x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Money&Me: A career in fashion thanks to strong family ties

Karim Sahyoun has discovered his creative side in Dubai after a long career working overseas in shipping.

Karim Sahyoun has discovered his creative side in Dubai after a long career working overseas in shipping. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
Karim Sahyoun has discovered his creative side in Dubai after a long career working overseas in shipping. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

Karim Sahyoun is the owner of Mon Atelier, a luxury lifestyle boutique he opened in Jumeirah in May 2010. The Lebanese-born mechanical engineer moved into fashion after a career in shipping in countries such as Haiti. He moved back to Dubai, where he grew up, in 2008 to be able to spend more time with his 10-year-old daughter.

Describe your financial journey so far.

I left Dubai in 1989 to study in Canada, became a Canadian citizen and then moved to Haiti, where I got married and had a daughter. Although I trained as a mechanical engineer, the majority of my career has been in shipping. In Haiti, I was a port director but after my divorce, my daughter moved to Miami with her mother and I realised the only place in the world where I could have my daughter for two months in the summer without resorting to day care was in Dubai because my mother has her nursery school, Mon Ecole, here and I have a support system. So I moved back because I was trying to be a better dad. If I had continued working eight to 10 hour days as an employee, I wouldn't have had any time with her. This is what pushed me to become an entrepreneur.

What do you spend your money on?

Travel. I fly to see my daughter every three months, so it's four trips a year if you include bringing her here for the summer. I also spend money on my health, so I'm always in the gym training.

Are you a saver or a spender?

I don't think I'm a saver; I consider myself to be an investor. With investing, you're spending money on something, but you'd better be building equity somewhere. So it is still a bank account, it's just not one that has numbers right away until one day, you have a grand portfolio or a cash flow.

So how does a mechanical engineer end up running a fashion boutique?

Fashion is something I would never have considered. When I came here, my dad brought me in as a partner in his trading company. I looked for brands in Haiti and Miami that I would bring here and was leaning towards green construction materials because the industry was booming back then. Meanwhile, my mother had rented a villa near to her school and her idea was to create a place called Mon Atelier that was going to be a club for the mothers after they drop off their kids. So I took that project on, too. Then, during a trip to Miami, I ran across a luxury shirt brand called Bogosse, owned by two young fellows from Haiti. I contacted them, asked them what their plans were for Dubai and basically became their agent. That was in May 2008. I was also still working on my mum's idea and started organising yoga classes at the mum's club when I realised that was not the kind of business I wanted. When the crisis hit, all the other career options withered away and the fashion brand became my breadwinner. At Mon Atelier, we sell men's, women's and children's clothes and accessories, luxury brands and have tailors that make my mother's collection of kids' clothes and our gifts. I never thought of myself as creative, but this is a lot of fun and it's affected the way I dress as well.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

With my change in lifestyle, the free time cleared my mind - something that's very important for an entrepreneur. One day, I was looking inside my mum's Bottega purse and I could see it had a plastic lining, which she'd put in to protect it in case her fountain pen leaked. I thought it would be a great idea to use the same concept inside a gym bag, so that you don't have sweaty clothes and shoes together. That's where LeGymBag came from. We designed the bag from scratch and had a plastic partition placed inside. We embroider people's names on them and they make a great corporate gift.

What has been your most valuable financial lesson?

My phone book contains almost 3,000 names from Haiti, Miami, Dubai, Europe and Canada. Building up a network requires a passion and I have that passion. The important lesson is that when you get a business card, remember where you met that person, follow up with an e-mail and save that number. I've kept the same contacts since I had a casual digital diary in the early 1990s. Over the years, I've backed it up from phone to phone to PC to BlackBerry. That's something I protect and it's very valuable for me.

What has been your biggest financial difficulty?

Without the support of my family, there's no way this business would be alive today. This journey and the idea coming together in spite of the difficulties and delays in getting official approvals and people saying to me, "How can your business survive, it's a standalone shop?" is something I couldn't have done without their financial and moral support.