Global entrepreneur Rakesh Wahi: 'I've been a very bad personal investor'

The founder of ABN Group says he regrets not investing in equities and property when he started making money

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 24 MAY 2018. Mr Rakesh Wahi for Money and Me. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Alice Haine. Section: Business.
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Rakesh Wahi is the founder of the ABN Group, a media holding company for CNBC Africa and Forbes Africa. He is also the co-founder of the Trans National Academic Group, an education group that includes Murdoch University Dubai and Curtin University Dubai. Mr Wahi, 59, started his career in the Indian Army where he served with the Corps of Engineers before switching gears into the world of corporate finance and investment banking after spending a few months as part of  an Indian Scientific Expedition to Antarctica. The entrepreneur and media baron, who divides his time between Dubai and South Africa, is married with two grown-up children.

How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?

My father (the former chairman of India's Oil and Natural Gas Corporation) was in the army and for a large part in the public sector. When your parents have been in service, you understand the value of money a lot better than if it was easily available. It’s not something that you can throw around. You could not afford everything so you had to prioritise early on – do I get this or that? Then you pass on the same values to your children.

What business values did you inherit from your father?

He always said that life is all about inter-dependence with people. So when you hire people, it’s not that the organisation is hiring somebody, it’s the value that people bring to the organisation. At the end of the day, whether it’s business or your personal life, it’s all about the people around you.

What made you transition from the army to the world of corporate finance?

The army was my first choice. I was with the Corps of Engineers and was highly decorated. Then I went to Antarctic in 1987. Well they say, don’t let a soldier think ... and I had perhaps too much time to think there. It was nothing about the army - it is one of the greatest careers to have. But I decided I wanted to try something else, so in 1988 I quit. I first tried my hand at construction in India. Then in 1989, I came to Dubai and joined my sister and brother-in-law's publishing company. Then opportunities in Russia opened up with the Gulf War and I went into trading.

What came next? 

In 1994, I met Rick Michaels, chairman of the US investment bank CEA, and he asked me to represent him in the Middle East. I was one of the pioneers with the Islamic private equity business where we helped a Bahrain-based institution raise the first IT private equity fund worth $50 million. So it was a lot of finance advisory and investment banking work between 1994 and 2002. That's where I really cut my teeth in understanding money and money flows and what really goes into setting up well-managed businesses.

Do you consider yourself a spender or a saver?

I'm largely a saver. I have very little attraction towards material things. I have lived in the same house for the last 22 to 23 years and I drive the same car. Everything I have has been invested into the businesses I'm in. I'm risk averse when it comes to putting more money to risk because I'd rather take those risks myself than putting it into somebody else's hands.

What has been your best investment?

I guess our own businesses. In terms of investments in my businesses, I would imagine education will be the best in terms of its long term nature and impact.

Do you have any financial regrets?

Predominantly, I've been a very bad personal investor. I never put money into things like equities when I was young. Maybe it was lack of knowledge and perhaps also the fact that in the army, you don't really have surplus income. But even when I started making money, I was so involved in what I was doing that I never bothered about the equity markets. The second regret is about real estate - property is something I should have looked at more seriously when I was younger.


Read more:

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You co-founded CNBC Africa and Forbes Africa. What spurred you to invest in the media sector there?

In 2002, it was a complete meltdown in the tech sector so rather than raising more money and staying in the investment banking business, I decided to start building businesses and get entrepreneurial. As luck would have it, I met my current partner Zafar Siddiqi, who at that time was launching CNBC Arabia. While chatting one day, we thought why don’t we look at Africa.Africa’s been marred by unfortunate rhetoric about being a continent of gloom and doom. That’s not what we found. We found that there were solid businesses and Johannesburg Stock Exchange is one of the top exchanges. So it was about presenting the right story from Africa. With that as a mission, we set up CNBC and in 2011 we launched Forbes. We’ve completed 11 years with CNBC.

What car do you drive?

I bought a BMW in 2006 and it's still done only 60,000 km. It's a BMW 730. I have never changed my car.

What luxuries are important to you?

Nothing at all. I can pack my life in two suitcases. I have no attachments to anything. What matters to me is family, children, I'm very committed to them ... and then to the people I work with.

Was there any time in your life when you feared you could not pay the bills?

From a personal point of view, never. And in our businesses, I have always made sure that it's never. There's never been an instance where we've paid our staff late by even one day. That stems from meticulous planning. I do the same thing at a personal level. Even while investing, I've never even once put at risk the future of the family. You need to prioritise what is important for you because people who care about you are never going to benchmark you with what you drive and where you live.

What is your philosophy towards money?

Money is a by-product of what you do. It shouldn't become a means in itself. It is essential ... you can't survive in this world without money so you need enough to insulate your life. Once you've insulated your life, then it shouldn't become an obsession.

Mr Wahi started his career in the Indian Army before moving into the world of corporate finance and investment banking. Photo: Rakesh Wahi
Mr Wahi started his career in the Indian Army before moving into the world of corporate finance and investment banking. Photo: Rakesh Wahi

What is your most prized possession?

I was asked to address the National Defence Academy (in India) last year and at the Indian Military Academy in April this year. While planning these talks, I was looking at photo albums from 1976 and they bring back things in life which no amount of money can buy. I would say these memories are priceless for me.

How much money do you have in your wallet right now?

Actually, I'll have to ask my wife that. I'm like a school kid and she actually puts money in my pocket and sometimes when I don't check, I end up going to places and I don't have money in my pocket.

How important is philanthropy to you?
It is very important. From an early age, giving back was part of what the family always did. My mother did a lot of work with Mother Teresa and was involved in women's education and setting up vocational centres. When we came to South Africa, we saw many kids living in orphanages in terrible conditions. So we focussed on three things - first was helping these orphanages, one at a time. Second we've been working on the development of the girl child - we support bursaries and vocational centres. Third is we give tertiary education bursaries to kids from previously disadvantaged homes. If you can help one child at a time, then you've done your bit.

What is the value to you of investing in education in emerging markets?

As we were building the media and IT businesses, we found there were skills shortages. Rather than hire expensive expatriates and bring them into emerging economies, we thought it would be a good idea to set up a school of journalism. We partnered with Murdoch University and set up the first campus with them in Dubai. In about four-five years, we had established ourselves as academic service providers. Similarly, University of Lancaster was happy to partner with us in Ghana. We are now looking at Uganda for our fourth campus. We hope to end up with 10 universities and colleges in Africa over the next five to seven years.