In 1994, Zainul Azman was considering whether to remain working in luxury brands for a British multinational or to branch out on his own and start a new travel retail chain in Malaysia. 22 years later, he received the honourable title of Tan Sri from His Majesty Yang di-Pertuan Agong, monarch of Malaysia, for his role as co-founder and CEO of travel retail leader Dimensi Eksklusif. “I was surprised to be considered, and I treasure that honour given to me by the government recognising my input in the retail industry,” he says. “That has spurred a lot of inspiration among my friends and fraternity in the retail industry.” 

Now bearing the highest award given to a civilian for services rendered through state and country, Zainul believes he made the right choice. After joining the British multinational straight out of university, he was quickly exposed to the world of high fashion and luxury brands, and in his role heading up a subsidiary in Malaysia, Zainul worked to attract new principals like Salvatore Ferragamo, Rolex, Timberland, and Country Road as well as cosmetic companies like Lancôme, Elizabeth Arden, and Nina Ricci.

After 15 years with the company, he was approached by the chairman of Subang International Airport to gauge his interest in becoming an airport retailer, and Zainul took some time to mull it over. “I asked a few of my brand principals: if I were to strike out on my own, would they give me support and the supply of goods? And they said, ‘Why not? You have developed a plan for us. If you decide to become a travel retail entrepreneur, we would definitely continue to support you,’ so decided to do it,” he says.

Dimensi Eksklusif is a family affair

In 1994, Zainul and his wife, Nora, set up Dimensi Eksklusif, starting off with a 500-square-foot stand-alone store selling perfumes and cosmetics in the old Subang Airport, and later expanding into Kuala Lumpur International Airport and Penang Airport, growing the range of its award-winning shops to include cigars, watches, chocolates, as well as fashion boutiques for Christian Dior, Salvatore Ferragamo and Ralph Lauren.

Zainul Azman CEO of Dimensi Eksklusif
Zainul Azman, CEO of Dimensi Eksklusif

Today, the company has incorporated online fashion businesses started by Zainul and Nora’s three grown children, Zairin, Zainul Azrin and Aznita, with a goal to evolve Dimensi’s ecommerce capabilities with the benefit of digital natives at the helm. 

“My children’s business will be incremental,” Zainul says. “Because they are doing ecommerce, it doesn’t conflict with the travel retail business, and their products can be segmented into existing or new categories.

"It’s quite easy to work with family; it is a good mix of culture, and a good wake-up call for both sides. I have had many years of industry success, but they know the online and social media culture, so it’s a combination of both that will drive the business.” 

Zainul Azman plays to win

To Zainul, passion and commitment are key to success in a competitive market. “My philosophy has always been simple – you play to win. It stems back to my school days, playing sports. The same principle applies to business, and I am never afraid to compete,” he says. 

Young Zainul was captain of the Penang Free School soccer team, where he developed the competitive spirit, and understood the importance of having a great team. “I also specialised in middle distance, so that also gave me a clear understanding of stamina and staying power needed for business. It’s not a sprint where you run 100 metres in 10 or 11 seconds and that’s it. It requires tenacity and patience, which are the same ingredients that you need to become a champion in business.” 

It’s not a sprint where you run 100 metres in 10 or 11 seconds and that’s it. It requires tenacity and patience.

It’s that staying power that has seen Dimensi Eksklusif overcome adversity in the form of various downturns, beginning with the 1997 Asian financial crisis: “That one almost wrecked us. Then again, 9/11 in 2001 was a very scary time that affected the aviation sector greatly. But the 2003 SARS epidemic was the worst of all; that caused a tremendous drop in the influx of travellers,” says Zainul. 

“With all these scary moments, you must toughen yourself; you have to get ready. We were steadfast and resilient, and we have built the reserve to withstand months of turmoil. For this reason, I would rather stay small and profitable, and build a buffer, than to grow very big. In an institution like this, even giants can fall, and sometimes the minnows can beat the giants.”  

Dimensi Eksklusif awards

  • KLIA’s Retail Outlet of the Year (Yield Performance) – 8 times
  • 2008 Finalist World’s Best Travel Retailer, Frontier Awards, Cannes
  • 2011 World’s Best Travel Retail Cigar shop, London-based Moodie Report
  • 2014 Best Travel Retailer Asia Pacific, Raven Fox/DFNI Awards