Money & Me: ‘The first financial crisis was my wake-up call’

Sara Chemmaa, founder of Citron, is diligent about saving and plans to retire early

Citron founder Sara Chemmaa. Courtesy Citron
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Sara Chemmaa is chief executive and founder of Citron, a “back-to-school” brand offering lunchboxes, water bottles and other products for children.

Born in Morocco, she moved to Dubai 13 years ago to work in investment banking prior to a consulting role and then a senior strategy/investment position with a TV broadcaster.

Ms Chemmaa launched Citron in 2017 when fussy eating experiences with her son Ali, aged four, inspired her to design compartmented lunchboxes. Citron’s now 55-plus product range sells in more than 100 UAE and GCC stores and will soon be launched in the US and UK. It is also adding affordable lunchboxes for adults.

Ms Chemmaa, 35, lives in Umm Suqeim with her entrepreneur husband and their family.

How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?

I was born in Casablanca. My mum worked for a big multinational and left the job to help run my dad’s businesses, including a chain of farm produce shops, all started from zero. I have an elder sister and we grew up very comfortably, went to good schools and travelled quite a lot. I never felt that my parents did not fulfill any of my needs.

My money journey really started when I went to study in Lyon, France, at 18. The Moroccan government doesn’t allow us to send more than €1,000 (Dh4,372) a month to a student. I had to pay my rent, school, everything with it, but had no idea how to manage money. That’s where I started understanding what a budget was. It was a shock, but good learning.

Did you have to boost your bank balance?

I studied a lot, so just had a few hours at the weekend. I used to tutor kids and was paid €15 to €20 per hour. We also did internships that were paid.

The minute I graduated, I got a job in Dubai at Societe Generale. I started with a salary of Dh12,000 a month in September 2008, just before the whole (financial crisis) collapse.

How was that experience?

I was part of the investment team for super wealthy people. We had to break news that products they had bought were gone. I had screens and could see people losing hundreds of millions of dollars. If I lost Dh100, I would not feel good about it. Every day, someone would lose his job because of what was happening. What I took from this experience was how to manage extreme stress, client expectations and manage things when they are literally collapsing.

I traded in equities and very complex financial instruments, but don't put my money in them because I know how volatile they are

What prompted you to leave the corporate life behind?

I had a friend managing Citron on the side with me, but last year she decided to move. I was not giving it the full energy and focus it deserved, so I left my full-time job at the beginning of this year when I delivered my twins.

This is something I’m doing out of passion. As a business, we’re not making money today, but once we’re able to grab a bigger market share … then the money comes naturally.

Are you a saver or a spender?

I’m a saver. I make it a point to make sure we save and a percentage of the salary goes directly to savings. I’m not a wise spender when it comes to the kids because I will buy whatever they need. In general, I have monthly budgets and know what to spend on. I try my best not to go over budget. I love numbers, finance, Excel sheets – I make them for everything. My kids have one for their daily routine. Much of my spending is on the business.

Where do you save?

In savings accounts, and I also have a savings account for my kids. I traded in equities and very complex financial instruments, but don’t put my money in them because I know how volatile they are.

What has been your best investment?

We used to buy physical gold and buy it monthly to average the cost. In 2010, I bought gold at $1,200 (recently trading at $2,000/Dh7,346 an ounce) in case things went really wrong.

We also did a very good foreign exchange investment in 2013; the euro went down from (costing) Dh5 until it reached Dh3.80. We sent it (the total) to France and bought a house four years ago.

Citron founder Sara Chemmaa. Courtesy Citron
Ms Chemmaa let go of a very comfortable salary in a strategy investment role to give her business a chance. Courtesy Citron

Does money make you happy?

I worked for a long time in a strategy investment role, had a very comfortable salary but had to let it go in order to give Citron a chance. For me, money is not really what makes me happy. It comes, it can go. It’s important to pay bills and have food. And you need money as a business to invest and pay salaries, but when I started Citron, I never thought about money; it’s not the aim of what I do.

I don’t have a credit card, zero loans. If you have, you spend, if you don’t … you don’t spend. I drive a normal car. I don’t own crazy jewellery. When I’m in the warehouse, you will not see any bling coming out.

Is there anything you regret spending on?

For my son Ali, I bought so many things that we used only one time or never at all. Clothes, toys and accessories that I thought were a life saver, but we didn’t need them. I fell into marketing traps. I bought a stroller for Dh6,000, that was only used three times. For my twins, I bought only one-third of what I bought for my son. I’m happiest when I buy the kids something useful that they enjoy and like.

Did the stay-home directives during the pandemic impact your life?

I was here with my kids which gave me ideas for new products, which will be launched in Q4. When my twins started eating, I saw a gap and thus designed products that are being patented now. Covid-19 was a time to think how we could do things that were not just "back to school" specific because I need to make sure my team has work throughout the year. I talked more to customers, did surveys online to see what people wanted. We’re launching an affordable range inspired during the Covid time.

Also, we weren’t going out, so spent less on outings and shopping. The biggest savings came from Ali, whose football, rugby and all activities stopped. I discovered grocery (shopping) online, which had better deals.

Any financial advice for your younger self?

We fell for the Dubai lifestyle when we came. We were not able to save anything. When the first crisis hit and we felt it here in 2012, it was a wake-up call for us. Now, the minute we receive the pay cheque it goes (into savings) – it is important you don’t see it, then you don’t spend it. We make sensible decisions, spend wisely, as we know things can go wrong quickly and people can get stuck.

So, do you plan for the future?

Quite a lot. We wish to retire younger, spend time with the kids and have the ability to travel with them. This is why we save and bought our France house; if we retire, we don’t pay rent and have enough money for them to be able to study.