John Martin St Valery is chairman of the British Business Group (BBG) for Dubai and Northern Emirates, which he joined shortly after arriving in Dubai 21 years ago. The former policeman became financially independent three years ago after selling his 14-year-old formation and structuring business, Links Group, to a global professional services firm that he still advises as chairman in the Middle East. Mr St. Valery, 54 and a grandfather of three, is also chairman and advisor for JacksonMSV, a boutique business advisory firm managed by his son Jack, 27, one of two Dubai-based grown-up children. Mr St. Valery lives in the Trade Centre area with his wife Carolynn.
How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?
I grew up in a village not far from Gatwick Airport. My father was a Jersey man by birth, a military man who became a civil engineer. My mother was from a long line of naval officers. Both came from quite aristocratic families, but we were as poor as church mice as kids. I’m the middle of three. We lived in an old country cottage, no central heating or carpets. The currency in our house was love and support - that's what I remember fondly - a loving environment, but we didn’t do school trips or have the extras or trappings some of my peers had. I wasn't very studious, but from childhood I had a burning desire not to find myself in that same situation. My father, long before he married, had a number of years with the British South African police. Without telling my parents, I applied to the Metropolitan Police Cadets. At 16 I left home.
What were you paid in your first job?
That was my first full-time job - about £100 (Dh450) a week, so my parents didn’t have to support me. The summer previously the school chaplain introduced me to an entrepreneur who had a corporate services cleaning firm and gave me a part-time job at Gatwick Airport, about Dh9 an hour. Also I worked in a village pub kitchen, washing up. I've never been solely driven by money, it's been about getting something done and, in some cases, being recognised for that.
What brought you to Dubai?
I was working for Citibank, heading their Diners Club UK/European card sales team. I’d been here a couple of times and Carolynn had visited as an air hostess in the ‘80s. We’d married and had kids relatively young and thought ‘what’s next in life’.
Through contacts there was an opportunity to come with a financial services business, to establish a fully fledged branch. The BBG helped me with professional contacts, like-minded individuals, either senior British expats working for businesses here or British business owners. We now have 800-plus members representing about 600 companies. The fundamental benefit I enjoyed 20 years ago is what members still want; access to market opportunities, learning, sharing experiences.
What was your financial milestone?
I set-up what was then Links Corporate Solutions, latterly Links Group, a business enabler, small advisory mainly for British companies initially (in December 2002). We had a few blue ocean years growing quite fast to 60 employees, offices in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha, doing well. The opportunity came to be acquired by a global business, Equiom Group. It was a very substantial deal. It's given me the opportunity to really concentrate on things I want to be doing; a massive luxury. We’re fortunate, we have three bases - in Dubai, Wimbledon, London and Montreux, Switzerland, living between the three.
The sale of the business also gave me the opportunity to support my son’s start-up, JacksonMSV. We’re a made in Dubai family.
Are you a spender or a saver?
I’m a spender, not to a flashy extent. I like to spend on others. I haven’t necessarily been as prudent as I should have been. Carolynn and I went through some very tough times, especially when the kids were young and I had this inkling of ‘I don’t want to be going down this route again'. I’m far more prudent now, funnily enough.
How do you save?
I have a low risk strategy; a portfolio of bonds, cash and physical gold. Property has always been important to me, not necessarily from an investment perspective, but security. The business enabled me to settle mortgages. That might not be the most prudent thing to do with interest rates low as they are. It's all about your risk appetite, knowing which segment of the pile you’re prepared to lose.
Have there been times you worried you couldn't pay the bills?
Many. Every copper in London has to do two years on the beat in uniform. It was regular income. It gave me the ability to purchase my own flat on a 100 per cent mortgage. Interest rates were 15 per cent. I couldn't service it financially and had to give the keys back and was in debt. I carried on being in debt. At the end of eight years I left the police and joined Kodak in sales, selling photocopiers in 1991. I moved into selling finance for the machines. I had good earning power, but no savings.
Are you wise with money now?
I’m more careful than when I didn’t really have any, more aware, maybe. I spent more than my income for years. My kids, though over the years have had a privileged upbringing and a good start, know that (money) doesn’t come easily and it's not the be all and end all.
What luxuries do you spend on?
Premium travel, so turning left when you get on the airplane. That’s an indulgence. Also I love the beauty of cars. My baby is a 1960 Austin Healey 3000, beautifully restored. It was a nostalgia buy (Dh264,000) as my father had the same model in 1963. I also bought a Morgan, and a Bentley GTC convertible in London.
What precious thing have you splurged on?
Our 30th wedding anniversary, rather than have a big party and presents, the nine of us (kids and grandchildren) went to the Maldives for five days in May and had a wonderful celebration; first class flights to Malé, two super resorts.
What financial advice would you give your younger self?
Have an eye on the future because it comes long before you expect it to. Don’t be so carefree. Even if it's a small amount, put it away. Have that nest egg.
Do you prefer paying by cash or credit card?
Credit card, for Emirates Skywards points to fuel my premium travel, but paid off in full. I’ve had enough years of debt.
Do you plan for the future?
I value financial security. I’ve put in place my financial plan for myself and my family. Unless I’m incredibly foolish moving forward, that’s sorted. So I’m relishing the future. I’d like to spend time in Montreux and travel from there, see more of Europe.
What would you raid your savings for?
Any family difficulty or medical requirement not covered by insurance. If there’s a significant crash in the UK property market I might raid cash to invest.