Money & Me: ‘I only spend on travelling and charities’

Christian Kiefer, founder of Spa Wellness Project Management, says his best investments are in himself and his business

Christian Kiefer says his financial goal is to grow his business to a certain level and exit in the next five years. Antonie Robertson / The National
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Christian Kiefer quit a job in industrial sales in his twenties and moved into the spa and wellness industry because he was tired of the rat race and wanted a purpose in life.

The German started working on luxury cruise ships as a wellness practitioner and was promoted to spa manager, recalling it as the best time of his life as he was travelling the world at a young age.

Mr Kiefer, now 43, relocated to the UAE 17 years ago and worked with big names in the hospitality industry, such as Emaar, St Regis and Starwood.

As group chief executive, Mr Kiefer spent five years with Dreamworks Spa and prepared the business for an equity exit in 2020.

Now, he is the chief executive and founder of Spa Wellness Project Management, which includes three businesses, Rayya Wellness, Wellbeings Holistic Healing and a hospitality consultancy.

Mr Kiefer lives on Palm Jumeirah with his Emirati wife and four-year-old daughter.

Why did you pursue a career in the wellness industry?

I worked with Villeroy & Boch as an industrial sales manager in my early twenties. But I never had the feeling of being fulfilled despite having a stable salary. I was DJing on the weekends as a hobby in Hamburg and Lübeck, where I was born.

On the weekends, I went to wellness hotels in eastern Germany, which are beautiful. This was in the mid-1990s.

Whenever I had this wellness experience, I felt fantastic. It evoked something in me, which had purpose.

I woke up one day and decided that I didn’t want to do a corporate job and be in the rat race, where every day felt the same and you're only living for the weekend. This was not a life I was striving for.

I did my wellness practitioner degree at evening school. I was about 24 years old. Then, I quit my job when the European Union was formed. Although there was economic uncertainty, I had a gut feeling that I was doing the right thing.

I told my parents over a Christmas dinner that I was a wellness practitioner and massage therapist and was going to leave Germany because I wanted to work on cruise ships.

What was it like to work aboard cruise ships?

I applied with a company called Steiner Leisure, which runs cruise ship spas, and went to London. My first cruise was going from San Diego to Hawaii.

It was a different working atmosphere. I was travelling the world in my mid-twenties. Suddenly, you love what you do, this thrill of life is infused into you and you can't get enough.

That’s when I realised that I never wanted to do anything else because I was so happy. That happiness and fulfilment reflected in the quality of my work.

Steiner recognised my work and wanted me in the management programme. I did my spa management degree in Miami, Florida. I was 27.

I was placed as a spa manager on a very big ship, the Carnival Splendor, there were 3,500 passengers and 27 people reporting to me.

I learnt to adapt to this stressful environment. However, your status as line level staff and as a manager on board one of these prestigious cruise ships is different, like day and night.

What prompted you to move to the UAE?

It was a very nice lifestyle and the salary was good. I was on cruise ships for another four years.

Then I looked for roles in Asia and the UAE and found a job in Dubai as an assistant spa manager with Emaar.

My salary dropped from €10,000 ($10,837) a month to Dh8,000 ($2,722) a month. But I wanted to come here and do something bigger and better. I later became cluster manager for Emaar and managed their hotels.

Then I moved to Abu Dhabi to open the St Regis Nation Towers and later did the post opening for St Regis Saadiyat, after which I was appointed as area director for Starwood Middle East.

I took on a private equity role with the spa operator Dreamworks and CedarBridge Capital Partners.

Money doesn't define wealth for me, love does. If I don't have love, I don't feel wealthy
Christian Kiefer, founder, Spa Wellness Project Management

I grew Dreamworks to be the biggest spa operator in the Middle East within three years. When I took over, they had four outlets. When I left, they had 23.

As group chief executive with Dreamworks for five-and-a-half years, I prepared the business for equity exit.

Then, I came across a project on the Palm called the Sofitel MGallery, owned by Sheikh Rashid bin Humaid Al Nuaimi. It was rebranded The Retreat Palm Dubai MGallery and I created Rayya Wellness, under the patronage of Sheikh Rashid.

I later expanded Rayya Wellness into Ramada Jumeirah Beach Residence and Ramada Downtown.

We also signed a master agreement with The First Group, Wyndham, Millennium Place Marina, Millennium Place Barsha Heights and big four-star hotels with high room inventory. By Covid, we had 15 locations.

How did the pandemic affect your business?

The spa and wellness industry was the most affected. It was a nightmare. But when the sector opened up, we were in a very good position because I had not terminated any staff.

Having made it through Covid times with the right strategic business decisions is something that was crucial for our success.

During the lockdown, I founded another brand called Wellbeings Holistic Healing. Today, the total portfolio combined with these two brands comprises 26 outlets.

How did wealth feature in your childhood?

I come from a very simple family. My mother was a nurse and father was a civil engineer. We were not brought up around a lot of wealth.

We lived in a three-bedroom apartment and didn't have a nanny or cleaners. Instead, we lived in a place filled with nature.

I did not learn anything about wealth detachment until I started working on cruise ships. When I left Germany, I had everything: a nice house with a fireplace, a view of the stables … I boxed everything up.

I had nothing when I was working on cruise ships, just a little cupboard, which was 30 centimetres by one metre. But I was the happiest I've ever been in my entire life for four years. Good friends, amazing conversations and this eternal feeling that money doesn't matter at all.

Money doesn't define wealth for me, love does. If I don't have love, I don't feel wealthy. All I need is health, family and a balance in life.

How did you first earn?

I was repairing TVs in Germany and got paid around €600. I only did it for four months. It was sort of an apprenticeship.

Any early financial setbacks?

No, because I was always very good at controlling debt. I always spent what I had, I was never attracted to credit cards or loans.

My company is also completely debt-free and fully self-funded.

How do you grow your wealth?

I have savings accounts and save quite a bit. I also make investments that help create good passive income.

Are you a spender or saver?

I would call myself a spender. But I never go above my limits because I need to make sure that my family and I have a very, very safe retirement fund.

Call it the waterfall principle. The first bucket is your family and you in terms of retirement, safety, financial benefits. If that bucket has reached a certain level, your house is paid off and you have financial security, why should I save more money?

I want to spend and travel. I'm not materialistic. I spend my money only on travel.

You can have your fancy suits and fancy cars. That’s status and people mistake it for happiness and wealth.

If I don't spend my money on travelling, I spend it on others. I do a lot of charity, but never send money to a source who I'm not 100 per cent confident of.

A few months ago, I was in the Philippines. I went to nurseries and orphanages and bought televisions, computers, rice, guitars and basketballs. This fulfils you so much.

What has been your best investment?

It’s on myself and my business. By this, I mean reading books, educating yourself, learning new skills, working on confidence levels, public speaking.

All the money that I make is being reinvested into my company, assets, growth and expansion. That's the smartest thing you can do as an entrepreneur.

If you take money out of your bank and buy a new Ferrari every few weeks, you're not making smart business decisions.

Do you have any cherished purchases?

My wife’s wedding ring. If I didn’t have her by my side, I wouldn’t be where I am right now.

Any financial advice for your younger self?

Make calculated business decisions and weigh risks. If something is too good to be true, it probably is.

What luxuries are important to you?

My car, Mercedes GT 43. I spend four to five hours in my car every day. So, it's like my second office and, therefore, important to have that luxury and comfort.

What are your financial goals?

I want to prepare my business to a certain level and then exit in the next five years.

Any key financial milestones?

Covid was a big knock. If it had not happened, we would have been double where we are right now.

But when it comes to financial milestones, it's been constant. Whenever we open a new location, it happens fairly quickly that we recover from the capex investments. All these smart business decisions have been milestones.

Updated: April 13, 2024, 9:04 AM