Rihab Saab, 47, is the founder of Lil’ Tots, a home delivery healthy meals concept for infants, launched last year. Born in Beirut, she spent her earliest years in Africa, school years in Lebanon and in 1995 moved to Abu Dhabi with her husband Fouad, a civil engineer. She took on several administrative and HR roles until years later, while cooking for her nephew and unimpressed by store-bought baby foods, Ms Saab visualised her niche business to assist health-conscious, convenience-seeking mums. A mother to two daughters in their early twenties, Ms Saab and her family live in Mirdif in Dubai.
How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?
I was born in Beirut, but lived in Liberia my first six years. My father was a dentist and my parents went back to Lebanon thinking they’d made a good sum of money to live in a relaxed way. They invested in a house and two clinics, then the civil war started. Our house in the mountain burnt down, so we went to a Beirut apartment. I have a younger sister and brother. Our father was very keen on education, so we attended the best school. We were always well off but lost money because of the house, had to close one clinic and be more cautious with spending, but continued to lead a good quality of life. We were better off than most family members, so were helping them financially.
Did this make you appreciate money growing up?
Definitely. I’m a sensible spender. Whenever I have a project, I decide how much I’m ready to spend. I identify value and challenge myself to be comfortable doing things for less without compromising on quality. I’ve tested myself down the years because living here is quite expensive. You get temptations everywhere, see a sales sign … that’s where I would spend, but even then ask ‘is it worth it?’
What was your first job?
I was good in maths so I used to give private lessons in my high school and college years, 16-19. I liked helping but some paid me $5-10 (Dh18-36) an hour.
I married young, at 22, and came to Abu Dhabi. I taught in a school for three months, maths and science, for Dh5,000 monthly, then started working in customer service with a big corporate in their freight forwarding and contracting business. It was a challenge to raise two girls away from a support system, but I wanted to work, not because I wanted to earn money but I wanted to grow — and it wouldn't hurt to be financially independent as a woman.
How did Lil’ Tots happen?
Six years ago it was time to leave the pipeline construction company [I was working for], to rethink. I decided to take a year off. I’d received my end-of-service gratuity and it was convenient to do a part-time executive MBA.
Then my brother visited with his eight-month-old child, Adam. My sister-in-law asked if I could grab something for him from the supermarket. These off-the-shelf baby foods weren’t existent when my daughters were young. Lebanese like to eat fresh, focus on things we cook at home and when I saw how much Adam liked meals [I prepared for him] I saw this gap in the market. I used this as a concept for my master's project in 2014 and knew one day I’d turn it into a business. If you start right at a young age you instil healthy eating habits in children, season their taste buds.
Do you have savings?
We bought a house in Lebanon, own land in Lebanon and have savings accounts here and offshore. We have a cushion.
Are you wise with money personally and professionally?
I’m ready to spend, but the challenge is how to make more with less. You don’t need more money, you need a better strategy. I’ve worked with businesses of difference sizes so I’ve witnessed first-hand how investors are putting in money, where it’s going. I learnt a lot and would do it differently, operate in an eco-friendly, economical way, not because I want to save but to do more for less.
How are you achieving that?
I became creative, looked into forging partnerships on the production and logistics side, working in an ecosystem. I partnered with a restaurant kitchen, using existing facilities to test the market instead of putting money into a kitchen, so my capex [capital expenditure] was almost nil. People showed there was willingness to pay more for a better [baby food] option, but you need to test it in reality.
It’s not like I’m not spending on the business, but I’ve always been sensible, spend where it needs to be spent. It’s hard-earned money, so you’re not going to waste it.
What’s your best investment?
My education — when I did my MBA — and my children’s education.
Does money make you happy?
If it’s well spent with people … having money — and not having people around me — is not going to make me happy. I never see money as only for me. I wouldn’t think of buying a Louis Vuitton bag. It’s not like I don’t want to, but it’s not crucial for me. Spending on others and seeing how happy they are, the giving side, makes me happy. I’m working towards making it happen so I can explore doing more on the social responsibility side of things as a company.
What are your luxuries?
I like to visit new restaurants, but not over the top expensive. And travel with the family. We love Europe and discovered Bali last year. I’d retire in Bali; people are so nice, the place is amazing, like heaven. You can stay in the Four Seasons there, book early and get a good deal. Next stop is Spain.
Would you cut back on anything?
I don’t overspend to have the need to cut back. I manage being moderate in everything. I have a BMW; if I needed to cut down I wouldn’t buy another one, I’d think of the next best car.
I wouldn't cut back on quality food; it’s like putting a value on health. If you want to lead a healthy life you need to spend to get fresh food every day, although sometimes you pay more and are disappointed in the taste. Quality doesn’t always mean more expensive.
Do you prefer paying by cash or credit card?
I keep very little cash on me. I have this much budget each month and use a credit card because I get benefits, cashback. It makes sense.
Do you plan for the future?
I like to live in the moment. If the business is doing well I can see myself investing in stocks and shares, and property here I can use to generate income. But I don’t think about how much money I’ll make at the end; I’m thinking if I do this well today this business is going to be rewarding. I’m building so I can seek investors. We are raising awareness, making people know our values and trust us to feed their children. I want to expand the product range, reach new countries. I can see this going very far, but don’t see myself retiring. Even when I’m old enough there’s going to be something I can do.