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Steve Douglas, the managing director of Smats, advises expatriates to maximise their wealth while in the UAE. Satish Kumar / The National (w)
Steve Douglas, the managing director of Smats, advises expatriates to maximise their wealth while in the UAE. Satish Kumar / The National (w)

Money & Me: Accountant says it's the boring stuff that works

Steve Douglas, the managing director of SmatsGroup, advises expats to maximise their wealth while in the UAE.

Steve Douglas grew up in Nigeria but in 1974, his family migrated to Australia, where he studied accounting. In 1995, he moved to Singapore and started his own company, SmatsGroup. Over the past 16 years, Mr Douglas has expanded his global reach to specialise in expatriate taxation and now has offices in Hong Kong, London, New York and Dubai.

How did you earn your first pay packet?

I started working with Ernst & Young as a trainee accountant at 16 years old. As a young kid, I was raking leaves and doing anything I could to earn a dollar. I can't remember a time when I have not worked.

How would you explain what you do now?

If I had to define myself, I am an activity creator. I give my clients the encouragement and support I believe they need to fulfil their dreams. Sometimes, people just need someone to hold their hand and say: "It is OK, you can do it."

How did you come to establish a business overseas?

It was fate. I had a friend in Sydney whose clients in Singapore needed tax advice. I started off making two trips a year to Singapore, but my base remained Western Australia. Just after my divorce in 1995, I sold my accounting practice in Albany and moved to Singapore full time. Friends found my decision very difficult to understand. But being an expatriate child taught me there are no boundaries.

Why set up an office in Dubai?

Being global has always been important. I always wanted to work internationally and combining work and travel is my ultimate dream. I am very positive about Dubai and watching the city mature is going to be exciting. I see our business here expanding and I imagine Dubai will become a regional base for us. I am bullish about the opportunities because I think the lifestyle is great and the potential is still huge.

What is unique about the UAE?

The most striking difference in the UAE is the style of expatriate. The majority of our clients here are first-time expatriates and this suits our business very well because we are all about helping expatriates maximise the wealth-creation opportunities that living here creates. Expatriates here are still open to ideas, whereas a lot of expatriates in London and Singapore are stuck in their ways or have already developed bad financial habits.

In the current economic climate, what is your best financial advice for those in the UAE?

Stay in the world of reality. If you focus on decisions that you understand, that is safer than chasing potential. If you don't understand it, don't do it.

What is the most important financial lesson you have learnt?

I learnt that preservation is more important than profit. I'd rather a low-performing asset that's safe than a high-performing asset that could be taken away at any minute.

What is the biggest risk you've ever taken?

I have never looked at something as a risk. I don't take risks because I don't believe in them. There is always a reason to do something. To make any venture successful requires hard work and if you are not prepared to put the hard work in, don't do it. To me, risk is not worth it, but I will make sacrifices. I left home early, I went to a country town, I went to work overseas. I don't see any of that as risk; it was all about making a decision, hard work and evolution.

What is your secret to financial success?

My secret to success is to build on solid ground. Never take a chance if you are not prepared to lose. This is not new; it is a philosophy that goes back thousands of years. Money is more about behaviour than numbers.

Are you a spender or a saver?

I confess to being a spender, but I only spend on absolute value. I am a professional bargain shopper. To me, it is about sequencing. Your house will pay for a holiday, but a holiday will not pay for your house. In critical periods of my life, I have tried to sacrifice to accumulate and now I enjoy spending my profits.

Have you experienced a financial loss?

You cannot be wise with money until you have lost. The biggest loss I have experienced was probably to do with a mining company I was involved in. It was a ripple effect from September 11 and it taught me that anything is possible and you cannot predict very much in the modern age. You need to be prepared because the unknown is getting bigger and bigger - it comes back to building a strong foundation. I don't mind making mistakes, but I try to make sure I only make them once. At the end of the day, the only thing that has made me money is helping people.

What should we teach children about money?

It is very hard to teach kids. The only thing I try to teach is work ethic and humility. These days, children have such big expectations. I think parents have forgotten how to say no and kids have mastered the art of guilt.


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