Donna Benton is the founder and chairman of The Entertainer, the two-for-one UAE dining, beauty and leisure deals company. First launched in 2001 as voucher books, the now app-only product operates in 15 countries and is 50 per cent owned by the global investment group Abraaj. Single mum to a daughter, aged seven, and son, four, Ms Benton, 44, is also the owner of a ladies salon in Umm Suqeim – the Dubai district they call home – and owns 50 per cent of Dawson Sports, a clubs and education kit and equipment provider. Originally from Melbourne, Australia, she also has stakes in several Dubai restaurants.
How did upbringing shape your attitude towards money?
My parents divorced when I was nine. They didn’t have a lot of money and had to really save if they wanted something. I have an older sister; we never went without as such - clothes and food - but we never had extras. Dad is an interstate removalist, and mum had part-time jobs, as a beautician and in a pharmacy. I learned the value of money at an early age.
How much were you paid in your first job?
I was 12 or 13 delivering prescribed drugs to nursing homes. After school I’d ride to the pharmacy, get prescriptions with addresses on. It was an hour each day after school, earning only Australian $5 (Dhs14) a week, but I could go get fried rice with friends. It made me realise what money could give me - independence to buy things I wanted.
What brought you to Dubai?
I really wanted a change and hadn’t really travelled. My uncle and auntie lived here at the time. I got offered a job in 2000, working with a jewellery company, running their marketing. I thought it’d be a great opportunity to come for one year, save some money and put a deposit on a house. I came with AUD$3,000 . The job didn’t work out, but I thought of The Entertainer and one year turned into 17.
What inspired The Entertainer?
In my teenage years I wanted my own company. I’m passionate and a good worker; what you put in is what you get out but you have to have the right idea. I was driving on Sheikh Zayed Road. There were so many restaurants, but no one to incentivise you to go. I thought if I could create a buy one, get one scenario … everywhere has buy one, get one, but it’s the terms around the buy one, get one that are important. I needed it valid for lunch and dinner, seven days a week. I had an idea and no money but one of my friends put in a little. I really had to budget and worked from home for a year, so that I could save on (office) rent. I couldn’t take a salary, could only take money where I could because everything had to go into the business.
Was it difficult convincing merchants to join?
The first year is always the hardest because you don’t have anything to show. You’re out there, you’ve got to take the ‘no’s’, keep slogging away convincing people. Merchants were hard to get. They had to understand the logistics. People aren’t going to do something because they like you. That helps, but you have to have the foundation of a good business or idea. Another challenge was when the books (since replaced by a mobile app) came out; people thought it was too good to be true.
What was the last Entertainer deal you used?
I used a few last weekend. I took my kids to a great new place called We Rock The Spectrum Kid’s Gym, in Jumeirah - they loved the ziplines and trampolines. In the evening I went out with girlfriends to Luigia, Rixos Premium Dubai, in JBR, for great Italian food.
Are you a saver or a spender?
I’m a saver until I’ve saved enough - then I can be a spender. I have an 80/20 rule: you earn $100 - save $80 and spend $20; you have to also reward yourself. That’s after expenses, like groceries and rent.
So you’re wise with money?
Most times. There were times in Australia where I had AUD$5 to live on for the week - I never want to feel that way again. You don't have to keep up with the Jones’s; just because somebody has an expensive car, you don’t have to - you never know if their car is rented, bought, mortgaged. Do what’s right for you, not what looks good to everyone else. Would you rather have great holidays, Jimmy Choo shoes, or put a deposit on a house and have those luxuries later? I’m very grounded. Don’t get me wrong, I like to spend, but over the years I’ve also had to do it tough to get where I am.
Where do you save?
A lot of my money goes back to Australia. I have different types of bank accounts, but I invest a lot in property. It’s an automatic saving, and if you go broke you’ve got somewhere to live. Property appreciates; it’s a guaranteed return. I have properties in Australia, Thailand, Vietnam and Dubai. I started a luxury portfolio, more holiday homes. I always invest in holiday homes where I would like to travel, but then I also rent them out and get a return.
What is your best investment?
A one-bedroom apartment in JLT, bought off plan 15 years ago. At one point I was getting 20 per cent return. In Australia we get four. The same person is living there.
What is your philosophy towards money?
Money doesn’t buy happiness. It helps, but people have the misconception that if you have money everything is going to be fantastic in your life. There’s always going to be someone with more than you, you just have to be content, think of what you’ve got and what you want. I don’t think people should flaunt wealth, because some don’t have it. It’s great to have nice things, but there’s no need to go gloating. If you’re successful and get money, don’t let it change you, have the same values. When you get money and know how hard it is not to have it, you appreciate it a lot more.
What is your most cherished purchase?
I did the Abraaj (global investment group) acquisition in 2012 - they acquired 50 per cent of the company, so we could do in three years what we’d normally do in eight. It gave me some financial security. I bought a house each for my parents, so they’d be safe and secure financially for the rest of their life.
Do you prefer paying in cash or by credit card?
A bit of both. I always have cash on me. If it’s a big purchase, I pay by credit card, but pay 100 per cent off each month. When I travel, I have that currency with me before I go. In my safe I’ve roughly 15 different currencies in envelopes, so if I’m going again I have it to hand.
Do you plan for the future?
Very much; security and stability is important, especially as I have two young kids. I want to be able to provide for them, for their education, but still instill a work ethic and [an understanding of] the value of money. I’m not one of those parents that just gives them money all the time to go and do things; they’ll have to earn pocket money or wait for a birthday.
What would you raid your savings for?
If somebody I loved were ill, in need, I’d pull money out to help.