Sanjay Tolani, 38, is chief executive and managing director of multi-family office advisory firm Goodwill World, which serves clients in 53 countries on estate planning strategies.
An Indian born and raised in Dubai, he’s also a board member of venture capital funds investing into technology, education, financial services, trading and F&B companies.
A father of two, Mr Tolani has authored 11 books on topics including personal financial planning, investments, marketing and branding and delivered talks internationally on economics, investments, insurance, risk and sales management. He lives with his family in The Meadows, Dubai.
Did your upbringing influence your money outlook?
I have a younger sister and we grew up in a very comfortable house. My father comes with a different philosophy on spoiling children. He pretty much gave me whatever I wanted, but there was always an incentive. I had a Mont Blanc pen in grade 12 for doing well in school. He would reward me.
Dad has been in Dubai for 48 years, was a mechanical engineer and made the decision to go into financial services. He started Zurich Life in Dubai in 1983. He was their director until 1996 and opened our family office in 1999. That’s when I started to get involved.
Were there other money-related experiences?
When I went to university, dad gave me a credit card; little did I know, he gave it to me so he could monitor where I was spending. He never questioned what I spent on or gave me a limit. Because he never stopped me spending, I didn’t spend, but knew that if I needed to, I could. I splurged on a dinner once in a while with friends. This was a good test without making me feel he was watching, giving me that long leash to say “do what you like”, but he had the reins and could have pulled it if he thought I was doing something wrong.
So your father shaped your financial philosophy?
Dad is a wise man, was my first mentor and still is. He said money is not something that makes you, breaks you or spoils you. Money is power, a tool. What you use that money for is what will affect everything around you. As soon as children understand that, it changes the way you live your life.
My father and grandfather have always had the philosophy that instead of teaching your children to save, teach them how to spend. Everyone talks about saving, saving, saving, but you’re curbing your desires, stopping yourself from enjoying life. The day you get excess money, you will end up spending in ways you might not otherwise have done.
What was your first salary?
My first job was as a driver for the family company, then working in the administration department. I was given $5,000 every month at 17. My grandad said, “There’s a rule, you’ve got to put $1,000 aside” and I could spend $4,000. I was going out for dinners, lunches, had a beautiful car, was buying pens and enjoying myself until I was 20/21. Then they increased it to $10,000 every month, but I had to spend 80 per cent. Come the second month, I didn’t know where to spend that much. Grandad wanted to remove the attraction of money.
What led to your choice of profession?
Dad had a stroke when I was 24. I inherited a business at that point. In about two years, I almost ran it into the ground because I wasn’t ready. I’d studied everything around the world of finance, economics, risk management and law, had my Masters and six years of work experience, but wasn’t ready to be a leader.
Dad’s team was removing money from the business. By the time I realised, I had to re-start the company and dismiss everybody except the office boy. Fast forward 11 years, I’ve got 14 global offices. I’m an adviser to a lot of family offices, what they should do within the family in terms of structure and family governance.
What is your attitude towards spending now?
I am a spender on anything that makes me feel productive. Prior to the pandemic, I would upgrade myself from business class to first class. I had 200-odd flights in 2019. I wanted to travel comfortably so I’m efficient when I get there. My productivity was based on me getting sleep. It’s not that I’m not a saver, but I know where I should be spending.
Have you had weaknesses?
I used to splurge on cars. Collecting sports cars was a hobby before I married … Ferraris, Lamborghinis, McLarens. But I still drive a sports car; an Alfa Romeo 4C Launch Edition, number 26 of 100.
Where do you save?
Into anything that gives me guaranteed income every month for X number of years. It’s not about the rate of return. Annuities, they give long-term guarantees, and fixed deposits. Even though I come from an investment background, I don’t have time to monitor equities or funds. I invest in markets using structured notes. I’m very careful on the level of risk, very income-focused and I like to accumulate that income. My father told me, “Any asset that doesn’t generate income is a liability”.
Property in Dubai and India is a good part of my portfolio, but I wouldn’t say it is now a majority asset. I purchased my house and my office.
What has been your best investment?
I invested in gold back in the day, made a lot of money. I entered at $350 an ounce, exited at $1,100. My second best investment was oil through exchange-traded funds. I entered at about $50 a barrel, exited at about $120.
What’s your worst investment?
I went to Global Village while at university and was trying to impress the girls. I spent so much on games just to win the soft toys. I could have spent 10 per cent to buy them. But no regrets, I had fun doing it.
What’s your most cherished purchase?
For my dad’s 65th birthday, I bought him a Rolls-Royce Phantom, his dream car. He’s fulfilled all my dreams. That made me feel good. Even though he could afford to, he would never buy it. It cost Dh1.8 million.
What life lessons have you learned?
I got pickpocketed in Philadelphia in 2014. I had one wallet, about $600 and my credit cards, all gone. I didn’t have money for 24 hours. Now when I travel, I keep one wallet in my hotel and one which I carry, and split my cards.
What has been your key financial milestone?
My father asked me to put down a number, where you have enough money. I was 19, put a number and hit that when I was 24. Dad sat me down again and said, “Whatever you do now is not for the money”. Now, it was about finding a purpose. That changed the way I look at money, when the concept of charity came into the picture.
Charity is also about giving time, support and mentorship. For example, I sponsor (underprivileged) children in China; $1,000 covers three years of schooling and I travel there to guide and mentor them. Also, we started printing t-shirts and sold 10,000 of them. All money from those and my books goes to charity.
Do you have a retirement plan?
Our generation is the first already living a retired lifestyle … while we work. I’m living something I call a hybrid retirement strategy. You retire at the age of 35, get income every month from your investments all the way to 75, which will allow you to do a bit more. It doesn’t stop you working, just gives you more time to do whatever you like. When you get to 75 or 80, that’s when you take full retirement. It changes the whole way you manage your money.