Money & Me: ‘I only invest in real estate as it’s a great hedge against inflation’

Somendra Khosla, chairman of boutique developer Soho Development, grows wealth by buying and developing land plots in Dubai

Somendra Khosla, chairman of Soho Development, says his best investment has been on his children's education and his support staff. Antonie Robertson / The National
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It was during one of his business trips to Dubai in 2003 that Somendra Khosla came across a newspaper advertisement for freehold property in the UAE.

Owing to his work experience in Hong Kong, he knew that freehold property sales would become popular in Dubai and sensed an opportunity.

He set up a small real estate agency called New World Real Estate, alongside two colleagues.

In two years, because the property market was growing, he expanded the company to a 77-member team. He also asked his son, Sahil, to return from the US and join him.

“We sold properties worth $300 million for just one customer, Tanmiyat, in four to five years,” recalls Mr Khosla, 78.

“I was also involved in buying and selling real estate in London.”

He pivoted his business focus towards property development after the global financial crash in 2009.

Today, he is chairman of boutique property developer Soho Development, which has a signature development on Sheikh Zayed Road, built nine villas on Palm Jumeirah’s G, N and I Fronds as well as the Soho Palm Jumeirah.

His son is the chief executive and creative director of Soho Development.

Mr Khosla, who holds a Saint Kitts and Nevis passport, moved from India to London in 1966 to study accountancy and worked with Deloitte after becoming a qualified accountant.

He currently rents a property on Palm Jumeirah, Dubai. “We were probably among the first people to move to the Palm,” Mr Khosla says.

How did you venture into real estate?

After quitting my job at Deloitte, I operated a small business buying and selling garments in Leicester and later, set up a garment exports manufacturing unit in Bahrain in 1988.

We exported to companies in the US like Gap and JC Penney. We moved our unit to Nepal. Unfortunately, we had to move from Nepal after five years because there was a revolution.

I came to Dubai by default in 2000 even though we were based in London and had businesses there. We were running nursing homes for the elderly. We sold all of them last year.

I started calling Dubai home since 2003. When we were running the real estate agency, we bought a lot of land from Nakheel in International City. At that time, we could buy land for Dh225 ($61.26) per square foot.

Today, Soho is our brand name, under which, we have multiple companies. Soho SZR was our first project and then, we started developing on Palm Jumeirah, which has been our main focus.

What projects have you developed?

We bought nine land plots over many years. We first bought two land plots on I frond from Nakheel and built two villas.

My son and I sold our villas to American make-up artist and beauty blogger Huda Kattan and her sister Mona in 2018. That was a big breakthrough for us.

We purchased more land on the N frond and built three villas there. We sold all three villas, too, and purchased more land. We also purchased a plot on G frond and in West Palm Beach, and built it into a residential project, called Soho Palm.

We are now constructing two buildings with 200 apartments in Dubai Hills Estate. We are also developing two ultra-luxury beachfront villas spanning 17,400 square feet each in Jumeirah Bay. We bought the plots for Dh65 million and Dh67 million.

The selling rate there is Dh13,000 per sq ft. Those are likely to sell for between Dh250 million and Dh300 million on a conservative estimate.

Did wealth feature in your childhood? What did you learn from it?

I come from a very basic family and went to a government school, so wealth didn’t feature much in my childhood.

But my parents were very focused to see that learning was more important than wealth.

I did well in school and went to St Stephen’s College in Delhi, one of the top in India.

I did my bachelor's in history and my father was keen that I pursue my higher education abroad. He took many hard decisions in his life to send me abroad.

I qualified in four years and became a chartered accountant. That helped me learn so many things in life: how to manage yourself, how to invest and that cash flow is the most important thing in business.

How did you first earn and how much did it pay?

While doing my articleship to be a chartered accountant, I was paid around £4 ($5.10) a week. I qualified in 1971 and my salary as a chartered accountant was £1,350 per annum.

Any early financial jolts?

Many. I left accountancy in 1973 and moved into selling garments because I wanted to be an entrepreneur.

In 1974, I saw the first global recession in my life. There was the war between Arabs and Israelis in 1973 and oil price went to $12 per barrel from $3. That was my first setback, but we recovered and it taught me many things.

We faced another setback while running our factory in Bahrain. We had to close our unit because of the Shia-Sunni conflict.

Unfortunately, we had to move to Nepal. The third setback was when Nepal closed for five years and we moved our garment trading business to Dubai. But every crisis gives you an opportunity.

How do you grow your wealth?

I work hard and produce nothing but the best. We’ve sold nine big villas on the Palm and managed to sell them even before they were fully built.

I now live in a rental property after realising that I can utilise my Dh40 million to Dh50 million for growth.

Inside Dh56m property on Dubai's Palm

Inside Dh56m property on Dubai's Palm

We only invest in real estate. It’s a great hedge against inflation. Once you have fully paid for the land, even if the value goes down, you can still hold on to it.

I bought my first apartment in New York for $450,000 and sold it for $1.2 million six years ago. I bought a property in London for £100,000 in 1988 and sold it for £900,000 after 20 years. You’ll see the same thing happening in Dubai.

We work very similar to Warren Buffett and only talk about 8 per cent to 10 per cent returns annually. That is a lot, if you can get it consistently.

Are you a spender or a saver?

I am not a spender now, but I used to be earlier.

When I started my business in London and was 22 years old, I had two business partners. I bought a new Mercedes car for £2,000 while he bought a house for £2,800, which is worth £1 million today. That’s a valuable lesson I learnt.

I spend for business, not to buy a brand new Rolls-Royce or a Ferrari.

I prefer to live a simple, grounded life and that’s how I’m bringing up my children as well.

Values are more important than valuation for me, my children and our group at large. Your credibility and values take you forward.

Have you been wise with money?

Yes, but life is a cycle with many ups and downs. I’ve been wise with money but have obviously lost a lot as well.

There’s a phrase that goes: Take care of your pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves. This is very important.

Values are more important than valuation for me, my children and our group at large
Somendra Khosla, chairman, Soho Development

Keep your overheads low. In our office, we only have nine people, but we are involved in so many projects.

What has been your best investment?

It would be on my kids’ education and my support staff.

The human capital I have is my best investment.

Any cherished purchases?

I have been collecting classic cars, those are coveted. I have three classic Rolls-Royces: a 1960 Silver Cloud, 1974 convertible Corniche, 1988 convertible Corniche, and a Mercedes 280SL 1968 model.

I am also a voracious reader and collect lots of books. I subscribe to four newspapers.

How do you feel about money?

Money is important, but values are more important. We have lived by that, so did my father.

He also told me that trust is very important, never lose it. That’s helped our group to grow.

Any financial advice for your younger self?

I wish I had people who told me what I tell others today: don’t buy a car, buy a house.

Today, I probably wouldn’t make many mistakes I did when I started. Cash flow is one of them.

My advice to my younger self would be to be frugal and spend wisely.

Any key financial milestones?

One of the most important milestones in my life has been moving to Dubai. This city respects tolerance, plurality and entrepreneurial spirit and it’s given me so much.

What luxuries are important to you?

Family and associations are important. We are a very close-knit family, even though my daughter is in Milan.

I have six grandchildren and they are very important to me, I try to make sure they are balanced and grounded.

What are your financial goals?

Keep working hard and grow. As Warren Buffett says anyone who can grow at 8 per cent to 10 per cent annually is lucky. We’ve been lucky so far.

Our goal is to make Soho into a brand in itself.

Updated: May 24, 2024, 6:02 PM