Money & Me: ‘Helping a children’s hospice thrills me more than driving a Ferrari'

Chris Leighton, co-founder of AirZones, says money can be used to do good and ultimately bring joy

Chris Leighton, co-founder of AirZones, says he does not spend on material things but rather on new experiences, be it travel, education or time with loved ones. Photo: Pawan Singh / The National
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Chris Leighton is co-founder of AirZones, a start-up that monitors and analyses indoor air quality at offices, homes and hospitality venues before suggesting improvements in technology and practices.

The Briton, who is also the driving force behind a company working in nanotechnology air purification, previously held senior international engineering and sales roles, directorships, co-founded a UK consultancy, acted as consultant to a Cape Town children’s hospice and mentored a Cambodian eco-tourism venture.

Now 44, he moved to Dubai in late 2020 and lives on Palm Jumeirah with his wife, 3-year-old son and daughter, 7.

Did money feature in your childhood?

I grew up with a younger sister in Cumbria, north of Manchester, in a small town. My father worked for Clarks (a shoe manufacturer) and ended up running the retail side.

My parents were relatively frugal with money but instilled the importance of it as a tool to be used, rather than something just acquired and exchanged for goods.

There was no debt in the “bank of mum and dad”. You’d to earn it and then it was up to you if you squander or save it: “The grass needs cutting, the car needs washing, the dog needs walking, in exchange for pocket money.”

That’s something we’ve brought in with our children … pocket money and that concept of it having a value, of the time that you trade.

How else did you earn?

Delivering newspapers. I got the opportunity to split it with a friend, so one would have the backpack, the other posted through doors. We were making less than 50 pence ($0.67) an hour but were out on bikes, which we’d have been anyway, so it was sort of free money – less than if either one of us did this on our own, but it made it fun.

An important lesson as a child was that it’s not just about maximising income, it’s also about the enjoyment. And if that ultimately buys something, brings you pleasure, that’s the game.

Quote
An important lesson as a child was that it’s not just about maximising income, it’s also about the enjoyment
Chris Leighton, co-founder, AirZones

We’d clean someone else’s car and the local farmer needed someone to pick up hay bales. Then I could invest in new bike tyres. It wasn’t for fancy things, it was to improve the quality of things we were doing.

What was your first salary?

I studied mechanical engineering at university and went to work on nuclear power stations with British Energy, for just under £34,000 (Dh168,580 annually), for two years. I took a year out and went travelling, which was always the plan. I came back and joined Hilti, a global company from Liechtenstein. They sponsored my MBA, which took me to South Africa and placement work with a children’s hospice.

It made me realise the power of money to really do good rather than something effectively played with in the City of London. There were lives truly being transformed – how we could get more cash and do more with it. It was life-changing. That led me more into the start-up space, away from the corporate machine.

How did AirZones happen?

I was working in the clean technology space. I’ve seen this evolution in construction as we moved towards more sustainable buildings. That started to shift beyond just being sustainable for the environment to being more human-centric, looking at the sustainable indoor environment and how that impacts occupants.

I became acutely aware of air quality being the key influence over indoor environments … so let’s rate the air quality in different zones.

Why should companies pay for this?

It’s the right thing to do as an employer, providing the healthiest environment for employees. That’s particularly true with Covid-19 in getting people to return to the office, proving we invest in their health and well-being.

There are proven reports in terms of return on that investment in employee productivity, risk aversion and their ability to make strategic decisions.

Chris Leighton moved from the corporate life to the start-up space once he realised the power of money to do good. Photo: Pawan Singh / The National

It becomes a marketing tool as well if we get to a point where parents demand to know the air quality of a school before they send their children there. When you see more customers going to these organisations, that is return on investment.

Have your spending and saving habits evolved?

I’d been working for the multinational corporate side and never really stepped up spending as I progressed. I moved to a director role, suddenly my annual bonuses were more than the salary but we didn’t change our lifestyle. That (extra) would go away for a future point at which we can invest, and that has led to now.

We were saving as much as we were spending, whereas now we’re spending more than we’re saving. We’re making an investment in the business. That will grow, then we can start to squirrel away again.

How do you grow wealth?

Hilti had a fantastic savings and pension scheme. After leaving, I took it and started to invest it. We’ve always seen that as a sacred pot.

My dad’s into trading, so we work with him in the stock market. We also own a house in the UK, which is turning out to be a wise investment.

What is your favourite investment?

Living by the beach. When we came to Dubai, we decided to “invest” in making sure it was an experience; we can walk straight from the bedroom on to the beach and that is phenomenal.

We’re starting a business; we need to save as much as we can for that. We could live somewhere and not pay as much rent, but this (accommodation) is worth spending a bit more on because of the overall quality of life.

It’s about sacrifices, how you weigh those up. We don’t buy expensive clothes and crazy cars, but we live in a beautiful place. We could spend on something else, but the return is fantastic memories, happy children and experiences.

Any other cherished spends?

The business. It’s a huge sink of resources … market research, building websites, a massive investment of time and cash. But it’s what we’re most proud of so far, something that can be a vehicle to do good.

Also investing in that year’s worth of travelling … we bought a round-the-world ticket, put backpacks on and went. We worked hard on power stations, saved and put ourselves in a position to do one of life’s greatest experiences. The worst thing you could do with your life is get to the end and see what you could have done.

How do you feel about money?

I don’t think money makes you happy, but it can be a source of stress if you don’t understand it and make it work for you.

Money is not the goal, you could argue that happiness is. Does cash buy you happiness? I don’t see happiness as a material thing. By working with money, we can use that for good, which ultimately brings joy.

I’m fairly sure I could be making a lot more trading in Canary Wharf if cash was the goal, but it’s not. The most valuable thing you have is your time, so choose how you invest that and make it count; your cash is a vehicle over there somewhere.

Giving it to a children’s hospice in South Africa … that’s going to put a bigger smile on my face than driving a Ferrari.

What are you happy spending on?

My parents were keen on stressing that you can waste an inordinate amount on material things, but you can never waste a penny on a new experience, be it from travel, education or time with those you love.

So when the opportunity comes, spend on that, time with family and friends. We will always back our children when they come with opportunities, but also ourselves; create those magic moments.

We’ve never really wasted money on material things. We have less disposable cash now than probably we’ve had in 10 years, because we plough it into the business, but actually feel more satisfied in terms of life’s purpose. It comes down to your relationship with money.

Any future goals?

To get this business going, make a real difference and set it up in a way that provides for the future in a sustainable way for the family.

We’re looking at external investors that will help us scale. We can get it really embedded and going in Dubai this year, the UAE, then look beyond that and partnerships – roll the sleeves up now so hopefully by our late 40s, we can take a step back and get life back in balance.

Updated: February 07, 2022, 5:38 AM
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