Money & Me: 'It's imperative to stand up for what you are worth'

Brett Smyth, founder of the Engage Group, says investing in his education has paid long-term dividends

Brett Smyth invests in a global portfolio of low-cost index funds. Pawan Singh / The National
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Brett Smyth is the founder and chief executive of the Engage Group, a UAE-based employee communications agency.

He set up the company 10 years ago to support businesses in building informed, empowered and inspired teams.

This year, Mr Smyth launched the UAE chapter of the UK’s Institute of Internal Communication network. The organisation aims to help shape the future of the region’s internal communications sector.

Mr Smyth, a 41-year-old Irish-South African national, lives in Dubai, although he makes frequent trips to the US, where he’s studying for a master’s degree in international relations at Harvard University.

How did your upbringing shape your attitude to money?

I grew up in South Africa in the 1980s. It was a vibrant environment of cultural diversity, exuberant people, breathtaking landscapes, a complex history and glaring socioeconomic disparities.

People had to work hard to make a living and required a strong entrepreneurial spirit. This experience inspired me to create my own business, instilled an appreciation for the value of money and fostered a strong sense of resilience. It also taught me the importance of perseverance.

What was your first job?

When I was 16, I started working at a mountain resort during my school holidays where I assisted with guest entertainment activities and led horse trail rides.

I didn’t get paid, but I did earn tips – probably Dh200 or $54 over the summer holiday, which felt like a lot to me. I stayed at the resort for free.

Who is your biggest financial inspiration?

I really admire my dad. He started from humble beginnings but put himself through school and university with a combination of hard work and scholarships. He juggled his university studies with a full-time job.

He was very successful in his career. Looking back, I’m sure there were times when money was tight, but he never let on and always had a plan.

As an entrepreneur, have finances been tight?

Absolutely, especially when setting up my own business. I always tell anyone starting a business that you need to be prepared to be very poor before you start making any money.

People only see the results of your success, not the stress, sweat and tears.

No matter how tight or bad things get, it is always important to confront reality by actively budgeting and tracking your finances. Proactively manage your money so that you stay in control.

What’s the hardest money lesson you learnt?

My biggest lesson was to respect the value of our services and charge appropriately. When I first launched the Engage Group, it was tempting to undervalue our offerings to win new work.

To be successful, however, it is imperative you stand up for what you are worth, establish fair pricing, negotiate contracts, and cultivate a client base that respects what you offer.

How do you grow your finances?

I firmly believe in putting my money to work. My investment strategy involves a diversified, long-term approach, where I invest in a global portfolio consisting of low-cost index funds.

To ensure stability and mitigate stock market fluctuations, I also include bonds.

For more on this approach, I recommend reading the book Millionaire Expat: How to Build Wealth Living Overseas by Andrew Hallam. He writes with clarity and humour, and provides sound practical advice.

Where does most of your income go?

I’m a big believer in saving and living below one’s means. I try to save at least 20 per cent to 30 per cent of my monthly salary – so I’d say that the largest chunk of my monthly earnings goes into savings.

It is important to pay yourself first so you can invest in your own financial future.

What’s your most extravagant purchase?

By nature, I am not an extravagant person, but when I do splash out, it’s always on travel and experiences.

I love travelling and Dubai is the perfect hub from which to explore the world. Experiences contribute to personal growth.

But no extravagant possessions?

My dad once said to me that the least flashy people are often the true millionaires.

It’s tempting to get caught up in the luxurious lifestyle and the pressure to keep up with others. But the person driving that fancy car next to you might be drowning in debt!

Is an MBA worth the money?

Warren Buffett famously said the most important investment you can make is in yourself.

I am passionate about education and have two master’s degrees. While they were not cheap, the knowledge, experience and contacts gained have been invaluable in elevating my career.

Today, there are so many affordable and flexible online study options available. I encourage everyone to make time for self-improvement, ensuring that your skills remain relevant in a rapidly evolving marketplace.

What's your advice for someone in financial trouble?

I would advise someone in financial trouble to face it head-on and seek help. It’s crucial to confront your financial challenges rather than avoiding or denying them.

Reach out to financial experts or advisers for guidance and support. They can help you assess your situation, create a realistic plan, and explore potential solutions.

If you’re in debt, start by paying off your debts from smallest to largest. This provides a sense of accomplishment and motivation as each debt is eliminated.

I would advise someone in financial trouble to face it head-on and seek help
Brett Smyth, founder and chief executive, Engage Group

What are the biggest financial challenges in the UAE?

I always advise friends moving to the UAE to manage their personal spending and avoid unnecessary debt.

Cities like Abu Dhabi and Dubai are luxury destinations and it can be easy to get caught up in this allure and start living beyond your means.

But an advantage of living in the UAE is the absence of personal income tax. By prioritising savings and investing wisely, people can build a solid financial foundation.

How much is in your wallet right now?

I rarely carry cash these days – no one needs to any more, but I like to keep at least Dh200 in my wallet for tips.

What car do you drive?

A trusty Mitsubishi Pajero. We’ve been through thick and thin together over the past nine years and it really suits my outdoor lifestyle. I don’t see the need to replace it just yet.

What financial decision would you change?

To begin investing earlier. The power of compound interest is truly amazing, as even modest and consistent investments over time can result in significant wealth accumulation.

Updated: September 26, 2023, 3:59 AM