Money & Me: ‘Covid-19 has taught us how easy it is to live on a lot less’

Stevi Lowmass, chief executive of The Camel Soap Factory, is now more careful about her spending and where she shops

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 06 SEPTEMBER 2020. STANDALONE: Stevi Lowmass is the founder/owner of The Camel Soap Factory which began as a Dubai market stall business selling products made from locally sourced camel milk. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: David Dunn. Section: National.
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Stevi Lowmass is chief executive of The Camel Soap Factory, which she began as a home business and now exports soaps, balms and creams internationally.

The South African previously worked in IT, then electronic payments software, which brought her to Dubai in 2002.

Ms Lowmass, 61, began making soaps from locally sourced camel milk after spotting a market for tourist gifts, initially selling the products via pop-up shops. The business now employs 19 people at its Dubai Silicon Oasis plant, including her nephews and husband Brian, who is the commercial director. The couple and their daughter Kate, 15, live in The Lakes, Dubai.

How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?

I was born in a small mining town near Johannesburg. My dad came to South Africa after the Second World War from quite an underprivileged background in London. A trained metallurgist, he started a factory (zinc mill) and a bunch of other businesses, your classic entrepreneur. We were a big family, five kids.

We weren’t spoiled but grew up in quite a privileged environment. People didn’t really fly around the world on holiday then, but dad used to take us overseas every year to Europe. He always said, “I’m leaving you no money because I want you to have an appreciation of the world and learn from travel”. I have a very different attitude towards money and success as a result.

How much were you paid in your first job?

My first holiday job was helping one of my dad’s friends, a lawyer, paying one rand an hour (equivalent to Dh50 a day), which I thought was a huge amount at 14. He was actually underpaying me – the next year he tripled the rate. I really enjoyed earning my own money.

My first salaried job was as a programmer at one of the big South African mining houses, Anglo American. I was 21 when I started and was paid 550 rand a month. That bought an enormous amount then.

How did you end up making soap?

I’d always wanted to start a company. My husband and I were on holiday in Australia and came across this soap factory in the bush. I came back to Dubai with a dream. I found this lady who had started the biggest handmade soap company in the UK, went to London and did her business course. She was my mentor in the early years. I wanted to do something a bit more local, which is where camel milk came in. I remember going to a school fair in 2012 and sold everything within the first hour. I came home and said, “Maybe there’s a business here”.

You have to be sensible, think a bit about the future, but you've got to find happiness right now

What have been your best investments?

I bought 10 gold coins from my sister when they were $1,000 an ounce, maybe in 2009. Also, putting money into and finishing my degree. That was real value; it set me on a journey and gave me a sense of achievement.

Do you have a philosophy about money?

For me, it’s security. I’ve seen many people work their fingers to the bone, retire and get sick, so you have to ask the question, “What was it all for?” My philosophy is that you have to be sensible, think a bit about the future, but you’ve got to find happiness right now. And part of that happiness is you’ve got to spend a little.

Do you value experiences over materialism?

I’m not one that needs fancy stuff, have never bought brands or spent a lot on “things”. For me, to go see family and friends, spend time with them … what’s the point of having money and those connections otherwise? I think we’ve spent more on air tickets with Emirates than any other expats I know. Could we have saved more over the last 10 years? I’m sure we could. Do I regret some of the expenditure? No, we’ve got remarkable memories. Before my dad died, I flew home four times to be with him. It’s the time with friends and family that really counts. I am a spender on what I think to be the important things in life.

Are you wise with money?

Pretty wise, although I am quite a risk-taker, but it is always balanced with caution. I’ll look at things and go: “Is this worth it … is it sensible to be spending on this right now?” It’s quite natural that what you do in your personal life crosses over into business life. If I see a cache of money, I’ll get it out to somewhere it can’t be touched.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 06 SEPTEMBER 2020. STANDALONE: Stevi Lowmass is the founder/owner of The Camel Soap Factory which began as a Dubai market stall business selling products made from locally sourced camel milk. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: David Dunn. Section: National.
Ms Lowmass has invested in property in Dubai, South Africa and Glasgow. Photo: Antonie Robertson / The National

How do you save?

In property. We bought our home in The Lakes, a really good decision; it’s given us a stable life and something we own and can sell, and use as equity going forward.

We bought a house in South Africa, but owning property there is bad news. We’ve had it for 18 years, but as an investment, it’s a shocker. We also bought a flat in Glasgow, which has been a better investment, it's never short of tenants.

Starting this company meant we had to be extraordinarily brave with savings. We ploughed everything into the factory on the basis that we knew it will be successful. That’s why Covid-19 is absolutely not going to destroy it … this is my retirement fund.

So, the pandemic has impacted your business?

Covid-19 has been a nightmare for us. Almost our entire user base is tourists; we literally lost that overnight. Also, we were getting jacked up to start manufacturing for the Dubai Expo.

It’s changed the business. When things get ripped out from under your feet, you’re forced to look at how you do everything, at what makes people buy a product. You can sit and cry or make it work for you. I realised my whole focus had to be on protecting what we built rather than throwing my hands up and going “we’ve lost all these customers”. That’s been a positive process – we’re still not out of it, but I can see light at the end of the tunnel.

Has Covid-19 altered your domestic spending habits?

Massively, and I think it’s going to change them forever. We’ve had to implement salary cuts and Brian and I had to take the bulk of it. A few things surprised us, such as how easy it is to live on a lot less. I wish I’d learned this 10 years ago. When you think about every penny … we’re more careful about what we spend on and more considered about where we shop from. We waste a lot less as well.

Do you plan for the future?

We’ve got funds in annuities, plus the properties. I’m planning on the business delivering massively. We had to invest a lot of savings and I’m still confident when we get through all this, we will be much stronger. I’m really pleased the UAE announced retirement visas, but retiring at 60 … it’s a strange concept that we should stop work and do nothing when actually what wakes me up every day is doing something I really care about.