Money & Me: ‘My biggest regret is having a credit card’

Luke Cunningham, founder of water safety and first aid training company Blueguard, is a disciplined spender who invests in his family’s well-being

Blueguard founder and managing director Luke Cunningham says he sets aside money for a rainy day. Antonie Robertson / The National
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Luke Cunningham is the founder of UAE water safety and first aid training company Blueguard, which provides certification to lifeguards, businesses and residents.

The Briton joined a surf life-saving programme as a child, developing a passion for water safety, which led to a career that included becoming a surf coach and professional lifeguard.

After a few years of seasonal work to fund his travel and surfing passions, Mr Cunningham joined the opening management team of Al Ain’s Wadi Adventure at the age of 23 to head the lifeguard teams.

He launched Blueguard in 2017, after working for Transguard Group as a hospitality account manager and project manager for a TV outdoor broadcasting company.

Now 35, Mr Cunningham lives with his wife and children, aged 20 months and six months, in Jumeirah Village Triangle, Dubai.

Did money feature in your upbringing?

My dad worked for multinational companies and, when I was very young, made a lifestyle change – moving to the countryside away from the corporate world. I saw him take a gamble and set up his own business. Mum was a head cook, organising meals for schools.

It was a big change in income for them, but my parents always made sure we had what we needed, could go to swim clubs and to the South of France on caravan holidays.

Now, as an adult with children, I realise they would go through challenges and did their best to protect my brother and me – a simple lifestyle, going to the beach, surfing, our clothes hand-me-downs from neighbours or older kids in the village.

How did you first earn?

I was 13, at the local pub washing dishes for about £4 ($5) an hour. I saw my dad hustling and it washed off. That wage packet at the end of the week … it was like, “Wow, this is mine” and I got to do what I wanted with it.

Later, every summer, I got jobs teaching surfing, sailing, windsurfing, kayaking during the day. In the evenings, I would work as a bartender or waiter. In the mornings, I would clean caravans. Once, I did spring-cleaning of submarines and warships.

I had this appetite to work because my time would equal cash, which I could use to travel or buy surf equipment.

The more I worked, the more it gave me freedom, but I was never educated in what to do with the money. It was only later I started to realise the importance of saving.

What brought you to the UAE?

I was managing a surf school, where I had been working since the age of 16. The owner got an email looking for an expert surf instructor to work at a wave pool. I didn’t realise where Al Ain was. When I saw that facility, I was like a kid in a candy shop … I had keys to a machine that created waves.

Transguard was my first real corporate job. Then (with Blueguard) I identified a gap in the market.

We have just opened a new office at Oasis Centre and work with government entities, facilities management companies, new parents, in paediatric training and with the major schools.

What is your spending and saving balance?

We put aside money for a rainy day. We’ve got kids, so it has put a different spin on what’s needed. A little goes away each month for their education.

Our spending is with purpose, we invest in either the company or ourselves; my wife and I. So, courses, not materialistic items, not the latest car or whatever.

I’ve still got the same truck from 2014. It’s hit 340,000 kilometres.

How do you grow wealth?

We invested in an apartment in Dubai, property in Finland and land in the UK. We want to develop it, but we’re waiting for Blueguard to hit certain levels to reinvest back into the business, adding layers.

Blueguard is our best investment because it’s given us a purpose and is very rewarding; every time somebody leaves one of our classes, they’ve got skills to save somebody’s life.

We get calls to let us know the lifeguard we trained just did CPR … to know we’ve helped save somebody is priceless. And every time I get to employ somebody is a milestone.

How do you feel about money?

It gives you a platform to do stuff, options, flexibility, it can give you time. Money is an enabler.

I’ve gone through a love/hate relationship with it, because it’s something you always need. I’ve done jobs that I haven’t enjoyed, but gave me money and choices.

A lot of people get lost in money as this instant gratification and that it brings you success. Money is one aspect, but it’s not going to make you happy and solve all life’s problems. The thing with money … there’s no right or wrong, as long as it works for you.

Do you monitor outgoings?

About three years ago, I started daily tracking on Excel to see where finances go. It’s not because money is not there, it’s because you want to spend in the right places, get the right value.

Running a business, you’ve got to be on it with finances. I learnt those skills, so why not transfer these to my personal life as well?

When you grow up, you’re more conscious about what you’re spending on; you see the value in things and understand what you’re getting in return.

Any financial regrets?

My biggest, when I moved to the UAE, was taking a credit card. And not being educated on how to use it at a young age – it’s not just access to extra money.

Now I’m very disciplined with cards, each one with different rewards and schemes, but paid off each month, so they’re not winning and I’m maximising.

What are you happy paying for?

Surfboards and travel. I can fly to the Maldives and surf, you’re in the water within five hours, Indonesia is eight hours away. If you’ve got cash, you can make these decisions.

When you grow up, you’re more conscious about what you’re spending on, you see the value in things, and understand what you’re getting in return
Luke Cunningham, founder, Blueguard

We recently did a sound healing bowl course. Rather than paying Dh400 ($108) a session, we’ve now got skills to do that for our family and friends. Whether it’s a retreat or sports massages, we invest in our well-being.

Did the pandemic impact Blueguard?

We had to shut down, but one of my proudest things during that lockdown was to retain the whole team, with salaries.

I could easily have let everyone go and restarted from ground zero. I ended up giving my bank statement to my team and saying: “This is how much money we’ve got in the bank. If you were me, what would you do?” I gave them a bit of authority with some decisions.

Any future goals?

To be able to give my children every opportunity I had, plus more. I want to travel the globe with my family and, at 40 to 45 years, be in a position where my companies are running themselves and I get to focus on the charitable and magical things I want to do.

We want to go to Africa to educate people on water safety. Blueguard has given us the platform to invest in drowning prevention technology that’s going to allow us to build centres in different parts of the world.

Updated: September 05, 2023, 3:58 AM