Ali hangs up boots for sports goods stores

INITIALLY, Ali Hassan Mohd Hassan aspired to be a national football player but that did not pan out after several of his friends, who were in the national squad in the late 80s, advised against it.

Looking back, the managing director and founder of sports goods retailer aL-IkhsaN Sports Sdn Bhd said he was grateful to his football friends for their frankness.

“They told me that you can be popular and well known but not rich by becoming a football player in Malaysia,’’ he told StarBiz.

However, this has not stopped Ali from associating himself with anything connected to football as he knew there was money to be made from the world’s number one game.

He feels that football is the only game that is able to garner large audiences worldwide regardless of religious beliefs, political views or economic standing.

Ali noted that Malaysians of all races enjoyed watching the game especially the English Premier League even during the wee hours of the morning as evidenced by the large crowds at 24-hour Indian Muslim eateries with large projection screens.

Ali graduated with a diploma in mechanical engineering from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia in 1989. But instead of becoming an engineer, he chose to become a small trader selling his wares from a car boot and also at night markets or “pasar malam” around Johor Baru.

Ali said he treasured his four years of experience as a petty trader as he gained valuable knowledge, which proved useful when he founded his sports retail company.

Ali opened his first sports retail outlet at one of the shopping centres in Johor Baru in 1993. Sixteen years on, there are now 54 aL-IkhsaN outlets in the peninsula employing 517 people.

aL-IkhsaN was also licensed to open South-East Asia’s first Nike Factory outlet in Taman Universiti, Johor Baru in 2004.

Another outlet followed soon in Bangkok and one each in Australia’s Gold Coast and in London.

The company is aiming for an even stronger foothold in the peninsula with 100 outlets by the end of 2010 before expanding into Sabah and Sarawak.

Unlike other sports goods retailers, including the foreign-owned ones which prefer to set up outlets in shopping centres in major towns, the company is taking a different approach.

Ali said he adopted the concept of retailer Aeon Co (M) Bhd, which has Jusco shopping centres in almost every part of the country, be it big or smaller towns, making it highly accessible.

“Our outlets are well spread in primary or secondary towns either at shopping complexes or neighbourhood housing estates; this works well for us as we are able to reach a wider audience,” he said.

However it was not all rosy for Ali when he first started the business as local banks were reluctant to provide loans to a small-time businessman like him.

Bank executives failed to see the potential in the sports goods retail business in Malaysia and only when the company started expanding, they came knocking on his door offering loans, Ali recalled, expressing disappointment over the attitude of the banks.

“This has got to do with the quality of the employees of the banks as most of the executives are not business savvy and do not know anything about business prospects,” Ali said.

Initially, aL-IkhsaN focused mostly on football-related products such as jerseys, shorts, boots, balls and track suits but now all its outlets also have items such as T-shirts, sports travel bags, beach thongs, running shoes, workout shoes and headbands for both genders.

Ali said his company caters to customers who were serious about sports and those who were into sports fashion, adding that Malaysians were brand conscious and willing to spend money on branded items.

“Occasionally, I still play football with my former mates from the university, reminiscing about the good old days as most of us are now occupied with family or career,” he said.

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