Money & Me: ‘I retired for eight years but got bored’

Ramjee Iyer, chairman and managing director of Acube Real Estate Development, became a developer to create his legacy

Ramjee Iyer, chairman and managing director of Acube Real Estate Development, says money does not let you retire. Pawan Singh / The National
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India-born Ramjee Iyer became bored with early retirement, so he launched Acube Real Estate Development, of which he is chairman and managing director, last year.

Based in Dubai for 22 years, he worked in various industries such as energy and shipping following his first commercial experience … running restaurants shortly after his father died.

Mr Iyer, 50, moved to the UAE with a company before going solo to pursue offshore oil and gas construction projects and founding a group that owned and operated ships supporting marine and construction requirements.

He has backed projects across Europe, India and the Middle East, including sports clubs, cinemas, low-cost housing in his hometown Chennai, residential buildings in Dubai’s Arjan district and infrastructure programmes in countries such as Oman, Sudan, Iraq, Nigeria and Tanzania.

Mr Iyer lives on The Palm Jumeirah with his wife and two of his four children.

Was there money in your childhood?

My father had a plastic material-making business in Chennai. We were one of the first to get a telephone and two cars which, for India then, was like Elon Musk today.

By 1976, my father lost most of his fortune and we moved to a temple town 100km away.

My father showed us a rich life, then a period where we were a middle-class family, then back to zero when he died.

What was your first taste of business?

He had three restaurants with more than 80 employees. The day after I cremated my father, I told them they had two options – take the furniture and run away, because I did not have money to give them, or help me reopen, earn and then I pay them.

We started working the next morning. I was 17 and that was the end of my education. There was nobody to feed my family.

We managed for a bit until we could pay debtors and staff salaries, and then we had to sell the restaurants.

Did this help colour your financial philosophy?

Yes. Falling and getting up a few times teaches you a thing or two.

If you concentrate on money alone, you are not going to succeed. You need to concentrate on building relationships, building value into a product, respect from customers and peers – that will pull money in. Build several dimensions to your business.

Money is the medium of life; you cannot do without it. But if you focus on only money, you will find it runs away from you.

What was your first wage?

By 18, I had a mother and sister to feed and did not have a penny or an education, so I moved to Mumbai and found a job as a blue-collar worker doing heavy construction fabrication work for cement and oil plants.

I started from the bottom on 900 Indian rupees (about $30 in 1993), 11 hours or so a day, 26 days a month.

But it showed me the satisfaction of earning money when you work. That is important, it drives you. And your bones remember hard work.

At the core, I am a construction man – of steel and cement, nuts and bolts.

What else have you learnt about money?

Money alone is not going to give you anything. I always had something or the other as my most valuable thing – a stage when I thought money was all important, or friends, or education.

You need to value money, knowledge, skill, connections and networking. Some of these will come together to form success.

But money alone is not successful. Even if you are given a huge amount as a gift tomorrow … it might give you a sense of jubilation for a few days but it does not give you happiness or satisfaction by itself.

Are you a saver or a spender?

Always a spender. Today, I have money, can buy what I want, but in those days when I did not have the money, I stretched my borders to get it.

My first car was a large Fiat sedan imported into India. The price was 200 per cent more because of taxes and I was earning a small salary. It hurt for many years, payments for the credit card and loan.

I got it because I liked it and money was not going to stop me. I was 24. I regretted it for some time.

Being wise or unwise with money is not based on the value of an item; it is based on what I can afford to buy.

Have you made dramatic life decisions?

In 2014, my company Oceanking was at the peak of operations. We had several projects all over the world, about 300 engineers.

A couple of years before, I started buying luxury things – a 66-foot luxury yacht in The Palm Jumeirah marina, within walking distance from my villa, as well as a Ferrari, a Porsche.

But I was still coming to the office everyday as I had for 20 years. I was thinking nothing had changed for me personally, so I sold my business and retired.

I stayed retired for about eight years, roamed the world … and then I got bored. I came back to do something again, to build things, so I became a developer.

Money does not let you retire. It keeps making you do things.

But I am not here simply to make money, I want to build my legacy.

What is your best investment?

Real estate. The first time I bought property, an apartment in Dubai Marina, was after the 2008 fall. It has appreciated a lot since but there was a stage when my investment went below what I purchased at.

Money staying in your bank is a depreciating asset. You have got to make it work for you.

Money staying in your bank is a depreciating asset. You have got to make it work for you
Ramjee Iyer, chairman and managing director of Acube Real Estate Development

Any cherished purchases?

I am crazy about watches and have many millions of dirhams worth now. But there was a time when I made enough to buy my first watch, a Timex for $5 or $10.

It does not work any more but I keep it in my watch cupboard with the Cartiers. It is more valued than any of the others because I fell in love with it, waited for it and kept it like treasure.

Any spending regrets?

I started donating money. I used to write cheques to charities in India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh.

Then I did some deep research and realised the money you give to many of these organisations does not go all the way to needy people. Some are doing very good work, of course.

Now if I want to do something – for example, in Mumbai there is a hospital which treats very old renal-failure patients – I know somebody who goes and checks if it is really serving the poor. I make extra effort to find what they need and then buy it.

What else do you enjoy spending on?

I get my fun and satisfaction by seeing others eat good food and having a good time. If people around me eat well and they are happy, I am happy.

And cars. I have a Ferrari, a Rolls-Royce, a Bentley, Porsche. But this alone is not going to give me fun. People and food is a nice combination.

Updated: December 29, 2023, 6:02 PM