Renowned for his Dh33m purchase of the D5 RTA number plate last year, Balwinder Sahni says Bay Square 4 in Dubai's Business Bay is his best investment.
Balwinder Sahni: 'Whenever I make big money I buy a building'
Balwinder (Raj) Sahni probably does not need to worry about his retirement plan. The 45-year-old Indian owner and chairman of property development company Raj Sahni Group (RSG) International was born into an affluent family, made his first fortune in the automotive industry and the second from property. Born and bred in Kuwait, he is best known for his multimillion-dollar local licence plates. Also known as Abu Sabah, many of his developments are named after son Sabah, such as the Sabah Rotana hotels. Mr Sahni is married with three children, two sons, aged 23 and 21, and a three-year-old daughter.
How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?
My father was very wealthy so I grew up around a lot of wealth. I have been a workaholic since I was 15 and asked my father to open me a company at 18, selling spare parts and tyres. I went to university to do a business management degree but I could not stop thinking about how much I would get paid as an engineer or doctor and did not enjoy it. My brother loaned me US$300,000 to get it going. We were all in the automotive trade – cars, tyres, spare parts – competing with each other. My father came to Kuwait in 1951 from Delhi and the family name is very well known in Kuwait. Every father’s dream is that his child is better than him, and it is the same for my sons now. I make sure they are both working hard in my organisation.
How much did you get paid for your first job?
At 15, in 1987, my father was giving me $3,000 a month to work with him.
Are you a spender or saver?
I spend about 5 per cent of my money and the rest I save. I have always had a beautiful life and have never wanted to compromise my lifestyle, but this saving attitude did not come from my upbringing. Whenever I make big money I buy a building.
What is your most cherished purchase, how much was it?
I bought the D5 car number plate for Dh33 million in an RTA auction last year for one of my Rolls-Royce cars. I have Ferraris and so on as well, but mostly Rolls-Royces. Numbers are my baby; I am a numbers man. Why D5? D is number four in the alphabet and four plus five is nine – my lucky number. RTA gives the money it makes from these auctions to charity. In 2015 I bought a Dh24.5 million plate, O9, and gave it to a charity building a children’s hospital. When you make so much money in this city and it gives you everything, we have no taxes, it’s safe… this is the best way we can pay back to society. I have been lucky in Dubai; the right time, right place. I started believing in Dubai and things went extremely well. I also bought a mobile number, 058 8888888, for Dh 4.5m in a du charity this year – although it is switched off. But I have to stop going to auctions – when I go, I have to take the number, I don’t like anyone beating me.
How did you move to Dubai from Kuwait?
I first came to Dubai in 1991 and it was a normal city. I came again in 1996 and I saw everything had changed. One of my best friends is from the Kuwaiti royal family and we started buying plots together – they were tripling in price in a year. Freehold sales started in 2000 and I bought villas, an Emaar block in Dubai Marina – there was no end to it. In 2006, I sold everything in Kuwait and moved to Dubai. But by 2008 I could see there was something not real so I started selling assets – I had sold 75 to 80 per cent by the recession. Dubai saw a very big crash, but I survived. I then set up RSG Property & Management Development – when you have your own money and bank mortgages, you don’t care about crashes. RSG is everywhere now, on every corner. Some I own, some I sell off-plan, some I keep as a rental portfolio. I am enjoying the rental income.
Where do you save?
Real estate is a healthy investment for the rest of your life. I have a big chunk of real estate in the US and recently started buying in London as the real estate market crashed, I would say by 25 per cent, and the currency has been falling too. I have never been stressed in life; I hate to be leveraged or over-leveraged. I have bonds or fixed deposits with banks all over the world but mostly these days my savings are in Dubai – as the dirham is fixed to dollars, it is safe.
Do you prefer paying by credit card or in cash?
Since I was eight I have always liked to carry a lot of cash – I collected quarter-dinars in Kuwait. Cash is king.
What has been your best financial investment?
I am really sentimentally attached to one of my projects, Bay Square 4 in Dubai’s Business Bay. I purchased it seven years ago and go every week to see it. For me, as a foreigner, to have a building in the city’s downtown is prestigious. It has 33 units, both retail and commercial. Now my attention is focused on my hotels – one five-star opposite Mall of the Emirates and one four-star on Sheikh Zayed Road in Jebel Ali, both Sabah Rotanas operated by Rotana. Both open in 2020 in time for the Dubai Expo and I am building a third, three-star hotel as well. But Dubai has so much more to offer than just the Expo – the theme parks will make it a tourism hub. Something else will happen after the Expo, in 2021 and in 2022. Dubai doesn’t sleep.
What do you most regret spending money on?
I have never had any regrets. I have lost money – new businesses in Dubai, factories in China, not my line – but if it was the wrong investment, it was God’s will for me to lose the money.
What financial advice would you offer your younger self?
Work very hard. If you work hard, nobody can stop you. And be focused. Focus on what you know. I have been lucky in real estate and development and now that is all I do, real estate or connected – I shut down the automotive business completely in 2006. If you are good in something, don’t lose focus.
Do you have a financial plan for the future?
I never make plans. We never know anything. We don’t see the future, we don’t know the future. Even now, friends are saying: it’s a recession period; don’t build so much. I say, what has to happen will happen. I have never believed in feasibility studies. I am building three hotels now and that will be my retirement.