x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Keeping an eye on the prize

PR agencies aren't built in a day. Growing up in Dubai and following her parents' example, this managing director invests one step at a time, watching her wealth grow organically.

Sawsan Ghanem, 37, spends about 60 per cent of her income on living expenses while the rest goes to savings.
Sawsan Ghanem, 37, spends about 60 per cent of her income on living expenses while the rest goes to savings.

From a very early age I had a strong awareness that money doesn't grow on trees and that a satisfied soul is important for a happy mind. At 37, I owe this philosophy to my parents. My brother and I were brought up as proud Jordanians with a sense of appreciation, and we were taught not to compare ourselves with others. Both my parents were professionals with full-time jobs during my childhood in Dubai, and my brother and I understood that money needed to be earned first before you can think of spending it.

As we grew up and had a better understanding of finances, we were given pocket money. I can't recall how much, but we saved up for toys or gadgets we wanted to buy for ourselves. While at university in the early 90s, studying for a bachelor's degree in chemistry and management at Kings College, London, I took up various part-time jobs, such as a sales assistant, to supplement the spending money my parents gave me as a student. I used to make around £120 (Dh716) each week in my job, but I can't remember how much my parents gave me. Helping to support myself had a direct impact on me as an adult and businesswoman, as I always plan and save for things, and prioritise what I need from what I want.

My parents were great role models through their success in their respective careers; seeing my dad's electrical and contracting business grow from strength to strength over the years was a great inspiration for me to work hard for my money. My mother, a child-psychology graduate from Oxford University, was a teacher for more than 20 years. She put her heart and soul into teaching her students, working long hours and coming up with creative ideas to get them excited and engaged in their English-language classes.

So being financially secure is certainly one of the motivating factors in my life, but only through academic and professional achievement. This wasn't, however, the reason for my move to the UAE, as I have lived here with my family since I was 2 months old. UAE is home and will always be. I love the energy the UAE has and the potential and opportunity it provides to all. My background in science has given me skills that have placed me in good stead for my career in public relations. After completing my bachelor's degree in 1993, I worked in marketing in Dubai for four years. I went back to England in 1997 to pursue my master's in international business at the Webster Graduate School.

I can't recall the cost of tuition. My parents took care of the course fees and living expenses, and I subsidised my spending money and part of my living expenses from savings. This marked a turning point for me, as it opened my eyes to how the "real world" of business actually works. I freelanced in public relations and marketing (I prefer not to name the companies) in parallel with studying for my master's, and it was then that I found my niche in PR. Upon my return to the UAE in 1999, I worked for another PR agency for a few years. But that didn't last long.

After a lot of soul searching, research, planning, defining and refining our ideas, and putting them all into a comprehensive business plan, my business partner and husband, Louay al Samarrai, and I decided to set up a PR agency. In 2003, we used our combined experiences within the PR profession to start our business ? Active PR in Dubai's Media City. We funded the venture with both our savings and a family loan to get us set up in the early days. Our client portfolio is now comprised of a mix of local, regional and international names, including Xerox, SITA, R&M and Axis Communications, to name a few.

While living in Dubai these days is considerably more expensive than, say, 10 years ago, I still do not find it to be prohibitively so. Much like with the business, to keep one's personal bills down we need to prioritise and budget as much as possible for regular expenses and bills. Major expenses like home and office rent, and everyday living expenses such as food and the car. I would say both my husband and I spend around 60 per cent on our living expenses and the rest goes into savings.

Luckily, I have never been in debt or made financial decisions that I have later regretted. Being on top of things and having a clear view of what's happening with my finances is critical for peace of mind and inner balance. My approach to finances involves studying any action taken very carefully, including weighing up the risks and rewards before I embark on any course of action. I always believe that greed can drive people to overstretch their finances and make speculative investments. This can result in truly devastating real-life stories of people losing their entire savings and livelihoods. Like a lot of people in the UAE, my husband and I chose to invest in property. Thankfully we made the decision to liquidate our two property investments in the Dubai Marina area before the credit crunch set in, and we managed to make a 35 per cent profit on each of the investments.

While many business owners seek financial advice from the professionals, we choose to act as our own advisers when it comes to money matters. We feel that so far we have been doing a good job. My husband and I always remain alert and informed about the market situation, and take care of our future by often supplementing our savings account in the UK through regular bank transfers. The global economic downturn has failed to make a huge impact on our business or personal finances, as we have always been very careful with our investments and growth plans. The trick is to take things one step at a time and to grow organically. It is not always a good idea to try to profit from trends, or to plan ahead based on an extremely optimistic outlook that is not entirely based on reality.

In my opinion, happiness cannot be judged on how much money you have or potentially can earn. If my happiness was solely based on money, I wouldn't be happy. Money is an enabler in the material world, but spiritually there are other incredibly important factors, such as family, health and friends. My advice to those looking to stabilise their lives and secure their finances is to always make a budget, and to plan ahead as much as possible.

Trust your instinct, as it is usually correct, and try not to spend beyond your means. You never know what you will be faced with a few months down the line. * as told to Inga Stevens