Thanj Kugananthan is the founder of human resources consultancy Not Just Numbers and online directory Visible HR.
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, to Sri Lankan parents, she moved to Dubai seven years ago to join facilities management company Serco, having previously worked with the firm in London. Prior to that, she had a stint at the Royal Bank of Scotland in Australia as a remuneration analyst. Ms Kugananthan, 38, lives in Motor City in Dubai.
How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?
I was born in Edinburgh, but my heritage is Sri Lankan. My dad went to university in the UK and was there since the 1960s. He became an engineer within the rail industry, eventually working in the project controls and risk department. I grew up in Wimbledon, London, in an environment where I was told, 'You can do whatever you want and own whatever you want.' I have an older sister, now a doctor. We were comfortable, we weren't spoilt but would go to the toy shop every birthday and choose something and often went to restaurants as a family. We probably went on better holidays than other kids, to Malaysia, Australia and Hong Kong. Mum would say, 'You have to be really grateful.'
My parents liked to work hard, never complained. By the end of his lifetime, Dad was earning as much as his peers. It’s motivating to see that growing up, and that's had an impact on me, starting my business … You realise you have to persevere. My attitude is anybody who works hard can make good money.
How much were you paid in your first job?
At 17, after I finished ‘A’ level exams, I worked in an old ladies' suit shop a couple of days a week, and every Saturday when at uni, for £5.40 (Dh25) an hour. I used to get laughed at as I had to wear the clothes — white blouses with big frills — as uniform.
What brought you to Dubai?
My dad won lots of projects in different countries and worked away in Brazil and Abu Dhabi in the 1980s. I was 27 and realised I'd never left London. I heard about a working holiday visa in Australia and got employed with RBS in Sydney for six months as a remuneration analyst. I went back to the UK for two more years, worked for Serco. They went through redundancy, but Serco in Dubai offered a job, asked me to come for six months, in June 2012. I fell in love with Dubai.
Why trade a salary for self-employment?
I learnt money doesn’t make you happy. I'd left Serco [Dubai] for another job as a rewards manager in a financial services company. You can be on a great package, as I was, but I was miserable. I had lots in my account but wasn’t motivated to invest it. I was saving but only because I wasn't doing anything with it. My self-esteem plummeted. I was made to believe I wasn’t good at what I did, which has been disproved because I’ve been consulting in HR since, for [the past] five years. I then started Visible HR last August, like an online yellow pages for HR consultants. I wanted to diversify my income and do something helpful.
Are you a spender or a saver?
Definitely a saver; I have been since I was young. To start a business you need savings because you need to pay yourself for 12 months. I knew as long as I have ‘this much’ saved I have time to win clients and run this business. I put aside Dh100,000 for portal development, PR, events catering.
Where do you save?
I have a pension-type structure and put away almost Dh3,000 a month. I have savings in UK pounds offshore I can dip into any time. I’ve also bought an off-plan apartment in Liverpool, north-west England. Property is a saving and investment is important to me. I bought my property here as well. I was fed up paying someone else's mortgage. Even if house prices reduce, you’ve still got an asset, whereas paying rent you have nothing.
What is your best investment?
I’d like to believe it’s Visible HR because, I believe, it will give me the returns I want. The idea is I build this brand and people see value in being part of it. Work-life balance is important to me. I don't think I could go back to employment.
What is your most cherished purchase?
My Dubai apartment — how I’ve done it up, the effort I put in. I bought it a year ago and re-did everything apart from the doors. I spent about Dh140,000. Because I work from home, it was important to have my happy place.
Are you wise with money?
You have to be when you’re a business owner. I like going for a nice dinner, trying new restaurants. I don’t restrict myself but I’m cost-conscious and don’t like to waste money. I use The Entertainer and I like a bargain. I’m not going to a Dh600 brunch each weekend — to me, that’s a waste of money.
Do you budget?
Loosely. Because I’m not a big spender I don’t need to massively keep an eye on what I’m spending. I love being at home — when it’s the weekend I don’t have to be out. That means you don’t need to be strict on budgeting.
The biggest thing becoming a business owner, though, is coming away from being addicted to a monthly salary. It’s changed my mindset. You have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable with what your bank balance looks like. There's uncertainty but as long as you’re continually networking, building your business … you’ve got to be motivated and build the thing you're really passionate about.
What's been your financial milestone?
Winning my first client for Not Just Numbers five years ago; I created a pay structure for them. When you start your own business and get your first pay cheque from a client … that’s quite an achievement.
Do you prefer paying by cash or credit card?
Debit card. I don’t like credit cards, I’ve not had one since uni. I feel if I had a credit card I might forget to pay and then face charges. It’s another form of debt, so I only spend what I have.
Do you plan for the future?
I want to retire as soon as possible. By retire I mean I want work to be optional and any project I do is because I find it fascinating.
I've started a Forex ‘learn to trade’ course; you can earn maybe 4 per cent on your trades. By the time I’m 45 I want to be earning from different investments, from Visible HR and to be consulting on projects that move me, not necessarily for the money. I’ve tried to diversify so by 45 I can take it easier.
What would you raid your savings for?
To continue being self-employed, if I have not been earning enough from my business and need it to live on.