Money & Me: 'Any spare money I have goes towards caring for homeless cats'

Lisa Knight took a break from running her own brand consultancy to open a Thai restaurant


Lisa Knight, a branding expert and Cafe Isan co-owner.

(Photo by Reem Mohammed/The National)

Reporter: DAVID DUNN
Section:  BZ
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Lisa Knight is the co-owner of Café Isan — a Thai restaurant near her home in Jumeirah Lakes Towers — and is currently on sabbatical from her role as a branding consultant. Originally from the UK maritime city of Portsmouth, Ms Knight, 48, worked for the British Labour Party on its rebranding under two prime ministers before moving to Dubai in 2008 as creative director of an investment firm. Now 48, Ms Knight shares her money journey.

How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?

I was brought up on a council estate, a working class background where people rarely went to university. My mum was a nurse and worked part-time in a pub and dad was a driver in the Marines, but they divorced when I was five. My stepfather was a very skilled mosaic tiler and travelled the world doing iconic projects, like London Underground. Money wasn’t tight but it wasn’t hugely abundant. I have younger brothers. I was brought up with this sense of responsibility in my early life and felt I was the one who had to achieve. It was pressure I put on myself; if I worked really hard, did X, Y and Z, perhaps we could move to a better area.

How much were you paid in your first job?

For pocket money — £5 (Dh24) per week — I had to make the tea, iron handkerchiefs and socks and babysit my brothers. At 14, I got a Saturday job in a hotel. I’d get £15 and did everything from cook breakfast for guests to cleaning. I bought mum a yucca plant with my first wages. I’m restless and used to working hard.

Are you wise with money?

Yes and no. I’m really driven by my heart, my passion. Logic says save or play it safe, but I will take chances — that’s meant the savings pot has been raided for the latest project or animal rescue. I don’t keep money in my hands for long, for myself.

What brought you to Dubai?

I experienced a violent incident in London [in the street]. Somebody attacked my friend. I stood up to this person and he smacked me. I had a week off work — I couldn’t go to meetings in Downing Street with a black eye — and started to think about my job and my CV. Gordon Brown was prime minister and it was a bit of an uncertain time in terms of the party. I saw a job in Dubai and thought it would be nice to live somewhere that supports entrepreneurship and creative industries. I came as creative director of a British investment company in the summer of 2008, and started The Brand Foundation in 2010. I’m currently on sabbatical, but planning to go back into it part-time.

Why swap a lucrative branding career to open a restaurant?

I was specialising in real estate, launching big projects and hotels. I loved the work but wasn’t enjoying it as much as I should. It had almost become too successful too quickly; at one point I had 30 projects on the go. It made lots of money, but I needed a break from that world, to live life differently. I’ve always been interested in food and travelled extensively to Thailand. I’d met my friend, now business partner, in 2009. She’d come to Dubai a year after me, couldn’t find north-eastern Thai food so started cooking at home and the Thai community would come for that food. After doing my branding business for eight years I was looking for my next life change. I realised there was a gap in the market so we started the café.

Has the career change hit your earning power?

Definitely, a huge drop, but I expected that. Quite honestly, I don’t care, as long as I can pay the bills. It was a life choice. I’ve never been motivated only by money. Of course, we need enough to do certain things, but there are things that are much more important. For me part of this was trying to have more of a work-life balance. At the moment I’m not getting that much in the restaurant either because of the hours, but I will do. The last couple of years the economy hasn’t been at its finest and that’s had an impact on growth, so we keep it lean.


Lisa Knight, a branding expert and Cafe Isan co-owner.

(Photo by Reem Mohammed/The National)

Reporter: DAVID DUNN
Section:  BZ

Are you a spender or a saver?

A spender. I plough money back into the business. I love to create projects — not necessarily to make money — like this restaurant. We officially opened January 1 2016; there wasn't any of my savings left [after that].

What are you happiest spending money on?

Travelling experiences are really important. I haven’t had as many as I would like over the last three years.

I love to help out family, when I’m able to. My dad had a stroke a few years ago and his pension hardly covered the essentials. He became immobile so I would help with healthcare costs, extra food, even his mortgage if he struggled. I’ve not been able to do that as much since my break. Any other money that’s remotely spare goes on helping treat sick and injured street cats, neutering and spaying, providing food and water, partly via Red Paw Foundation. Those animals can’t help themselves.

Where do you save?

When I do save, it goes into a UK saving account. I’ve also got a lot of savings in terms of land, in Thailand. In one particular area my business partner and I have built a lake and are planning an eco-resort connected to this café; bamboo huts for people to experience the real Thailand. Isan is a lesser-known part of Thailand. We educate people here about the culture through the food. Eventually the resort will come into the picture as well.

What’s your philosophy towards money?

It’s there to be used, to enable ideas. Sometimes you need a bit more fuel to enable more ideas or improve the ideas.

I don’t keep hold of money that much because I’m a natural-born creative; if I accumulate I use it for something. I’ll always be thinking, what can that ‘fuel’ do?

I’m not ruled by money, never have been. My branding company made quite a bit, but what I saved went into Café Isan.

What’s been your best investment?

This restaurant — not from a financial perspective, yet … these things take time. We’ve won awards, which is incredible for such a small restaurant and considering we’re first timers in this industry. Over the next one to two years we will start to leverage that success and it will eventually translate into more cash.

What’s your most cherished purchase?

When I brought my entire family over for a two-week luxury holiday in 2013 — hotels, business class flights — even my business partner’s parents. It cost me a fortune, but that’s something I’m proud I did.

Do you prefer paying in cash or credit card?

Cash. I’m not a fan of credit cards — I don’t like the charges. I prefer the ‘real thing’, notes in my pocket.

What financial advice would you give to your younger self?

If you think you’ve budgeted well, just double it and you might be closer to the reality.

Do you plan for the future?

Yes, to open further restaurants, including one in London, and more F&B brands.