Believe it. Live it! Navigating the unknown by Jaffar Al Asfoor

Moving into a new market is a big change, one that could present various challenges. The Corporate Communications team sat down with Jaffar Al Asfoor, Vice President of Food Retailing & Production, to talk about Alosra supermarket’s recent and first expansion outside of Bahrain. Alosra, in Dhahran Tower, officially opened its doors to the public earlier this month and Jaffar shares his insights into the journey and tips on how to deal with such a major change.

After a few years of brainstorming, researching, planning and dreaming big, Alosra finally took the plunge and opened its first international outlet, and it was by no means an easy feat. Following the recent and rapid expansion of Alosra in Bahrain, going from one store to six stores in just six years, the time was ripe to take on this new challenge. “This major project exposed us to a huge amount of learning and we faced many challenges that we had to overcome in order to support the business. It was a very critical step, making the decision to move across the border, and it was years in the making until we reached the right momentum,” said Jaffar.

From the get-go, the team was faced with obstacles. Even with a lot of research done into the new market, they had to face the reality that there was a lot that they did not know. “The challenges started right from the beginning, we were faced with a lot of what we don’t know, and what we did not anticipate that we will face. With our expansion experience in Bahrain, we had fine-tuned the process, knowing exactly how to plan for a new outlet and accurately predicting the timeframe it would take to do so. When we set a plan, we were sure that plan would be executed,” Jaffar said.

However, even with Saudi Arabia neighbouring Bahrain, just a short car-ride away, things were very different. “Across the board, Saudi Arabia had a much more laid-back approach than we had experienced here in Bahrain, especially when it came to timeframes. This was a major challenge for us coming from a market that has become more adapted to a sense of urgency and timelines,” said Jaffar.

The Alosra team had to adapt, needing a change in mind-set, approach, people-skills and working hard to bring more of the structure they were used to. “The critical point for us was how do we complete the execution and project in the timeframe we had planned for and how to bring the plan back on track, and it was definitely a challenge,” Jaffar said.

Another challenge was the people element. “In Bahrain, we are blessed to thoroughly know our market, including where and how to recruit suitable candidates. When entering a new country, you are faced with one of the key challenges: finding the right people and making sure they fit into the business’ culture,” said Jaffar. Additionally, the team also faced difficulties with the product aspect, including the timeframes of receiving products and import regulations.

“All these challenges kept us on our toes, but I think that the key learning element we went through is how to deal with change. All we faced was a part of any major change, and it was completely different to anything we had gone through in the past in Bahrain. An experience like this forced you to get better at dealing with changes, brainstorming how you can overcome various challenges,” said Jaffar.

The following are some of the key points the Alosra team learned throughout the process:

  • Make sure to plan for the unknown: Even though Alosra did a lot of research before launching the project, Jaffar stresses that in-depth and very detailed research would always help when planning a huge step. Going beyond the basics, make sure to try your best to understand the intricacies of the new market and try to visualise issues that might arise, and brainstorm how you would deal with them. Give yourself breathing room for when things don’t go the way you’ve planned.
  • Control expectations: Make sure that your expectations are realistic, not always relying on the best-case scenario. Sometimes things go wrong, sometimes things get delayed, and sometimes challenges arise.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate: Make sure that you are always updated and updating others on progress, challenges, expectations and responsibilities. It is crucial for the relevant people involved to be aware of the situation and how they can contribute to keep the project on track.
  • Reinforce your system: In Saudi, the Alosra team was faced with the reality that the market did not necessarily always adhere to the structured approach and system they were used to. To help overcome this as much as possible, Jaffar states that they brought all the relevant people there around the table to discuss expectations and convince them to comply with the system the business needs. Even with delays, this helped ultimately reached a successful outcome.
  • Invest in your people: Realise that people are your most important investment. Prioritise their training, getting them on-board with your culture, show them how you like things done and what is expected from them. To help do this with their Saudi branch staff, the employees were brought to Bahrain for training, and to see first-hand how the culture of Alosra is in action and what the customer experience we are known for is all about. Specialists, such as butchers, bakers and others spent 3-4 months working in Bahrain to learn the little details of the business and to truly understand the brand.
  • Realise and appreciate that change is a group effort: Major projects take major effort, from everyone involved and from across divisions and businesses. The success of the first outlet in Saudi was truly a result of collective support throughout the organisation, including efforts from many people who had to stretch themselves and go the extra mile to support the project. You need to always be aware of this fact and make sure that you show your appreciation for all those who help you.

All these steps and all the learning points will make it easier for Alosra’s plans for continued international expansion in the future. “The learning we faced in Saudi will obviously make it easier for us to move into new countries because we have become more aware of the unknowns of entering a new market. The truth is this was our first international expansion and it was the most challenging one,” Jaffar said.

The opening of the first branch helped transform Alosra from a locally operated business to a regional and international one. The opening was a huge step and helped the team to continue to look at the business more holistically. “The step has even had an impact on us in Bahrain, we’ve made sure to move management to a consolidated office, to ensure that there is easier communication. There will also be restructures in the management team so that we can be more equipped to take things forward and support both our Bahrain operation and the Saudi expansion. The Saudi market is very high potential, we are currently looking into our second project there as well,” Jaffar added.

The Alosra team is very proud of what they managed to achieve and look forward to future projects and changes. “We created something that is very unique and different in the market place, and it has become a blueprint to be replicated elsewhere. Again, I would like to stress that this was all feasible because of the collective effort, beginning from the Legal team, to the Integrated Management Systems, Integrated Facilities Management, Human Resources, Communications teams and others, as well as the entire Alosra team,” said Jaffar. “I am very proud of what we all were able to achieve together.”