Nicholas Couvaras is the owner and founder of Refresh Delux Café, a modern Mediterranean café in Dubai International Financial Centre’s Marble Walk. The Greek national, 40, who grew up in South Africa, has worked in the food and beverage industry for 20 years, 10 of those in Dubai. He also runs Kroma, a food and beverage and marketing advisory firm. His wife, Marianna - also a Greek-born South African - works in human resources for Kroma and they have two children, a daughter, 5, and a son, 6-months-old.
How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?
My parents are both Greek but settled in Pretoria, South Africa; dad is an architect and my mother is an interior designer. I grew up in a household where my father was a saver and my mother a spender, which gave me quite a solid foundation. I was fortunate enough to travel quite a bit. We went to Europe, North and South America, Australia – it exposed us to different cultures. I went to a private school, at which I boarded for a while. School was a bit of a mix - from children of high net worth individuals to poorer people from neighbouring African countries, whose parents couldn’t afford many luxuries other than their kids’ education. I got 500 rand (Dh100) a month pocket money – it didn’t really go a long way.
How much did you get paid for your first job?
I worked part-time through my last years of school and at university (I studied marketing and business management in Pretoria before taking an MBA) - basic errands, bar tending, waitering. I also dabbled in trading; I had a contact who brought in football shirts cheap and I sold them on at a profit. I could earn up to 5,000 rand a month, although I spent it all! At 21 I became a marketing coordinator for a telecom group in South Africa; I started out on 3,000 rand a month and stayed with the company for 10 years.
Are you a spender or saver?
It’s a fine line between spending and saving – if you save your whole life and are not spending, what type of life are you living? Growing up, whatever money I got, I used to spend. When I hit the proper world, I saw the benefits from saving. It changed my whole mentality; I switched to my father’s shoes and became a saver. I’m a lot more frugal now – being married, with two kids, I have to be, with the cost of living in this country. And the business is only six months old - it opened 10 days before the baby was born. It’s been a good but crazy year.
What is your most cherished purchase?
Right now, I would have to say the business – a lot of love, passion and energy has been put into it. I also bought land on the island in Greece, Ithaca, where we’re from about eight years ago and I hope to retire to it one day. I’m born Greek, and Greek by nature; I just happened to grow up in South Africa. I don’t have much cash lying around but when I can see the fruits from the business, I’ll start developing on the land – the plan is a five-bedroom house with a pool. It’s a very small, green island so the land is on the mountains but a 10-minute drive from the beach.
Have you ever had a month where you feared you could not pay the bills?
Plenty. When I had my consultancy, three ago, I was getting new work and clients coming through but then there was negativity in the industry and one client who couldn’t honour their payment and was pushing to pay in another 30 days because of their own cashflow issues. It taught me to scale back and become lean, cutting overheads and focusing on core services. There is a wall between the business and my personal finances, so I could always pay my own bills. You need to separate it.
Where do you save?
I’ve not got much in the way of savings now - anything coming in goes back into the business. But I try to keep savings offshore. I also understand the market a bit – equities and commodities. I got burnt on oil – I did really well about three years ago, but it suddenly spiked up $10 a barrel in a week and whatever money I made got washed away. I try to be more conservative now.
Do you prefer paying by credit card or in cash?
My parents taught me cash was king - they weren’t heavy on credit and were quite debt-free, especially my dad. He owned all his properties, his cars, so nothing was very risky. I prefer to pay by card because of the benefits; however, what I learned from my folks is to settle the full amount by the end of the month, like a charge card.
What do you most regret spending money on?
I bought a Porsche 911 Targa 4S sports car eight years ago. It was of those stages you go through in your younger years – I was living in a country where petrol was cheap and I could, relatively, afford it. I bought it for Dh260,000 and sold it, three years later when I had my daughter, for Dh230,000, so I didn’t lose a lot of money, but it was a lot to put into a car and I could have used it elsewhere.
What financial advice would you offer your younger self?
Save and invest as early as possible in commercial property, which pays an annuity income on a monthly basis and builds an asset. I didn’t do that but I’m definitely moving towards it. I had the opportunity recently to invest in Canada, but I’ve been cash-strapped.
Do you have a financial plan for the future?
The original plan was to be in Dubai for five years, as a stepping stone - my wife and I were on the same page to leave South Africa. Ten years later we’re still here, with no plans to leave. We’ll be in Dubai at least another eight to 10 years – I have expansion plans for the business – and, by then, the kids will be in early high school. I honestly don’t know where next – Greece isn’t an option (for work), or South Africa. But I plan to spread my portfolio into a few assets - the business, some cash, as well as property. University for the children? It’s too scary to think of that right now, but I do want to fund their education. Right now, my daughter wants to be a “doctor for animals”. And a rock star.
If you won Dh1 million, what would you do with it?
I’d reinvest it back in the business. But if I allowed my spending self to take control, I’d go on holiday for six months and tour the world. I’d like to open the kids up to new dimensions of life – I was fortunate enough to have that and I’d like it for my family. I’d also like to further my own learning, perhaps an executive eMBA.