Abdulla Ajmal saves about 40 per cent of his monthly salary despite weaknesses for luxuries such as fine watches and five-star travel.
Abdulla Ajmal saves about 40 per cent of his monthly salary despite weaknesses for luxuries such as fine watches and five-star travel.

The sweet fragrance of success



I am the deputy general manager of Ajmal Perfume, one of the biggest fragrance companies in the Middle East. Today, we sell our perfumes all over the world, but going back just a few generations life was very different for my grandfather, who founded the company.

My grandfather came from a poor farming background in India. Having said that, I never saw those impoverished days for myself. By the time I was born he had started the family business. It was my father who went from "rags to riches". I was born in Bombay. My childhood was great. I never had to worry about anything; life was simple. We played outdoors and made up our own games. I never used to get any pocket money. When I went to school, I took food from home, and if I wanted to buy something, I was given 10 or 20 rupees and expected to return the change. We were not exposed to a lot from the outside world - we didn't even have a television - so we didn't have those "wants".

The things my nieces and nephews have today - wow. I saw a VCR for the first time in 1983, when I was 10. We were never taught about money directly, but learnt the importance of it through our upbringing. We would spend holidays in the village and that taught us the meaning of having money and the misery that goes with not having any. My grandmother became a great philanthropist because she had come from such a modest background herself, and that remains a mandate in our organisation to this day. A substantial portion of our earnings - 10 per cent - still goes to the poor. The company trust also operates the Haji Abdul Majid Hospital in Hojai, India, which gives free health care to the poor.

We moved to Dubai in 1988, when I was 15. I was here for two years of school and then went off to England to continue my studies. First I did a degree in marketing, and then an MBA, in London. The MBA cost around £11,000 (about Dh119,000, adjusted for inflation) and lasted just over a year. My father paid my expenses while I was there; I don't remember getting an allowance in London, but when dad was in a good mood he'd put a few bucks my way. My first jobs were unpaid internships in England, work experience as part of my course. I did a placement at Benetton and then with a family friend in his financial consultancy.

When I returned to Dubai in 1996, my first job was in the family business as an assistant manager. My monthly salary was around Dh4,000, plus a bit extra for a housing allowance. Just because you're family doesn't mean you land the cushy job. In our company there is a structure; if you have no MBA you start at the bottom as a trainee, and if you have one, you start at the level I did. As an assistant manager, I like to think I learnt the business and not just acquired it. There is an expectation from family that members must add value more than regular employees. I do take some liberties - I don't wear a tie and sometimes turn up in jeans - but I've had annual appraisals and worked my way up during the past 13 years.

After I graduated, I never asked my father for anything, but that doesn't mean he didn't give me anything. I am conscious of what I owe him for putting me through my education and putting me in a situation where I am financially independent. I don't borrow money. I live in a villa in Umm Suqeim and drive a BMW - not bad for someone who started on Dh4,000 a month. My rent is around Dh190,000 a year for a large, three-bedroom villa. I've also bought some properties for investment, but I don't live in them.

My spending-to-saving ratio is around 60/40, but if I became a millionaire I certainly wouldn't carry on spending 60 per cent of my salary. I do enjoy the finer things in life. For example, I go only on luxury holidays. Recent trips have included Thailand, Fiji and Malaysia, and I stayed in five-star hotels throughout. Even on my honeymoon, when we went to Alaska, we were the only young couple on the cruise ship and had the presidential suite. But then, you have a honeymoon only once.

My wife runs our household. My father taught me never to ask where the money goes, so in that way I am a bit of an old-fashioned provider. I don't check my bank balance very often; I have a good idea, generally, of which funds are going in and out because I have only my salary and a few investments to keep track of. I probably spend around Dh15,000 a month on going out. I am very sociable and eat out around five times a week. I like the Madinat Jumeirah, especially now that the weather's a bit nicer, and also Bab Al Shams.

A little weakness of mine is watches. I love watches and I might splurge on expensive pieces once or twice a year. My last watch was a Piaget which cost me Dh73,000, but that was an unusually costly one. More usually, I might add to the collection with a piece that costs around Dh40,000. I did lose a lot on shares recently and that was a learning curve. I'm not averse to speculating, but it needs to be done in an educated manner. When the stock exchange opened in Dubai there were people just turning up and picking shares alphabetically, and the market needs to be more mature than that.

The family business has, fortunately, not been affected so much by the recession. We have other retailer friends who have lost 30 to 40 per cent of their turnover, but we are marginally above last year in our profits. We did ask everyone to cut down their expenditure on communications and that has made a difference, and we've asked people to take a little voluntary leave, but that's it. We also now send our senior executives in economy on business trips. I confess that I might upgrade myself, but I use my points - I would never take liberty with things like that, because in my position you can't afford to be seen doing that.

When it comes to money, I think that whatever your level of income, as long as you save a portion of your salary you shouldn't feel guilty about enjoying yourself. My dad always likes to point out that he came from a very modest background, but he loves being the guy who buys the nice socks from Harrods, and there's nothing wrong with that. As told to Jola Chudy

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