Duncan Fraser-Smith is vice president of F&B with Dubai real estate developer and property and hotel investment company The First Group. The brain behind several UAE restaurants, including MasterChef, the TV Experience, Mr Fraser-Smith focuses on what he calls ‘eatertainment’, creating experiential dining concepts in the mid-scale market sector. The Australian moved to Dubai 10 years ago to work with a hotel brand before launching an F&B consultancy. Now 47, he has a teenage daughter in Australia from his previous marriage and lives on Palm Jumeirah with his wife, Marlane, who works in hotel marketing/sales consulting.
How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?
We had a very rounded upbringing. Dad has always been in the hospital field — a senior administrator or CEO of hospital groups — while mum is a teacher. We learnt the value of a dollar early; pocket money was earned, not just given. My parents funded my hotel management studies in Switzerland but I came back halfway through and decided it was more important to earn money myself to pay to finish that course, rather than be a drain on them. That was hugely self-fulfilling. I decided to take a year and work as a waiter in a Melbourne hotel, a massive risk, but important as I was able to contribute. I was able to graduate with honours and go straight into a restaurant junior management position in Grand Hyatt Melbourne.
How much were you paid in your first job?
For that job in Melbourne I was earning AUS$17,000 (Dh42,000) a year. As a kid I did a paper round but for my first job I went back to the high school I’d attended to look after kids on camp; get them to prepare dinner at night, sleep in dormitories with bunk beds. It was a little step into hospitality. I was probably paid Dh25 an hour. Not a lot, but I was 17 and did this to pay my way.
Are you a saver or a spender?
A mix of both. I was much more a spender in my youth, much more of a saver now. It was instant gratification in my youth, and as I’ve got older it’s about playing the long game.
Where do you save?
In property in Australia; a beach house and two apartments. We also have managed funds I enjoy monitoring. My wife and I debate where the funds are going; on a zero to five risk profile she’s a three, I’m a five. We meet at that 3.5 level, probably.
What is your best investment?
Marriage. I’m very much a big picture thinker; Marlane brings it back in. She’s the sense, the one who said ‘let’s get some investment properties started’. Would I still be a spender? Maybe, if I hadn’t found the right partner to build a life with. My daughter’s just finished her education, so there’s been quite a lot of investment getting her to that point.
What drew you to the hospitality profession?
One of the first experiences I had going to one of my dad’s new hospitals. I was seven, it was just about to open and we stayed overnight in hospital beds to try it out.
Then Grand Hyatt Melbourne was opening their first brunch. A formal affair, I was nine or 10 in a tie and jacket and walked into this venue, brass polished to within an inch of its life, the beauty of the Chinaware … I remember saying, ‘I want to do this one day’.
Why do you focus on affordable mid-market restaurants?
That’s a hugely underdeveloped market here. The delivery market has made it very easy to order food to home. We want to compete against that and go, ‘come out, have a proper experience and don’t feel it’s hit you in the pocket’.
People are looking for value across the board; in the price of a car, restaurants, rent. The market has shifted. In the hospitality industry I’d be sending you down another path if I said it hasn’t been a tough couple of years, in the restaurant market specifically. A lot of people aren’t seeing the same money in their pocket they were five/six years ago. We’ve come up with ways to still bring guests through the door.
What is your philosophy towards money?
It’s a means to an end, but it’s not the end. Invest in yourself; if you believe in what you’re doing and money’s important, you’ll create it. I don’t specifically chase money, it’s not the motivation. I don’t ‘work’ — I get up, do what I love every day and I’m lucky because I get paid to do that. Money definitely doesn’t drive me.
What is your most cherished purchase?
Five years ago I bought myself an Aston Martin Vantage, as a reward. I’d been saving and had the picture as a screensaver on my phone for 10 years. All of a sudden I was able to walk into the dealership and say ‘I want that one’. I had it for three years.
On a smaller scale, the day my daughter was born I went to Montblanc and bought a platinum pen. I used it to sign her birth certificate and every Christmas card and birthday card she’s received since. When she turns 18, I’m going to give it to her.
Have you splurged on anything unusual?
I went through a sunglass acquisition phase. I got to 30 pairs so had a cull, sold a lot off, shrunk my collection to five. Then I saw the Iron Man movie; Robert Downey Junior was wearing Calvin Klein sunglasses. I bought a pair of all the sunglasses he's worn in every Marvel movie since, some made by US and Japanese boutique companies. I have 12 pairs and don't wear them. One day I might put them up for auction.
What are you happiest spending money on?
We did a European tour when I was 13. As a surprise, mum and dad took us on the Orient Express. Now I spend money on experiences, travel. Shoes and clothing will come and go, but memories last a lifetime. Also we eat out a lot — food is a passion.
Do you have a key financial milestone?
It’s a work in progress. When you can sit back in life, properties paid off and a bit of coin in the bank, that’s a good time to make that assessment. I’m not there yet.
Do you have any financial advice for your younger self?
Be more mindful of what you’re spending money on in your 20s because when you get to your 40s you find it has much greater value.
Do you prefer paying in cash or by credit card?
I use credit cards for points and air miles, but prefer cash; it’s tangible. I carry cash in a money clip — my father gave me my first one when I was 11.
Do you plan for the future?
At the moment property appreciation is good in Australia. Be out of debt and be safe, that’s always the goal. I know retirement planning is big for a lot of people … [but] I’ll never retire. When I’m 70 I’ll have a restaurant/cafe somewhere. You’ve done all the learning and channel it into one venture that’s yours. That’s a good place to be.