Money and me: the fine art of survival

Dubai property developer believes everyone makes financial mistakes; it's just the size of those mistakes that matter.

Ajay Mankani, the managing director of Fortes Holdings, at his office in Dubai. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
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Ajay Mankani is the co-founder and managing director of Fortes Holdings, a group of companies working across several industries including real estate, construction, education, health and trade. Mr Mankani, 44, from India, oversees a family business property development, children’s nurseries and most recently a fitness club called TribeFit. Born in the UAE, he has worked in Dubai for 20 years.

Describe your financial journey so far.

I started my career working at a construction company but soon after that I was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug, which was in the erstwhile Soviet Union. This was at the time of perestroika and glasnost. As a young kid I was under the impression that I could find my pot of gold at end of the rainbow. What I was doing was a commodities firm that was trading all forms of physical commodities – tea, building materials. I left Russia because the risk-reward equation didn’t become too favourable and it was too dangerous a situation. So I came back over here. I joined my father’s construction company and we expanded it into property development. My financial situation has changed dramatically, so that today I guess I have the luxury of not really having to work for money but instead can create something or enjoy what I do. When I started my career, I had work to pay my bills.

Are you a spender or saver?

I am definitely a saver. I have very few extravagances. I just live a very spartan life. I don’t take my wife every day to dinner. I like to spend my money more on my business as opposed to personal needs.

What is your philosophy towards money?

Today, money is used in society as a barometer of success. Having been in business for about 20-odd years, and having gone through various cycles of the economy – recession environments to boom environments – and having seen how easily people can earn money and lose money, money for me is just a tool where I can expand my business. Beyond that, it really doesn’t serve much purpose. I have no real affinity to money. On the other hand, I’m the first person to admit money makes your miseries comfortable.

Have you made any financial mistakes along the way?

Lots of financial mistakes. I think one has to look at your batting average. If you’ve got a seven out of 10 batting average, you’re doing pretty well. Everyone makes financial mistakes; it’s the size of the financial mistake that you have to weather. I always like to keep a cash cushion so that one can weather downturns.

If you won Dh1 million, what would you do with it?

Firstly, if I win a Dh1m then I don’t really deserve it. So if I won, I would have to give some money away just so that Lady Luck continues to favour me. I would give part to my favourite charity, but the balance I would probably plough into my savings account and some towards my business. My philosophy is not to splurge.

What has been your biggest financial lesson?

In 2008 and 2009, the world was going through a global inflationary asset cycle, and I think a lot of us in Dubai felt the brunt of that bubble, simply because a lot of people were very leveraged in their business here. In my line of work as a property developer, I saw many who went bust. One of the reasons my company survived and came out unscathed was because we had not overextended ourselves.

What do you enjoy spending money on?

My only indulgence is buying art and buying property. I have a nice collection of art. It’s by and large contemporary by a whole range of artists, from American Indian to even Iranian and Indonesian.

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