Food and beverage entrepreneur Ralph Homer opened his first outlet aged 15 after securing backing with a business plan written on two sheets of paper.
Now 46 and father to a teenager, he is the founder and chief executive of Lincoln Hospitality Group – the operational arm of popular outlets including La Serre, Distillery, The Loft at Dubai Opera and Taikun – and co-founder of hospitality consultancy Restaurant Secrets.
Born in Abu Dhabi, Mr Homer is a Maltese national and was partly raised by his godparents after his parents died. He began his career washing dishes in a hotel.
Three decades on, he has been involved in 189 F&B projects globally and lives in Downtown Dubai and London.
How did work feature in your upbringing?
My parents died at an early age. Godparents took care of me, a well-off family, very generous and supportive. However, I was thinking differently from their children. I did not enjoy school and was always in a rush. At 13, I was a stubborn child. When I asked to drop out and start working, they tried to persuade me for a few months to continue my education. By the time I was 19, I had three successful quick-service outlets of my own.
Did you earn your first wage as a teenager?
I started work in the industry washing dishes [at a hotel] and then joined a small business and did jobs from cleaning to waiting tables. My first salary was Dh350 a month. After a couple of months of hard work, I told my boss, “It is not enough”. They increased my salary to Dh500.
Wherever they put me, I used to take it on. I did not choose where I wanted to work but you can choose to love what you are doing and have a good vision. I dreamt of opening my first outlet by the age of 15.
What drove you towards hospitality?
We have choices in life. I decided this was my passion. I was 13 and a half when I started working. We are talking 30-plus years ago, different from today’s world. Circumstances pushed me [into] that direction. I started off at the bottom but did not want to stay at the bottom.
I did not want to go [on] the path that is set by the normal, so I opened a restaurant specialising in signature sandwiches and mocktails. I made a quick business plan, presented it to several investors, managed to raise funds and opened a “hole in the wall”.
I was the chief executive and the cleaner. I also had staff. By the third year, we opened the third outlet and I had an offer from a regular customer. Within a week, I exited and moved to Dubai aged 19 with a substantial amount of money. I have been involved in 189 projects since.
Was it tough to secure funding?
I knocked on quite a few doors. Everybody looked at me and said, “You are still a child”. I had to dress up in mature suits and pretend I was older. I do not think I knocked on less than 20 to 30 doors in order for one to open. There is a reason behind the “no” but you keep pursuing.
My dream was to open one restaurant at that time but the ball kept rolling and the harder you work, the luckier you get, and the more calculated the risks, the more doors open along the way.
What is your spending and savings outlook?
I am quite extravagant but never wasteful. When I started in business, I owned a car you could operate with a hammer. It was Dh3,000. That was all I could afford. I refused to take a loan, although I could do it on the business. I have the same attitude today. If I cannot afford something, I will work harder to afford it if I want it badly.
I am a saver as well. You make hay when the sun is out. You need to prepare.
How do you grow your wealth?
I’m quite old school. I still believe cash is king. I love property on a local and international level. You make money when you buy, not when you sell or rent.
You have to gather enough information to buy the right property at the right time and at the right value with the perception of what will happen in two to three years, in terms of how much it will appreciate.
My two primary markets are Dubai and the UK. I do not invest on a short-term basis. I do not believe in a quick buck. I think long term in any business I venture into.
What has been your best personal investment?
Myself, my knowledge. Learning as much as I can, [I have] a non-stop pursuit to understand. When everybody is sleeping, I spend time reading. I have an adrenalin rush solving problems in a revolutionary way. Once you have that knowledge, your investment in business becomes better with time and you will reap the rewards.
My passion lies in developing people and leaders. Sometimes, people do not understand their own potential and I like to expand their horizon by guiding them. I would not be able to do what I have done if I did not have such colleagues. I like to see their prosperity.
Do you have a spending weakness?
I love nice cars. I am driving a Rolls-Royce Ghost, have a Rolls-Royce Dawn and a Ferrari 488 Spider. This is my weakness.
Do you have a philosophy with money?
Money is only a means towards a goal. However, what you do with it is based on a person’s character. If you know what to do with money, it is a great thing. It will enable you to travel to parts of the world you never knew.
I am a big believer in being a global citizen. I have immersed myself in cultures all over the world and without money, you cannot do that. Life is short and you need to see and experience as much as you can before we leave.
Are you wise with money?
I believe so. Not all my life, I was foolish when I was young … Talent is an extremely important force in any industry to take you to the top. What sustains you at the top, in good times or bad, is character. That determines what you do in life, including how you deal with money.
In 2008, I had a massive setback and had to start from minus. I made it a mission to educate, learn, understand and develop myself and my team. I am responsible for them and their families … being foolish with money is not an option.
Did you learn from mistakes?
Absolutely. Making a mistake once is acceptable but making it twice is a choice. We choose to learn from it and not repeat it. I have made mistakes, especially in the early stages. I made new mistakes, not the same ones. These are lessons learnt, such as venturing into a business without knowing everything you need to know.
With time, wisdom kicks in and you start calculating the risks. In business, there will always be risk, no matter how smart the idea, but you start calculating it.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected you?
I have not laid off anybody. I was one of the pioneers to reopen in June. I said, “No one is leaving because of the pandemic”. The team stuck together to push the wheel forward and we had record sales we had not seen in three years.
With every risk, such as the pandemic, there is an equal opportunity. If you decide to see [things] differently, opportunities will come knocking. We thrived after the pandemic. We had a stronger team and came up with revolutionary ideas. We would not be doing all this if we were in our comfort zone.
Do you plan for retirement?
I do not think I would be retired totally but I would take a back seat, hand over the torch and spend more time dedicated to things I love. I will always be busy with something. I read on average three to four books a month but not as much as I want to.
I am sometimes jealous of people who hold a book, go to the beach or a coffee shop and read for a day or two. I do not have that luxury. I would also like to travel more.
In the company, we have sponsored the education of 300 children worldwide. I would like to focus on growing that.