Money & Me: 'I went from repairing roofs to running a sports company in Abu Dhabi'

British entrepreneur Stephen Hamilton set up Discover Sports in 2015 to encourage busy children and families to get more active

ABU DHABI , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , MAY 27 – 2018 :-  Stephen Hamilton , founder of Discover Sports AE at the Arena Fitness Gym in Al Zeina in Abu Dhabi.  ( Pawan Singh / The National )  For Business

Stephen Hamilton is an ex-professional rugby player and former sales executive from England. He moved to the UAE nearly four years ago as head of junior development at Abu Dhabi Saracens Rugby Club, growing the junior side from four children to 100. From there he and wife Shona launched Discover Sports, initially hosting after school sports programmes, before focusing on getting busy individuals and families active via kids rugby, swimming lessons, personal training, boot camp sessions, yoga, Pilates and Zumba. Mr Hamilton, 30, who lives in Al Zeina in Abu Dhabi, is also seeking to develop a “pathway of excellence” for young rugby players to progress their career.

How did your upbringing shape your attitude to money?

I was born in London and was there until the age of four before moving to the north of England. My Dad set up business as a financial adviser within the sporting industry. We went on fantastic holidays, had a brilliant home, good schooling. We understood money’s value; that it wasn’t something to be thrown away. I remember leaving the shampoo bottle upside down in the shower; mum had a go because it was waste. A Dh5 bottle had value even though we were living a comfortable lifestyle. My mum originally worked in catering, while my older sister was a model. Dad was brought up sharing a bathroom with six other families. While I didn’t go through that, it’s humbling knowing that background and what mum and dad did to create a successful childhood for us.

What were you paid in your first job?

I had a friend whose father owned a roofing company. During school holidays I’d do that (roof repairs). I got Dh150 a day. He thought I was a decent golfer so probably gave me more than I was worth, but working winter holidays in zero degrees, up at 8am, finishing 6 to 7pm as a 16-year-old…you knew you’d earned it, going home looking like a panda after you’d stripped a roof. I left school and carried on for a while. We were retiling a school one day and my foot went through the ceiling, a class underneath looking up at my leg dangling. I left home at 18 and went back to London to start my rugby career.

What brought you to Abu Dhabi?

Shona and I were working for Red Bull and wanted to do something new, start something together, an adventure. I’d done pro rugby, but tried to sell my soul a bit, going into sales and recruitment. Life behind a desk wasn't for me. I could see light at the end of the tunnel, financially, but there wasn’t enough incentive around the money. I came and played in Dubai Sevens with an England representative team. Then Saracens brought me over to grow the junior club and coach.

Are you a spender or a saver?

We raided savings to set up the business, but it’s been a nice breakthrough the last year that we’ve been able to save. We want to make sure we’ve got buffers for things that could come up.


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Why did you start Discover Sports?

We found a niche in the market for sports programmes in schools. I stayed linked with Saracens for three years, but it wasn’t bringing enough money so we set up Discover Sports. Through the rugby club I’d already been working in schools across Abu Dhabi and believed there to be a lack of quality when it came to after school activity providers. Discover Sports was initially founded to deliver sports activities for children aged three to 17.

Have there been challenges running the business?

A year into the company, a decision from Abu Dhabi Education Council to restrict extra curricular activities in schools brought 90 per cent of our business to a stand still. It became clear the business needed to be able to source alternative means of income; we branched into health and wellbeing programmes for adults as well. Now we’re able to influence whole families and the way they incorporate healthy living into their lives. We give people a way to be more active without seeing it as a chore. We’re a small business and have grown slowly. Now there are four official employees and three to six who do stuff when required.

Are you wise with money?

I like to think so. We’ve had to be pretty calculated with what we’re doing, but I’m a sucker for an Apple product or new trainers.

What are you happiest spending money on?

Travel; seeing new parts of the world or going back and seeing family. Experiences. We’re not materialistic whatsoever.

ABU DHABI , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , MAY 27 – 2018 :-  Stephen Hamilton , founder of Discover Sports AE at the Arena Fitness Gym in Al Zeina in Abu Dhabi.  ( Pawan Singh / The National )  For Business

Where do you save?

Everything at the moment is straight into the bank. We’re looking to go into property - somewhere money can sit and hopefully appreciate over time; potentially in the UK, potentially here as well.

What has been your best investment?

There have never been lump sums to invest so it’s been the time, effort and commitment we invested to start something together. While that had trials and tribulations, it’s led to this point. Shona is a partner. We did the first two and half years together, then to take pressure off the business with us both working there, she went freelancing and then started at a PR company. It gave us another income stream.

Has there been a key financial milestone?

This last year being able to save and know we weren’t living hand-to-mouth each month. For the first three years any cash we were getting was going back into the business. I was trying to take as little out as possible. It was difficult being in a place of luxury and not being able to live that lifestyle. Now that lifestyle can start to take shape a bit.

Do you have a philosophy towards money?

Money is just a tool; I’ve taken that from my dad. I know with risk there can be big rewards. It’s a vessel to allow you to achieve something. It’s not the be all and end all, but it’s something that’s fundamentally required. I’ve always wanted to do something for a living that I enjoy; if finance came as part of that it was a bonus. I feel privileged I found something that ticks both of those boxes. Getting cash in the bank is one thing but it’s the journey to get there that’s important.

Do you prefer to pay by cash or credit card?

Credit card - out of pure laziness. I pay it off and have not had an overdue payment. Seeing money leave your hand is maybe a bit harder than giving over the card.

Do you plan for the future?

I want to find another two to five people here so that I can keep the clients that I’ve got but be able to take more of a management role and not be so dependent on the actual delivery.

If you won Dh1 million, what would you spend it on?

Bring the family over or fly everyone out to one destination for a week or two and have time as a family. Plus, just knowing we’d got that in the bank … I want to feel confident taking risks.


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