The kbbreview Interview: Najib Maalouf

Rebecca Nottingham speaks to Najib Maalouf, global president, Middleby Residential Group about its plans for key brands Rangemaster, AGA, La Cornue and Novy and what those plans mean for its UK retailers

American food prep and food service specialist Middleby Corporation has, with its Middleby Residential division, become a leading player in the luxury appliance sector through its acquisitive approach to growth. 

Despite its size and standing in the industry though, the name Middleby Residential might not be as instantly recognisable to UK KBB independents as some of the brands it’s snapped up over the years. Of course, we’re referring to the historic AGA Rangemaster Group and its quintessentially British portfolio of brands which the company bought in 2015 for £130 million and, most recently, its acquisition of Belgian induction and extraction specialist, Novy, in 2021. 

“Acquisitions are in our DNA,” Najib Maalouf, global president, Middleby Residential Group, proudly declares. “We are a curator – we curate these brands. So, when we acquire them, we don’t ever rush to homogenise. Instead, we look to enhance the brand story. Homing in on that kind of USP feeds into the biggest point of difference independent retailers have – their heritage. So, there’s a real synergy between us and our brands and independents.”

Eight years ago, following its acquisition of AGA Rangemaster, kbbreview had the opportunity to interview Najib Maalouf, MD of Middleby Residential Europe.

It’s not just the company’s portfolio that’s changed significantly in that time. Maalouf, who has been with the company for almost 25 years and has overseen all of the company’s significant acquisitions, is now president of Middleby Residential worldwide. He reveals how the brands are faring, what the company is doing to enhance each brand’s proposition and, of course, what that all means for retailers. 

Q: We last caught up with you in 2016 following Middleby’s acquisition of AGA Rangemaster. Eight years and several key acquisitions later, can you give us an idea of how the company and its brands are performing?

A: The climate is certainly challenging and it’s the same everywhere; the UK, Europe and the US. So, it is tough out there. The market is stressed because of the challenging macroeconomics. There are some bright spots, but in the main it
is difficult. 

That said, people are getting used to living with high interest rates and adapting their lives to them, so I am still optimistic. What we have on our side is brand loyalty, particularly in the UK with Rangemaster. 

Q: How do you expect the KBB market to play out over the next 12 months?

A: I’m optimistic that the systemic conditions will improve and that the market will become less challenging overall. But I’m also optimistic that our own initiatives will start coming to fruition in the second half of the year. What do I mean by initiatives? I mean that we are innovating and investing in our brands and these actions having an impact on retailers and end consumers. So that’s what gives me optimism. I’m not just waiting on a change in systemic conditions, our own efforts are going take us to better places.

Q: What does that all mean for independents fighting for edge in a competitive and challenging market? 

A: The best bit of advice is to only worry about the elements within your control. As for what we’re doing to help, we’re creating waves in the industry with Rangemaster. We’re offering a portfolio of more superior, exciting and better value products than ever and that’s a strong message for retailers to take to the end user. We are the only manufacturer of range cookers in the UK – that’s a bright, exciting story for retailers to take to market. I’m proud that Rangemaster is flying the flag for British manufacturing. We’ve invested millions of pounds in our production site here as well so that we can bring cutting edge products to market and give our retail partners an incredible story to sell. 

Q: How do all the brands fit together in the Middleby portfolio? 

A: Acquisitions are in our DNA. We are a curator – we curate these brands. So, when we acquire them, we don’t ever rush to homogenise. On the contrary, we emphasise loyalty to the brand and loyalty to the mission of that individual brand. Take what we’ve done with Rangemaster as an example. That brand is a specialist in range cooking. We weren’t going to change that. But what we did instead is to invest in the brand and its production facilities so that it could excel in the sector on a global scale. That is the mission of every brand that we take on. We’re doing the same with Novy. 

There are some things that we do behind the scenes. We share technologies. Which just makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? We do this constantly, but the brands stay loyal to their mission. That’s what makes us fundamentally different from other groups. 

Q: Sustainability has become a bit of a buzz word in the KBB industry. There’s lots of innovation and investment going into it on the manufacturing side but frontline retailers say that consumers aren’t interested. Whose responsibility is it to change the direction we’re going in and inspire consumers to consider it during the purchasing process? 

A: First things first, action must be taken. When we say as a manufacturer, for example, that Rangemaster is serious about sustainability, we can provide evidence of how we have been steadily reducing our carbon footprint. 

It’s been a tough journey. This is not an easy walk. There’s no quick fix. That’s the key, everybody is on a journey. A lot of the journey requires heavy investment. We’re proud of where we have come and we continue to look for ways to buy renewable energy, to operate in a very green manner. So, we’re proud of what we’ve achieved.

The next step is about communicating that message to retailers – so they are equipped to answer any questions on the subject from end users – and the end user directly. If, as you say, there is a slight disconnect on this then I’d say the issue is communication. And, from our own perspective, that’s something we’re working on. Retailers can, and should, play a role in becoming informed on sustainability. They must be asking us those questions. We in turn should be ready to tell the story. 

Q: It’s not just Middleby’s brand portfolio that has changed significantly since we last spoke. You’ve also climbed the ranks from MD to president. What lessons have helped shape your career? 

A: I’ve learned it is imperative to stay consistent in strategy and actions. The principles that guided me in turning around a 15-person distribution company in Warrington in 2009 weren’t that different from those that were the drivers of the transformation of the then 2500-person AGA Rangemaster group of companies in 2015. While it’s sometimes challenging, consistency in management principles and actions is critical to success.

The other key lesson I’ve learnt over the years is to never take for granted the need to communicate and build trust with customers, suppliers, colleagues and all stakeholders. Being honest and straightforward is the cornerstone to build longstanding personal and professional relationships.

Q: What are the biggest mistakes you made when you started out?

A: I’ve had a few, like everyone, but some that come to mind involve the evolution of my perspective in different situations. I can remember quickly solving 90% of a problem, but the last 10% would hold me back. Over the years I’ve learned to move forward and take action even if I’m not at 100% clarity. Start moving in the right direction and as you do that, the other 10% will be realised during the process. Sometimes you never get to 100%, and that is fine; just don’t stop.

Q: Are there any standout lessons that you learnt from those mistakes? 

A: Mistakes are humbling, and I have learnt from them and applied the lessons as my career progressed. I was fortunate to be around respected, effective management as I grew my career. I watched how they thought, prioritised and executed, and I attempted to emulate them.  

The impact my past challenges have had on my current leadership style is that they have helped me become a stronger, more experienced leader and now I am in a position to share what I’ve learnt. I seek out time with team members and provide consistent feedback encouraging their areas of strength and offering guidance to improve where they are facing challenges.

Q: Your 25-year career at Middleby probably speaks for itself but can you sum up your approach to management? 

A: Middleby would not be the company it is today without its incredible people. As you say, I have been with the company for nearly 25 years during a period of tremendous growth which has positioned us as a global leader in three business platforms. Our culture is unique, ambitious and entrepreneurial. We endeavour to attract the best, empower them and foster a globally collaborative environment.    

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