How one UAE company is empowering employees with smart money skills

From financial literacy lessons to a company share plan, restaurant chain Off The Hook aims to help staff plan for their futures

Restaurant supervisor Ralph Joseph Cruz is quick to admit that he wasn’t always as smart with money as he is now.

The Filipino father of one was meeting his remittance obligations to his family, sending cash to cover their living expenses while he worked in Dubai.

“But I didn’t know how to manage money properly,” says Mr Cruz, 37.

He devoted much of what was left of his salary to going out.

“I was thinking, as long as I send money to my wife, that’s OK.”

But his attitude changed when he started working for seafood restaurant chain Off The Hook in 2017. Mr Cruz realised he could do more, including saving for his 12-year-old son’s future.

With nine branches across the UAE, the company provides financial literacy mentoring to its 90 staff to help them better manage their earnings.

Mr Cruz, who is based at the restaurant's Port Saeed branch in Deira, first arrived in Abu Dhabi from his country in 2014.

“In the Philippines, you cannot earn as much, but I have to think about my son's future, so that is why I am here,” Mr Cruz says.

“Before, I was sending money to my wife and my son; just giving them enough for basic needs.

“Once I sent it, I would do whatever I wanted; [I thought] I had done my duty … now it's not like that.”

I didn’t know how to manage money properly. I was thinking, as long as I send money to my wife, that’s okay
Ralph Joseph Cruz, restaurant supervisor, Off The Hook

Along with his colleagues, Mr Cruz has been encouraged to review his spending habits and financial options by his boss Rolly Brucales, the restaurant chain’s managing director.

Mr Brucales, who is also from the Philippines, wants his employees to feel like part of a family and to be empowered with better money management skills.

An accountant by profession, Mr Brucales, 46, has made it his mission to provide financial literacy skills to the restaurant chain's staff.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the company has invited motivational speakers to inspire staff.

None of the restaurant's employees have been laid off despite the global health crisis. Instead, Off The Hook has added four branches.

The financial literacy process for the restaurant's employees usually begins with an Excel sheet to illustrate expenditure and potential improvements or cost savings, Mr Brucales says.

Lessons include insights into investing in the stock market and mutual funds, with advice from Mr Brucales, friends and associates through group presentations, over a coffee or Zoom chats.

Mr Brucales, a father of three who is based in Abu Dhabi, says there is a tendency for some of his countrymen to spend on “food and glam” while they are in the UAE.

In some cases, they return to the Philippines with little to show for their time abroad, he adds.

He wanted to “change their direction” and how they were using their earnings – and he realised he could do that through his organisation as it grew.

“It was my goal and that of the partners, so that once the employees go back, if they leave the company, they are educated on how to handle money,” he says.

“In our community, many are living like millionaires here, buying stuff they don’t need," says Mr Brucales.

But they go back to the Philippines without having acquired any property or investments and end up working again, he says.

“We need to remind them, what is the big ‘why’ you are here … for your family. They can then educate their family members [who are receiving remittances] as well.”

It is easy to earn money, but keeping hold of and growing it can be challenging for some
Rolly Brucales, managing director, Off The Hook

Mr Brucales, who hosts monthly meetings at each branch, says it is “easy to earn the money”, but keeping hold of and growing it is challenging for some.

Among his tips is retaining 30 per cent for investing, with the rest of the salary earmarked for living expenses and remittances. It is also important to identify the investment purpose – such as funding retirement or education costs – alongside investment risks.

“The secret is to list expenses on a monthly basis; based on that, you know where your money goes,” Mr Brucales says.

“You have to study what you are going into with any investment. The analysis is very important and part of our learning … what is a mutual fund, the stock market.”

Initially, however, the task might be as simple as helping an employee open the right type of account in the Philippines, through which they can then feed their investment vehicles.

Mary Ann Capistrano, a recently promoted branch manager after almost four years with Off The Hook, admits she wasn’t a “good saver” before leaving the Philippines, where she worked as a cashier and server.

“My family didn’t obligate me to give them money,” says Ms Capistrano, who is single.

“But my aunty who asked me to come here has gone back to the Philippines for good, so I’m [now] the breadwinner.”

Financial mentoring taught her how to do more with her dirhams, and helped her to focus on achieving her goals, she says.

“I got to understand why I should save for myself and why I need to invest,” says Ms Capistrano, who previously sent her entire salary to the Philippines for her mother and grandmother, who requires medication.

Now, she budgets more effectively and is saving towards renovating the family home, as well as buying her own place for when she starts a family.

Ms Capistrano says Mr Brucales enabled her to have greater financial discipline and strategy, although she was already frugal with her personal spending to the extent she didn’t host a party for her recent 30th birthday.

She now feels more confident about her future.

“My focus before was my family, but since the literacy [lessons] I got to save for myself, while sending money for my family,” she says.

Ms Capistrano is also planning to invest in Off The Hook through the company's incentive programme that enables staff to become shareholders.

Employees are regularly designated an incentive amount when their branch meets targets – they have the opportunity to take that as cash or invest into the business, for which they receive dividends.

I got to understand why I should save for myself and why I need to invest
Mary Ann Capistrano, branch manager, Off The Hook

“It’s like they own it,” says Mr Brucales, who sees the scheme as a great way to reward employees while galvanising loyalty with a tangible investment.

“We set a target at every branch. Most of the time, they hit the target and they get a percentage out of it,” he explains.

“We want to innovate the way we are managing and the people behind that success [with] the same vision.”

The brand, which is popular among Emiratis as well as Filipinos and other nationalities, has three branches in Dubai, five in Abu Dhabi and one in Al Ain. Franchised outlets are set to follow in Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah and other GCC countries.

Mr Brucales, the son of merchant parents who operate a meat stall, moved to the UAE in 2004.

Initially trading supplies for an Abu Dhabi medical company, Mr Brucales began selling Philippine real estate to GCC-based Filipinos seeking long-term investments, and opened a tailoring shop to feed his entrepreneurial appetite.

He and six business partners, including his wife Angie, opened their first Off The Hook restaurant in 2016 in Abu Dhabi.

Mr Brucales cites his successful business journey from “humble beginnings” as inspiration for mentoring employees.

“I’ve taken a mission in life to empower not just my staff, but everyone about financial literacy so they can consciously achieve financial freedom,” he says.

“I walk the talk. I want everyone to go home with money and investments.”

That includes Mr Cruz, who has set funding his son's education as his financial target.

Having reduced personal spending, including nightlife outgoings, he is saving more for his family’s future beyond their everyday needs.

He has created an account to fund a college education and is also investing in Off The Hook.

“With financial literacy, I started thinking more long term … I have to have a target [and] I now have a goal,” Mr Cruz adds.

Providing financial literacy support to staff is becoming more common among companies, Carol Glynn, founder of Conscious Finance Coaching, says.

“Improved employee financial literary is beneficial to employers as studies show finance-related stress causes reduced productivity and increased absenteeism,” Ms Glynn says.

“According to USA Today, companies that invest in financial literacy or wellness programmes for their employees achieve on average a 300 per cent return on their investment through a happier, more present and productive workforce.

“And this applies to individuals of all salary levels … the lack of money management skills or education is a problem across all income levels and industries.”

However, it is important to ensure employees understand the risk and conditions of buying shares specifically in the company they work for, Ms Glynn says.

The pandemic was a wake-up call for all to save money and a child’s college graduation or an apartment can be the tangible result of an employee's UAE labour, Mr Brucales says.

“It’s a success story for the brand as well, seeing your organisation and staff financially stable,” Mr Brucales adds.

“We’ll make sure they take home more of their money, because the success of the brand is coming from them as well.

“Sometimes, other employers forget that.”

Updated: August 22nd 2021, 5:00 AM