Money & Me: 'I’m very good at making a little money go a long way'

Stewart Miller of The Platform Studios, says an early trading business taught him how to make money work for itself

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 30 OCTOBER 2019. Stewart Miller is co-founder of The Platform Studios fitness and lifestyle hub. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Kelly David Dunn: Business.
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Stewart Miller, 47, is co-founder of The Platform Studios, an exercise and wellness concept in Dubai Marina and Dubai International Financial Centre. The South African, moved to Dubai four years ago and helped launch an Asian restaurant after selling his bicycle distribution company in his home country. Mr Miller lives in Jumeirah Park with his wife and sons, ages 15 and 12.

How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?

I was born in Zambia’s Copperbelt and moved to South Africa when I was five. My parents came from Liverpool, UK, when dad moved to Zambia as an electrician. He also worked as guitarist in a band to earn extra to afford to start a trading business, mostly equipment and products into mines in Zambia. I’ve an older and a younger sister. We had a fabulous life as kids.

Seeing my dad travel so much, have offices and drivers … I realised that comes from hard work. We went to Liverpool and saw where mum and dad grew up. I realised at a certain age how poor he was. When they married they said, "we’re going to take ourselves ‘to Zambia’ because we’re not happy with the life we have". It’s given me courage to do it. Dad's an entrepreneur who did a total turn from being an electrician. It was incredible growing up with that.

Me and my wife were where we thought we wanted to be; house paid, school paid, money in the bank, another place that was renting, earning us money.

What was your first job?

I had pocket money but whatever I wanted it was never enough so I ended up doing other things to get money. I was nine or 10, into BMX and wanted wheels with big plastic spokes. The bike shop said "work in your holidays, we’ll give you the wheels". That was kind of my first job.

Then I was waiter at a Johannesburg hotel, aged 15/16, on holidays and weekends. I also got one rand (Dh0.25) a minute, a lot then, teaching swimming to kids. I’d finish college, teach swimming, then work in the restaurant, until I was about 22, saving to buy motorbikes, Levi’s, concert tickets.

What prompted you to start your own business?

I started working for dad exporting products and admin on one of the desks. I made a decision to start my business life young and was passionate about motorbikes so imported some through his friend out of the US. That took off, I ended moving into that industry, motorbikes and cars, importing and selling, then into the bicycle business because I love cycling, importing top brands. I had that for about 12 years and sold it the year before I moved to Dubai.

How is your relationship with money?

I’m very good at going a long way with little money. That’s come from my trading background — buying for X, selling for Y. You’ve already sold it before you’ve bought it, making money with other people’s money.

I’m good at making money work for itself. Money is energy, it can transform — you can dream, build, travel. You have to be specific what you want from it. And if you go down one path and hit a bump you figure it out. I take risks, but the risks are calculated.

Why did you relocate to the UAE?

It was the right time to exit. Me and my wife were where we thought we wanted to be; house paid, school paid, money in the bank, another place that was renting, earning us money.

You work towards a particular goal, to almost be financially free — when we got there we were "not ready for this". We always had passion to travel, wanted to experience living abroad, knew there was more we wanted to do. My father had been doing business in the UAE for 20-something years. We came on holiday early 2014, fell in love with it and started to look at potential business opportunities and I put a group together for a restaurant.

Why the fitness sector?

I really enjoyed the bicycle business, selling something I was passionate about. I’ve only done businesses I enjoy.

Whatever we did next was going to be about sharing the joy of exercise and we saw opportunity to create something we could potentially scale. We’re fortunate people loved the "proof of concept" and we launched in the Marina in 2017.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 30 OCTOBER 2019. Stewart Miller is co-founder of The Platform Studios fitness and lifestyle hub. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Kelly David Dunn: Business.
Mr Miller started his career running a distribution company before relocating to the UAE to launch a fitness and lifestyle hub. Antonie Robertson/The National

What's your financial milestone?

When that location broke even after the seventh month. We’d put a lot of heart and our life savings into it. We could see people were loving it; what we saw years before coming true. When we opened we realised we’d done 25 years of research because of all the gyms we’ve been to around the world.

Are fitness studios no longer a luxury?

I don't think it's a luxury. People come to studios like ours for entertainment. You can't be selling hard work … standing on a treadmill. The fun comes from community. It’s such a disconnected world, a lot of us work from home and coffee shops. This is the time you connect with like-minded people.

People are passionate about being healthy, longevity. They know the fitter they feel and more active they are, the better they perform at work and in their lives. A lot are looking for that edge. We give them a kick-start in their day.

What do you enjoy spending on?

Travel, holidays with the family. Life’s busy and it’s the one time we all switch off and do something together.

Also I’ve spent personal money on business and performance coaches. I’ve got to grow otherwise I’m not going to be the right leader in five years' time as one thing I can guarantee is our business won’t look anything like it looks today.

Do you have any spending regrets?

I don’t regret anything I spend on, or anything in life I haven’t learnt from. One thing I have learnt from … I bought a Mercedes Benz Pagoda SL69 for Dh300,000. It wasn’t in good condition so I stripped it down and started to rebuild. It's still in pieces in a Johannesburg workshop being rebuilt. It’s a stone in my shoe, but it won't go down in value. If I spent a dollar on refurb I’d get $1.50/$2 back if I did decide to sell.

Do you prefer using credit cards or cash?

I use both and try to settle the card every month. I do everything I can not to borrow on credit.

How are you planning for the future?

We are putting all our energy and effort into building Platform Studios. This is where we see the future. We want to digitise the business, film trainers when they're working out. It’ll be live streamed to an app and you can work out at home. As these guys become bigger stars, global, we’ll create wellness travel and trainers will go with their communities to do retreats.

What's your savings and retirement strategy?

For me my spending and retirement strategy are probably the same as I’m investing in people helping us build a skyscraper [of a business]. We're in the foundation stages now. The more I invest in the team through development, their coaching and mine, that's what’s going to help us grow and allow us to have geographical freedom, to build a global business.

We’ve got so much still to do we don't think about retirement, we think about our future and our kids. We're going to be working our whole lives.