Shamsher Ali Rao is chief executive and chairman of Elixir Holdings (formerly Rao Holdings), which incorporates companies operating in real estate, property management, mall and retail development and leasing, construction, maintenance, HR and technology. He recently loaned some residential units as free shelter for workers made redundant and homeless by Covid-19.
Born in Pakistan, ex-banker Mr Rao moved to Dubai eight years ago to seek career opportunities. Now a father of four daughters, aged from two to eight, he also established a foundation for social welfare projects and philanthropic initiatives. Mr Rao, 41, lives in Emirates Hills with his family.
How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?
My father worked as a superintendent for Pakistan Railways, but retired in 2000 and started a restaurant in Lahore. I have one brother and one sister, a small family. I’m the oldest.
I was studying but always interested in business. From the beginning, it was my passion to make money. The first time I sold anything, I was six. My aunt had a surgery, had unused excess medicines and I went with my uncle to a medical store (to sell them).
My mother was a housewife but designed a style of knitted woolen shoes. I also used to sell those. I knew the importance of money from day one.
So, you embraced commerce from a young age?
There was a PepsiCo factory in Lahore and my first job, at 14, was to inspect bottles coming onto the belt. It was for 30 Pakistani rupees (less than Dh1) a day, but it wasn’t about the money. I wanted to get experience. I didn’t want to spend my time playing video games or cricket like my school friends.
Right after exams, when I was 16, I did a job for Colgate-Palmolive distribution as a merchandiser, checking products were well displayed in shops. I was paid PKR2,000 a month (Dh44.2 now). The objective was to be productive. I saw money with another perspective; it is always better to have some than nothing.
What were you paid in your first adult job?
My father told me, ‘To be a successful businessman, first you have to start with any sales and marketing job’. So after graduation, I started working at Citibank, selling car finance, personal loans, account openings and house finance. I was 21 and learned things useful for the rest of my life. I earned PKR2,000 per month and then I got a better offer at Union Bank.
What brought you to the UAE?
I left banking during the global recession in 2009/10 and made a plan to start my own business. Real estate is always booming here and I saw a huge opportunity. I had sales experience and when you know your product and target market, you can sell anything.
I started in 2013 as a real estate broker. You make high commissions here, so I made good money, then got my own licence and started a brokerage. This is how my business journey started. Now, we have more than 14 companies.
What is your attitude towards spending and saving?
Saving is a must. And whenever I’m going to spend, I always see how much value I’m getting. If I’m not getting any value, I will not spend even $1. If I’m getting value, I’m ready to pay $1 million for something.
How do you save?
I invest in real estate mostly; in land in Pakistan that we can develop, and apartments in the UAE and in the UK. Real estate is an investment where you are making money even when you are sleeping. Fifty per cent of your savings should be in real estate; you will be stable all your life. But you cannot live a peaceful life if you don’t have some money as liquid (assets). You can have an emergency any time… what will you do?
Do you have a philosophy about money?
I have two. Whenever you are going to spend, just see how much value it is adding to your life. The second is, at some level (of wealth), whatever money is extra should be spent on other people.
So, philanthropy is important to you?
We do a lot of philanthropic work. We have sponsored orphanages in Pakistan… this includes education, food and clothes. We are sponsoring 110 orphans though the Rao Foundation. I started this in April 2019.
We are providing accommodation, food and air tickets to stranded people who are unable to go back to their countries. There was a flood in India, we provided 1,000 tents. They are homeless, the least we can do is provide tents. It’s all about humanity. I want to pay back to society. It pleases me when I’m spending on needy people.
Are you wise with money?
Whatever I have is hard-earned money, so I should always be wise when I’m going to spend it. I didn’t win any lottery, it’s not inherited money. I started everything from scratch. Maybe ‘wise’ is not an appropriate word; I’m careful, I respect money.
Is there anything you regret spending on?
The word ‘regret’ does not exist in my dictionary. I have made some bad decisions in businesses, but that was also learning. By doing something wrong, I learnt a great lesson. Loss and profit are part of business.
How has the pandemic impacted your business?
Every hard time, good time, every time has its own opportunity. This is a time everyone wants their business to be stable and if you bring a product to boost their sales… this is an opportunity I’m looking at. This pandemic has forced digitalisation. Most of our new ventures are in technology; we are seeing how technology can improve and grow the business, our companies and other companies. This is the future.
Downside is always part of business. This is where you realise how strong and strategic you are. When the weather is good, everybody can sail. You see your expertise during the hard times when things are not in your favour.
When did you first realise your financial success?
When I met (now) Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, before his election. I wanted to do something to bring change in Pakistan. His PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) party needed funds, so I helped fund the election campaign in 2018. At that time, I thought, ‘I’m a successful man, I can do something valuable that can influence lives’. I realised I can bring a change on a larger scale.
What is your plan for the future?
Warren Buffet (and Bill & Melinda Gates) created a club, The Giving Pledge, in which you give half your money to charity, or at least $1 billion. This is my goal when I retire at 60, to give $1bn in charity. If I accumulate $1bn in my life, that’s more than enough.
I will hand over a big business corporation to my daughters, but will impart the lesson that 20 per cent of your income should always go to charity. They must know how to bring happiness in other people’s lives. My parents taught me this lesson.