Money & Me: 'I like having money for security and peace of mind'

SensAsia spa group founder Salina Handa says her spending and saving habits evolved when she had to become financially responsible

Salina Handa, 46, moved to Dubai in 1999 and opened her first spa five years later. Antonie Robertson / The National
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Born in Thailand to Indian parents, Salina Handa switched careers to open her first boutique day spa in 2004 before growing SensAsia into one of the UAE’s largest independent spa groups.

Ms Handa graduated with a business and marketing degree and in 1999, moved to Dubai, where she built brands and created concepts for major corporations.

Hailing from an entrepreneurial family, Ms Handa visited spas across the world as a customer, but one in Vietnam brought a light bulb moment to create one with a unique treatment menu.

Ms Handa, 46, who also runs consultancy The Spa People, is married and has twin daughters, aged 14.

What was your experience of money growing up?

My father was a successful businessman, a trader of garments in and out of Asia. I had a wonderful upbringing. I grew up with a different mindset around money than my sisters did. When they were young, he was on his rise up (in his career); when I was born, he was at his peak and money was abundant. He was controlling the purse strings, but my mother used to say that money doesn’t grow on trees.

Money was discussed at dinner and was always a topic of conversation. We grew up comfortable around it. The attitude was, “Money is important, you’ve got to have it, but you’ve got to work for it and be smart with it”.

How did that rub off on you?

The first half of my life, I was spoiled and then I became realistic as a teenager going into college. Things got tougher for dad when I was graduating high school and moving into college, so I valued being sent to America for my education. The Asian currency crisis had happened, which didn’t allow me to go back to Thailand to work and is what brought me to Dubai.

When did you first earn a salary?

For two summers in the US, I did an internship at a distributor of beverages to restaurants, hotels and clubs. If I wanted to stay in Boston, I needed more money aside from my allowance.

I was 19 and loved getting paid. It cemented that you can get paid for doing something you really enjoy. The third summer, I worked at a bank; I was being paid double, but it was awful. You should be making money, but with work that doesn’t feel like work. My first full-time salaried job was with Merrill Lynch when I came to Dubai.

What prompted the shift into spas?

I’m not a trained beautician or massage therapist, I went to business school in Boston and started off in finance. I met my husband at Merrill Lynch and ended up at Tetra Pak doing marketing, designing concepts for products like milk.

I come from a family of entrepreneurs, so I always knew I wanted my own business. I’d been looking to see what I could do. I was in Vietnam on holiday and tried a recommended spa and massage place in a French colonial house. That’s where that epiphany light-bulb moment went off. I basically said: “I can do this and do it better.” Eight months later, I had opened in my first location, at The Village, Jumeirah.

Salina Handa prefers to spend on experiences such as holidays. Antonie Robertson / The National

How did you fund it?

I was still working and went to Chiva-Som International Academy to study spa management and development. I had savings and my husband put in the initial investment. He’s a finance whizz and put in his gratuity. I don’t think I would have done it if he hadn’t pushed me.

Was it tough turning off the salary tap?

It was really hard. Then again, it took me about eight months from when I started the business to break even and start turning cash flow positive … not something I expected. It allowed me to expand quickly. I never dreamt that I would have multiple locations and a brand that has capitalised into other formats.

Have your spending and saving habits evolved?

I was the kind of person who would spend every last dime of my allowance the week before my next allowance. I was living with my sister and her family temporarily in Dubai and she decided to move back to the UK. I was 22 and suddenly had to get my own apartment, had bills I was responsible for. That’s when I worked out that I liked having money for my security and peace of mind. Ever since, I’ve been a saver. Also, my father passed away when I was 22; there wasn’t anybody to ask any more.

It took me about eight months from when I started the business to break even and start turning cash flow positive
Salina Handa, owner of SensAsia

What do you enjoy spending on?

We’re more about experiences, some phenomenal holidays that turn into a bit of research into service experiences. I translate that into what a consumer would want in a luxury spa. I love seeing good service, I’m constantly inspired.

I don’t spend frivolously on materialistic goods as I did in my twenties and thirties, but I’m still a spender because I’m also of the mindset that abundance is a frame of mind; the more you give, the more it flows in. I’m generous with myself and with others. I work hard and it’s almost my reward to me.

How do you grow your wealth?

My husband does a lot of investments for us as a unit — in property and the stock market, mostly real estate. I've got my own savings as well because it’s important to have my own nest egg. I like knowing I have actual cash in the bank.

How do you feel about money?

It should not be the source of happiness, it should accessorise your life. You innately need to be happy with where you are. We go through feast-and-famine phases with everything in our lives, with relationships and with money. There are times when you can feel like you’re not as abundant as you should be, but I would feel saddened if it affected my mental state to the point where I needed it to make me feel whole.

I’m teaching our kids the same thing. You must have it, but if you don’t one day, it’s OK. Have faith in the fact that you will be fine. I’m not going to sound holier than thou and say money doesn’t mean anything. It definitely does, but it shouldn’t define you.

So money isn’t motivation?

I don’t think my motivation has ever really been money, (although) I’ve never wanted to lose money. Since I’ve had kids, my motivation is to enjoy what I do. I love it when our clients feel good and they’re coming back for more. The other part of my job is the satisfaction of people who work with me. I like to have fun during my day.

Has the pandemic influenced your business?

Initially, for four months, we weren’t allowed to open. That was probably the most difficult time I’ve had because all my costs stayed the same. I was pretty sure it was going to go under, but it allowed me to completely reposition my entire strategy. We went down the consulting route a little heavier, we closed branches. It really allowed us to restrategise, recalibrate, refocus, cut down the fat.

Any future goals?

To try to work less. We’re looking at going down the retail route to build valuation and eventually sell the business, a really tasty exit, or expand into different areas. I would want to get less involved in operations day-to-day and be the creative behind it.

Updated: September 19, 2022, 4:29 AM