Ahmass Fakahany left banking for the restaurant business as the world stood on the precipice of the global financial crisis. In a statement announcing his decision to retire as president and chief operating officer of Merrill Lynch in late January 2008, he said: “I leave knowing that the firm’s financial condition is significantly enhanced”. Within months, in the face of mounting losses and evaporating liquidity, Merrill Lynch had been acquired by Bank of America. Mr Fakahany, on the other hand, has fared much better. Altamarea Group, the upmarket restaurant chain he founded with chef and partner Michael White, in 2009, now operates 15 restaurants worldwide, including Marea, its first and signature restaurant in New York City which has consistently received two Michelin stars. Mr Fakahany is also chief executive of its subsidiary Atelier House Hospitality, a New-York hospitality advisory firm which he founded in 2017 with offices in New York and Dubai. Originally from Cairo, Mr Fakahany lives in New York and recently visited Dubai TO DO WHAT at the Global Restaurant Investment Forum.
How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?
My upbringing very much was centered around understanding many cultures and appreciating different people and walks of life. My parents were very focused on making sure their children understood the value of the dollar. We really had to work very hard when we were young. [The approach taught me] appreciation and having an empathy for other people’s circumstances. So I think that really shaped my feeling around the value of a dollar - to be efficient and not take anything for granted.
Tell me about your career.
I left Cairo when I was four and grew up in Switzerland and England before going to US when I was almost 17. Growing up in Switzerland and London I loved hospitality and was very interested in it. I thought I might pursue that path and attend a hotel and management School in Lausanne. But you had to speak so many European languages, so it didn’t quite pan out and I just pursued the business path. My father was delighted; I ended up in Wall Street and ultimately became president and chief operating officer [of Merrill Lynch] globally. I worked with them in Asia for eight or nine years, as well as Europe and the US, so it was a very international career.
Was your father also an executive?
He was an executive vice president with Exxon. Despite that, and despite having a comfortable life I didn’t quite feel it as much as I could have, because [he made sure I attended the] school of hard knocks, as it's called.
How did your career in banking help your career in hospitality?
You learn so about culture working for Merrill Lynch all over the world, as well as discipline about running businesses and how to lead people. The financial discipline and leadership components of my career are very translatable into the food and beverage arena.
How much were you paid for your first job?
My very, very first job was stacking shelves at a supermarket in London and I was paid the minimum wage. That was when I was a student, 14 or 15 years-old. I worked one day a week. My first job out of business school was long ago and that was maybe about $50,000 a year.
That sounds like a decent starting salary.
It felt good but it went pretty quickly, at the same time. I did an internship at Exxon and loved it. They offered me something and I said why not?
Are you a spender or a saver?
I am an investor. I invest in people and I invest in ideas - good ideas and people that I feel have a good management capability. Investing is not only done with money. It is also your time.
What is your biggest financial milestone?
Taking my parents out for an expensive dinner and not worrying about the cost of the meal. That was when I was 21. I know many people in the finance world would talk about big income and salaries, but that was a nice juncture and it was also personal. To not be sitting in the restaurant sweating and worrying what the bill would be and whether I would have to borrow some money to pay for it, felt pretty cool. The bill was around £250. It was a very good meal.
Have you ever had a month where you feared you couldn’t pay the bills?
As an entrepreneur in food and beverage I have had times of worry, yes. And it is very humbling. It makes you realise you need to fight harder and make sure you can cover that in running the business. So, it is not so much my own utility bills, but more about running my own company. A lot of things can go wrong and you learn from them. It makes you more focused on being ahead of the game.
Do you use a financial adviser?
I do. I have a financial adviser personally with Bank of America Merrill Lynch, my former employer but the rest I do on my own. The adviser suggests ideas of things I may want to invest and makes sure I am covered.
Do you have any financial regrets?
I don’t. I think all of the hard lessons were helpful in informing me and giving me confidence for the future.
Do you plan for the future?
I do. I spend a lot of time thinking about the future. Personally I think about the markets, where they are going and how to take the business to a better place - I feel that is my responsibility.
What luxuries are important to you?
Extremely good food and excellent hotels.
How much do you have in your wallet right now?
I have about $300. I usually carry a bit of cash because I think when you tip in cash you get the best service. People still love it. Their eyes light up. That is mostly why I carry the cash.
What percentage do you tip?
I tip about 30 per cent, on average, or more. It depends on the service I receive and also because I have an empathy and understanding for what these people go through to manage their own lives and provide superior support, given the difficulty sometimes of being in the service team. So I think part of it is being in the business where you give back a little bit.
What car do you drive?
I drive a Range Rover. I grew up in London, so that’s part of that and I really like being able to see what is happening in New York thanks to the elevation when you are driving in the city. It gives you a level of safety and comfort.
What financial advice would you offer your younger self?
To be diversified earlier and be more logical versus chasing trends.
Is Bitcoin a trend?
Yes, I believe more in sustainable financial instruments that are accessible for all and not too faddish. I think there is an over focus on Bitcoin. There is a place for it, because there always has to be but I would say I look for world economic flows that have sustainability.