to ensure that we can offer shoppers a great experience in all of their consumption occasions.
  2. eCommerce – A+E are relatively new to this space, however we have invested significantly and will continue to do so to provide shoppers with more flexibility in how they choose to interact with us.
  3. Business Transformation – We have delivered a tremendous volume of transformational projects across warehousing, logistics, technology & people in recent years and we will continue to do so in order to be optimally setup to leverage the expected sources of market growth.

Just Drinks: What is the most exciting project you are currently working on?

Jason Dixon: As referenced above, over the past year we have delivered some major transformative projects to ensure that we are well set up to capitalise on future growth opportunities and to ensure that we provide our suppliers, consumers, customers and employees with world class products, tools, experiences and insights. Whilst we have had a really pleasing year in terms of project delivery and commercial performance, never standing still we will continue to invest in and prioritise initiatives that will drive our business forward.  

One really exciting piece of work we are developing right now is a major Commercial Strategy Into Action project. Within the A+E vision to be the partner of choice in the eyes of all our stakeholders, we need to set even higher standards of excellence in terms of how we deliver commercially and executionally in the marketplace. This project will ultimately serve to determine where to play and how to win. The key deliverables of the project are:

  • On & Off Trade segmentation according to segment & outlet value, including shopper need states & occasions 
  • Identification of key SKUs to focus our distribution & executional efforts on 
  • Implementation of a more sophisticated platform to track & measure  
  • More investment in people and tools to better reveal, analyse and act on key insights

Just Drinks: What trends do you see being dominant in your sector in the next 6-12 months?

Jason Dixon: The UAE is a diverse market with residents originating from more than 100 countries. With that involves complex stakeholder mapping and market segmentation to ensure that we are catering to the needs and preferences of as many resident & visitor shoppers as sustainably possible.

There are four key trends that I think will not only be dominant in the short term, but will continue to be important factors in the long term.  

  1. Legal & responsible access to liquor for lower income earners - Broadly speaking the UAE is a super-premium market with luxury the norm so we over index in high end brands, however there is also a more modest resident that wants to enjoy a quality beverage at a fair price in an array of occasions, so we need to ensure we have appropriate products and access to service these shoppers. We have been working closely with the Dubai Government and our key competitor to manage this via some key initiatives.   
  2. eCommerce - eCommerce & shopper experience is an area that I think Dubai has some catching up to do vis a vis more mature markets and we have been focusing on and investing heavily into this space. It is early days but we are seeing some promising signs and will be a source of growth for us in the future.
  3. CSR – CSR is also a hot topic and shoppers expect businesses to take a lead role in driving this agenda forward. As a key player in the market it is not lost on us that we have an obligation to ensure that we serve and educate shoppers in order to protect their health, particularly as the market continues to open in our region.  
  4. Acceleration in Off Premise growth – at the beginning of 2023, the Dubai Government implemented a number of deregulation measures to ensure that residents and visitors to Dubai can responsibly enjoy an alcoholic beverage in appropriate occasions. Dubai has historically been an On Premise driven market contributing approximately 80% of top line sales, however as a result of these changes, we have seen significant growth in our Off Premise business which is edging on equal contribution. To be clear, this growth hasn’t come at the expense of the On Trade channel. The On Premise channel is still very strong and enjoying year on year growth. The Off Premise growth we are seeing in the market is at this stage a growth in the overall size of the pie. Considering this we have been expanding our retail footprint into newly developed residential communities as well as investing in shopper experiences within the eCommerce environment and a number of our 42 retail outlets.

Just Drinks: What steps is the company taking to reduce its environmental impact?

Jason Dixon: Sustainability is a hot topic in all industries and we are actively assessing our footprint and how we can do our bit. The vast majority of our supply partners are committed to and have put in place tangible measures to reduce their impact via renewable energy, sustainable use of water, packaging materials and the ethical sourcing of raw ingredients. Where the baton changes hands with African + Eastern is from the point of shipping the product from country of origin to the markets in which we operate. African + Eastern recently conducted an energy audit on our key distribution centres and we are actively looking into initiatives such as energy efficient lighting and cooling as well as the installation of solar panels at our sites. In terms of mobility we are soon to run an electric delivery vehicle pilot (trucks & vans) into our network and all going well a plan will be put into place to phase out petrol/diesel vehicles. As you can imagine across the ~9 Million cases of product we import and distribute each year, there is a massive amount of packaging waste. Right now we prudently recycle all plastic & cardboard/paper waste and we partner with a local recycling organisation to dispose of this in the most sustainable way and are Green Certified in this area of waste management.  We are also working with our suppliers on how we can viably reduce packaging materials, whilst ensuring product integrity.  

For our retail business unit, we are exploring the implementation of recycled packaging products to replace all existing paper & plastic materials and for both the On & Off Premise business units, we have transitioned to digital entry mechanics for the majority of our brand activations, therefore reducing significantly the use of physical promotional materials across our 42 retail sites & ~2,000 On Premise serviced venues. At our Corporate offices & DC’s we have installed ‘no more bottles’ water fountains to reduce the use of single use plastic as well as recycle bins in key locations within our sites.  There is a lot more to be done and we will continue to explore and execute viable initiatives.

Just Drinks: What does this Award mean to you?

Jason Dixon: We are absolutely delighted and honoured to receive the Just Drinks Business Excellence Awards for Business Acceleration – Distribution and Marketing – Locations and Bars. African + Eastern for a long have time flown under the radar, and these awards recognise and validate our efforts to grow our business and the fantastic work that our team have delivered in collaboration with our supply partners, customers and the various UAE Governmental departments.

Just Drinks: Is there anyone you would like to thank for your success?

Jason Dixon: Yes. None of our success is possible without the strong partnerships/relationships we have with our key stakeholders. We would like to thank our shareholders for their trust and support and of course the significant investments made to set us up for the future. Our brand owners for their trust and support in allowing us to be the custodians of their brands and for working with us to develop and execute really strong plans. Our customers for their support and openness in embracing new initiatives and ways of working along the way. Our consumers who shop our products across all market channels in which we operate. And finally, the A+E team. Thank you for your tireless and unwavering commitment to the A+E business and for the outstanding execution of our plans. You have shown remarkable resilience, creativity and teamwork and are the driving force behind our success and growth.

Contact information

African + Eastern
Level 16, Grosvenor Business Tower
1601, Tecom
Dubai 32321
United Arab Emirates