Meet Markus Thesleff, Co-Founder of Whissle Group – a Dubai-based full service boutique hospitality company. Thesleff was born in Finland, and lived in Sweden, the UK, the US, Argentina, Belgium, and Spain before relocating to Dubai where together with his business partner Ramzy Abdul-Majeed, he founded Whissle Group. Today, Thesleff and Abdul-Majeed are the master minds behind OKKU, Cielo Sky Lounge, Claw BBQ and Riva to name a few.
EFactor spoke with Markus Thesleff about entrepreneurship and leadership, the challenges he faces on a daily basis, and his ever-growing passion for Dubai: “I fell in love with this city after my first visit and today Dubai means home to me. The melting pot of cultures and the east-meets-west mentality of Dubai never ceases to amaze me…”
Thesleff explains why Dubai is a great place to be an entrepreneur; “Compared to other cities and countries in the region, Dubai is miles ahead when it comes to encouraging leadership and entrepreneurship. In fact the foundations of the city are built on these principals. As the most populous city in the United Arab Emirates, Dubai realizes that the younger generation and entrepreneurship is key to the country’s future success.”
Thesleff continues: “That said, of course there are issues which need to be tackled in order to foster long term success. There is still little to no protection for entrepreneurs here. We all know that as entrepreneurs we are a slightly different breed. We have ideas, dreams and visions which we try to turn into successful and economically viable realities. Unfortunately, these dreams do not always work or turn out the way we envisioned them to do. This is where the system becomes scary if not punitive. I think this discourages many potentially fantastic entrepreneurs from even trying. I think probably also acts as a major hurdle for many potentially fantastic people from coming to Dubai in the first place, which is a shame as these people and their ideas would certainly be huge assets to the city. However, I do have faith that this will be addressed soon, because likely there are more than a few unicorns in waiting here in Dubai.”
The reality is that the system is set up to favor the big, established incumbent players in the market. “However,” Thesleff adds, “There is definitely light at the end of the tunnel as more and more investors are beginning to reconsider their definition of risk. This is being pioneered by a small segment of highly successful entrepreneurs from the region. They have already achieved successful growth and/or exits and are now looking to bolster and re-invest into the local entrepreneurial ecosystem by becoming investors and mentors themselves. They are helping us overcome the more traditional barriers to success such as prohibitively high set up costs and little or no access to growth capital which immediately strangles most new businesses.”
Entrepreneurship runs through Thesleff’s veins. With it comes determination, innovation, and a vision and desire to act swiftly. And not to mention, a passion for Dubai; “Key terms of the long-term success of the Emirates are innovation, creativity and disruptive ideas combined with leadership and entrepreneurship. In fact, it could be argued that the visions and ideals of the country are built on these same pillars.”
Thesleff founded Whissle Group together with Ramzy Abdul-Majeed. While Abdul-Majeed is focused on the legal and finance side of the business, Thesleff’s area is the creative and operational part. Although the roles are distinctive yet vital to success, they somehow always meet in the middle.
Whissle Group is committed to creating and developing exciting and dynamic hospitality projects including managing the expansion of the award winning OKKU brand. Thesleff explains: “Our core philosophy is to create a boutique hospitality company driven by innovation and creativity. We aim to be a company that values personal growth and entrepreneurship by encouraging the team to take ownership of actions and decisions. We want to nurture the next generation of leaders.”
“In essence, we wanted a company born in Dubai with a very strong corporate culture and identity. It’s important to us that people love coming to work, both for themselves and for their colleagues. We strive to touch people’s lives in some small yet meaningful way. The focus is on creating, building, and nurturing a team looking to affect change and positivity in people’s lives through F&B hospitality experiences.”
Thesleff himself faced many challenges when he first started his own business. “Like I said before, there is little protection for entrepreneurs in Dubai. When we started up our company, there was no clear roadmap on how to navigate through the existing framework—it was very much trial and error with a steep learning curve added for good measure. Let’s just say it was a very exciting time for us,” Thesleff says laughing.
Both Thesleff and Abdul-Majeed were already entrepreneurs prior to founding Whissle Group; “We shared ideas on how the business should be built and believed the incumbent model wasn’t sustainable in the long term. Fast forward eight years and only now are developers, hoteliers and investors beginning to consider and understand our business model.”
Looking back on his years of entrepreneurial endeavors, the most satisfying moments in his career were the times Thesleff was able to see his ideas realized. “Over the years, we have been blessed in terms of having been recognized by our peers with numerous awards. But to be honest, one of the most personally rewarding moments for Ramzy and I was when a group of our team shared with us how much they felt appreciated and valued by us, and how blessed they felt to be part of a special journey. Abdul-Majeed and I always say: ‘At Whissle, we don’t hire staff, we recruit family.’ That day, this group of people truly verbalized what we set out to create.”
Thesleff practices what he preaches and is very hands-on with his the company’s operations. “As we continue to grow, I am looking for better and stronger people than myself who can help take the company to the next level. Basically, I am looking for people who allow me to focus on nurturing my passion for entrepreneurialism and leadership.”
Thesleff and Abdul-Majeed are one of the main players in Dubai’s hospitality industry, but they have some fierce competition. “Competition is healthy and forces you to stay on your toes. Actually, it makes me happy to see friends and peers alike achieve success. It is always good to understand what is happening in the industry, both nearby and abroad. But ultimately what really matters is only what we do, and the choices that we make. Fear should never be allowed to cause inaction. We have to stay focused and keep our eyes on the prize.”
When asked about the most visible changes in the market since he first started his career in Dubai, Thesleff replies with a quote from the movie Field of Dreams. “If you build it, they will come.” He further explains: “In the early days, it seemed that most operators simply took advantage of the lack of supply. Nowadays we are seeing more and more home-grown concepts being created locally instead of a total reliance on international brands. Thesleff continues: “The landscape here is changing fast. People are starting to respect and appreciate the role management plays in the eventual outcome. As seen in the rest of the world, the line between success and failure is very thin. About 99% of the time it comes down to the team running the business, there is no substitute for investing and empowering people.”
When asked how he envisions the restaurant and hospitality industry to change in the next five years, Thesleff answers: “Five years from now, the scene will be more matured and has probably slowed down a bit. I think it will include a strong collection of unique and innovative home-grown concepts supporting a sustainable local hospitality eco-system. I am hoping there will also be more brands expanding from the region to become viable international players and I hope we will be right in the middle of it all—its very exciting.”
In the future, Thesleff says he envisions to develop their business and expand beyond the region. “We are currently already exploring some very exciting multi-unit growth opportunities, specifically for OKKU and CLAW. Sitting still and living in the past is simply not an option.”
Listening to Thesleff talk about his previous experiences, his successes and his dreams for the future, it’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement. “All that glitters, isn’t gold. Newcomers to the market need to take time to invest in finding the right management partner. Also, you need to always recognize that your team is your biggest asset. Protect them and allow them to make your project successful.”
The last question we asked Thesleff is what he will take with him from his time in the Middle East food & beverage industry. He doesn’t have to think twice; “Amazing friends, a loving family, sweet memories and unforgettable experiences that have helped me to define myself. The time I have spent in the Middle East has helped me become the person I am today – both personally and professionally. Its where I met the lady who became my wife. I can honestly say that in Dubai and the UAE is where I truly discovered myself. The Emirates are my home!”