x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Earning cash is hard work, but holding on to it takes even more skill

Money&Me Mohammed Nahawi divides his time between his building contracting firm and the cafe chain Gérard that he co-owns.

Mohammed Nahawi at his Gerard outlet in the Downtown Burj Residence in Dubai.
Mohammed Nahawi at his Gerard outlet in the Downtown Burj Residence in Dubai.

Mohammed Nahawi is the managing director of Midmac, a building contracting company, and the co-owner of the Gérard cafe chain, which first opened in the Emirates in 1981. The Palestinian-Jordanian, who divides his time between his two businesses, has lived in the UAE all his life.

Describe your financial journey so far.

Engineering is in my family's heritage, so that was the basis for choosing my career - and a career is the start of a financial journey. At high school, I was probably fonder of architecture, but I knew that engineering would be better for my future and thought I would follow in my father's footsteps and one day head up a massive engineering empire. I believed that once I'd gained enough financial capability, I would be able to do something I loved, such as opening a restaurant, which is why Gérard played quite perfectly for me. It's a step towards opening my own restaurant, which is a passion of mine.

Why did you decide to set up your own business?

After graduating, I started working for my father, but I didn't see my future progressing in such a large firm. So I thought it best to go it alone. At 24, my goal was to get on the road to success while I was still young. My father was not for it initially and looking back, I agree. He thought I had a lot to learn and the truth is, I did. Engineering is an industry where, even if you are a 40-year veteran, you still learn something new on site everyday. After a bit of success, he could see I was capable of doing this.

Why did you decide to invest in Gérard?

Before Starbucks and all those massive cafe chains, Gérard was the cornerstone of the cafe social life in Dubai. In fact, the Jumeirah Jane concept originated in our Jumeirah branch because, back in the day, expat British women would meet up at Gérard to gossip after dropping their kids at school. I loved the product because it was already a hang-out for me. My business partner and I thought there was great potential, so we bought the majority stake 13 years ago. I only started getting personally involved two years ago. I wasn't seeing enough progression and thought I could bring some young ideas to the company and that included rebranding and unifying its image. I'm so proud of Gérard because we have such a loyal customer base. There are customers who come into our branches every single day of the year and 75 per cent of our clientele is local. When we invested in Gérard, there were only three branches. Now we have six, with plans to open another one this year. So as a career, I split my time between managing Midmac and Gérard - it's the perfect balance.

Have you experienced any financial difficulties along the way?

Thankfully, I haven't had any, but I did make a mistake in my financial life. I've invested in the UAE's real estate industry and my philosophy towards buying has always been to ask myself whether I would live in that apartment. The one time I skewed from that philosophy to make a quick profit, like everyone else around me, it went wrong and the project got cancelled. At the end of the day, that applies to all forms of business - it's not about turning a quick profit, it's about whether you are connected and believe in the investment.

What has been your most valuable financial lesson?

Keeping your money is much more of an art form than making it. On a daily basis, I am tempted to either invest in a different sector or in a luxury item. It's human nature that you always want more, but appreciating what you have is something I have learnt along the way through work and life. There's no doubt my father is also a massive influence in keeping me grounded. Throughout my career, the only thing he has asked me to do is to work hard and keep my feet on the ground and that's something I try to do. I'm not sure how well I do it, but I try.

What has been your biggest financial challenge?

I launched my engineering firm in 2005, when the UAE and the construction industry was booming and being a start-up firm was extremely challenging. It's always hard to be a start-up and play with the big boys. So growing the company and sustaining it throughout the recession was my biggest challenge. Ironically, when the construction industry was reeling during the recession, they were my company's best years financially. I kept overheads low and focused on a few projects with high profit margins.

What do you invest in?

Real estate in the UAE and overseas and stocks. The engineering firm is an investment, as is Gérard. I also have a savings programme that I dedicate a percentage of my monthly income to and that ties into the philosophy of keeping your money.

Is money important to you?

Sure. Anyone who says it isn't is probably not being very truthful. Whether it's to support a family or to live a good life, we're all working to make money.