Robert Kelly is the founder and chief executive of Furchild, the UAE’s first fresh and organic pet food company, which he set up with his wife in November last year. Based in Al Quoz, Dubai, the company distributes to pet owners across the UAE with plans to expand into the GCC. South African Mr Kelly, previously held the role of chief operating officer at Kcal, after first moving to Dubai in 2008. The 34-year-old’s early career in Cape Town was in property development.
How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?
I’m the youngest of three boys by about eight years and fortunately we never had to go without as a family but at the same time we had to work for what we wanted. Having older brothers and a father that was quite business savvy – he spearheaded the Johnson & Johnson operation in South Africa for 35 years - set the bar very high. We were very competitive as a family, so a winning culture was nurtured in us from an early age. From that I had an inner belief in myself that I would be successful in business because I am so competitive. I did well in sports and given the boarding school we went to, academics was a very important part of it all too. Business for me is the ultimate competition and money is simply a byproduct of that success
How much did you get paid for your first job?
I was a waiter at the age of the 16 and - it couldn’t have been more than Dh10 an hour. It was the tips we worked for; the better you performed the better tips you received. It was a well-established restaurant with quite an influential clientele so thinking back, it was probably my best career move as it taught me invaluable life lessons that set me apart from many of the kids at that age.
What about your first professional role?
At university I studied business and law, so my first real job was working for a property development company. I worked my way up from site agent to site manager, then to financial controller and then to CFO of the company and later financial director. I found I had a passion for property and building; I’ve been fortunate to have a career in both my passions in life - property and food.
Was the switch to Dubai financially motivated?
A number of friends from university were established here and doing well for themselves and at that point in time I had a bit of a travel bug. Initially I worked in property development before joining Kcal in 2013 as the chief operating officer.
What is your most cherished purchase?
The adoption fees for my two dogs, Max and Simon. They are both English bulldogs. It was about Dh1,000 for each dog. I’m convinced they lower my blood pressure – they’ve certainly changed my career and my Dubai living experience all for the better.
Is that what motivated the switch from COO to pet food entrepreneur?
Yes it was because of Max, who is now six. He was riddled with various skin conditions; no matter what medicines he had, they never went away. We spent thousands and thousands of dirhams on him taking him to the vet two or three times a month. We looked at his diet and decided to take the matter into our own hands. We were buying premium pet foots from the vet or stores that were very high in starch and carbohydrates and Max had developed certain allergies and food intolerances. It was my love for health and fitness coupled with my love for animals that ultimately came up with Furchild.
Did you make drastic changes to your finances to set up Furchild?
I funded it personally so it was a case of cutting down on a lot of things, managing the bills and the monthly expenses but we definitely got to a point where we needed to bring on an investor. We cut down on going out, eating out, basically going from day to day. We haven't taken a vacation in two-and-a-half years – it's been very tough. It was a massive adjustment going from a COO's salary but we are creating value with every dirham.
Are you a spender or a saver?
Both. Personally I’m more of a saver but if you want a quality product you have to spend – there’s no way round it. Food is a quality product to me; from a business perspective we only buy the very best ingredients for our recipes and for ourselves we try to buy the premium and organic products such as from local markets in season.
Where do you save?
Maybe you should ask 'when did I save?' Back in the day I put some in a retirement annuity, invested with a well-respected fund manager and into my own portfolio of stocks. Unfortunately, saving is not an option at the moment as everything goes back into the business but when I was saving, I was quite prudent.
What has been your best investment?
My business. It has been growing in accordance with the initial projections; we’ve experienced month-on-month growth and the feedback and reviews we’ve received show we really are changing the lives of many pets in the UAE and that in itself is tremendously rewarding.
What do you most regret spending money on?
Cars and OSN. I only recently cancelled it because I haven’t watched it in months and it's frustrating to know I’ve been paying Dh550 for it all this time. As for cars, they are often an unnecessary expense where the money can be saved and invested instead. I still drive a car but I don’t drive the kind of cars that I used to. Now it's a five-year old Jeep Wrangler as opposed to the Audi or Mercedes I had back in the day. It wasn’t money well spent.
What financial advice would you offer your younger self?
To make money work for you. Don’t be lazy with it, educate yourself in investing and seek out financial advice from the experts.
Do you plan for the future?
As best as I can. I believe my future is my business and we will do everything in our ability to take great care of it. The bigger plan is to serve the pets of the GCC and beyond. Our main focus is on local expansion but we will definitely be crossing borders in the not so distant future.
If you won Dh1 million, what would you do with it?
I would put some aside, enough for rent and expenses, and then invest into the business. You have to pay a year's rent upfront here and because we have two dogs at home you have to keep the AC on constantly, so it can get expensive.
What is a luxury you are happy to spend on?
Travel - to see and discover different places and points of view. It’s tough not travelling now, it’s a big sacrifice but the harder we work now the more we might be able to travel down the line. In the growth phase of any business, it’s time and money that needs to be invested.
What would you raid savings account for?
If I had one to raid - bills and emergencies.