Money & Me: ‘My frugal upbringing has made me a cautious spender’

Maureen Hall, founder of swimwear brand Coega Sunwear, says experiences with friends and family are more important than ‘flashy’ purchases

Former Canadian Air Force mechanic Maureen Hall worked on CC-130 Hercules aircraft and Chinook helicopters before becoming chief executive and head of design for swimwear and sportswear manufacturer Coega Sunwear.

She moved to the UAE with her husband in 2000 and launched her brand after using self-taught sewing skills to create summer protective pool shoes and garments for her now grown-up sons.

What began as a home business in 2004 currently sells family swimwear collections, including a Disney Marvel range, via more than 100 retailers.

Ms Hall, 59, and her husband live in Dubai’s Meydan district.

How did money feature in your upbringing?

I was born in Newfoundland into a family with nine children. I was number six, so there were lots of hand-me-downs. My dad was in the military and earned a modest salary. I am not going to say we lacked anything but there was no going on extravagant holidays. We would go camping, hiking, canoeing and fishing. My parents lived within their means; it was frugal. Mum worked summer jobs such as helping to clean cottages for extra money.

Now, in my private life and with Coega, I really watch what we spend money on. There are not a lot of extra unnecessary things. I prefer to make sure we have good quality necessities.

Did you earn from a young age?

We received a small amount of pocket money but as soon as we reached an age where we could babysit in the neighbourhood, we would do that for C$0.50 ($0.40/Dh1.47) an hour. At 15, I had one babysitting job where I had four children after school three days a week. The money increased to maybe $1 an hour.

At 16, my first real paying job was at McDonald’s. Then Sears (department store) opened and they paid me more.

What motivated you to work?

If we wanted anything extra. My parents would buy us the basic things. They always believed – and I believe as well – that the job as a parent is to raise your children to be good citizens, but also to be self-sustaining, so you can go out into the world and make your own way. It was like stepping stones.

Did you carry that forward?

Absolutely. It is all about taking care of yourself and I did that with my boys. I said, “I can give you all this stuff, give you money, but our job as parents is to bring you up so that you are ready to make it on your own”.

I would give my boys the opportunity with the business, on holidays and evenings, if there was computer work or some accounting spreadsheet stuff.

It is important as you get older that you have a nest egg you can rely on for retirement
Maureen Hall, chief executive and head of design, COÉGA Sunwear

How did you evolve from mechanic to swimwear designer?

I have a sewing background, pretty much learnt from a book when I was 18. I was making my own clothes and while in the military, I would make ceremonial tuxedos for people.

I moved here. I have to be super careful in the sun, so do my boys, so it was like, “We need to cover up”. I sourced swimwear fabric, started making UV swimwear in about 2001/2002 for my kids and myself first and it was an easy thing to have made in bulk. There was nothing in Dubai similar to that back then. Shoes were the first thing that went to market.

How did you fund Coega?

We invested our savings – my husband is half owner. We haven’t taken external funding, so there is no pressure to meet other people’s expectations of return on investment. The profits have basically gone back into the company.

I pay myself now. I did not for the first five to seven years and basically did everything. Now, we are in more than 115 retail outlets and most major sports and retail shops within the GCC.

What is your spending and savings outlook?

We have nice vacations, do nice things, but we don’t have an extravagant lifestyle. I have got a 2007 Nissan Armada with 260,000km on it. I don’t need the flashy car, big flashy house, flashy clothes.

We are savers, not big spenders. We have invested in the property that we live in and have investments we put money towards.

It is important as you get older that you have a nest egg you can rely on for retirement. What I always tell my boys, as well, is diversification. To have cash somewhere that is easily accessible; it is important, we have all seen that after Covid-19.

Do you have a cherished purchase?

It is not a lot of money but I invested in really nice camping equipment in Canada. When we go back, we always go camping, so we have everything you need. That probably brings me the most pleasure, allows you to get out into nature, which is special. We all go and it is quite a big crowd.

Are you not materialistic?

Experiences with friends and family are definitely more important. And getting on a plane, travelling – it doesn’t have to be a five-star hotel; it can be wherever, whatever, as long as it is safe.

I am not interested in flashy window dressing, I like practical. And if something is working, why get rid of it? Maybe it needs a little fixing and that is fine – like my car.

Can cash make you happy?

For me, money only means security. With Covid-19, we have all had more time to look and see what makes us happy and, really, everything out here can never make you happy. It starts from within. So, having money is nice – you can go see family, do things together. It is only a matter of having enough to have a comfortable life.

Is there anything you regret paying for?

People rave about a certain restaurant you must go to and we go, spend a ridiculous amount of money but the food is average. We have probably done that twice in Dubai, two different places we heard were supposed to be so good.

How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected you?

We shut down manufacturing for five months because orders were cancelled or postponed. That was tough. It meant making a couple of people redundant, cutting salaries for other people. Nobody wants to do that but you have to think about what to do to survive. I spent 16 years building a company and it could all be wiped out.

But as soon as we got back at the end of July last year, we ramped up and have been going quite strong. I started reducing the [pay] cut. I said: “As soon as the company is cashflow positive, I will pay back what was taken away”.

Last year was a loss but this will be a very good year, as long as things continue as they are.

What are your future plans?

As you get on, you realise what is important, what makes you happy. I would like to spend more time giving back to the community. To work in public gardens that need maintenance and cannot afford groundskeepers … I don’t mind digging holes, moving a wheelbarrow. Getting out into nature is important for humans, so enhancing that would be the dream.

I have always volunteered, my husband and I are involved in different charities and Coega has given back via corporate social responsibility initiatives.

I would like to retire eventually but there is so much uncertainty in the world … we just keep doing what we are doing and see what tomorrow brings.

Updated: August 5th 2021, 7:00 AM