x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Money & Me: Dubai photographer believes in planning

The award-winning photographer Gerrry O'Leary began his career in construction management, and admits his financial journey has been a roller-coaster ride.

Gerry O'Leary says his financial journey has been a roller-coaster ride.
Gerry O'Leary says his financial journey has been a roller-coaster ride.

How did you end up in Dubai?

I had seen lots of media coverage about the flamboyant city called Dubai, so I decided to hop on a plane and check it out for myself. It was April 2007. My hometown, Dublin, was booming and I could hardly keep pace with my workload. I arrived and was greeted with a wall of searing heat at 3am - my taxi driver assured me that this wasn't hot, but I was not convinced. The next morning, I walked Sheikh Zayed Road with my chin on the pavement, such was the scale and magnificence of the towers. My raison-d'être was to check out the potential for an architectural photographer, me, and I was immediately smitten. I wasn't really motivated by the money or business potential; I just wanted to make great images of this beautiful architecture.

How did you become an architectural photographer?

I qualified as a surveyor and spent my first 10 years in construction management, working in the UK, Africa and the US. Photography was always my hobby and I spent my spare time and money pursuing this passion. In 1993, I gave up the day job and returned from the US to start a photography business in Ireland. Despite a rather rough journey for a few years, I never looked back. I knew that success was a state of mind and believed that if I was passionate about my work I would be good at it. My theory was tested and proven true. I have won 18 international awards for my photography, including European Commercial Photographer of the Year 2009-2010.

Is it hard to earn a living from this?

It's all relative. I have earned a fantastic living from photography, especially during the "Celtic Tiger" years in Ireland. And, like most, I never suspected it would end. I committed myself accordingly. My wife and I decided that private schools were the way forward for my two teenagers. I bought a home and subsequently my office and committed myself to mortgages to the tune of €1.7 million (Dh8.6m) - hindsight is a wonderful thing. Then came the crash. Fortunately, I had a soft landing, but my turnover fell by 60 per cent.

Are you a spender or a saver?

Definitely a spender, but hopefully a wise spender. It's not that money burns a hole in my pocket, but I spend and always believe I can earn more. I never worry about money even when I'm immersed in debt like I am now. I always believe I can raise my game according to my needs. However, that theory has been seriously tested in the past two years.

How would you describe your financial journey so far?

My journey has been like a roller-coaster ride. Like most, I can never have enough money and, conversely, I can survive no matter what I earn. Money doesn't govern my life. I know what I need to earn to survive and pay my debts and, thankfully, I always achieve that. That's my objective: survive in the downturn and bounce back on the crest of the incoming wave.

Did you make any financial mistakes along the way?

If you need advice from me about investments, be warned. I bought property in London in August 1988, just as it peaked - then followed a serious recession. It fell 40 per cent in the next four years. Again, I bought property in Dublin in October 2007, just at the peak ... and we all know what happened next. It's worth 50 per cent (of what I paid) and is still falling.

What is the most valuable financial lesson you've learnt?

Don't take professional advice; nobody can predict what's going to happen. Who predicted this recession? Don't gamble more that you can afford to lose. Make memories as well as money.

Do you believe in planning for the future?

Despite my seemingly flippant attitude, I actually believe in planning for the future. I have been contributing to a pension and a property. Hopefully, both will bear fruit when I stop bearing fruit.

Is money important to you?

It is essential, of course, but not important. Am I contradicting myself? Honestly, I don't lose any sleep over money. I believe I'm a creative entrepreneur and can earn money any time I put my mind to it. I never let it worry me, even if I dip into the red.

What is your idea of financial freedom?

Financial freedom is being free from being obsessed or worried about money. And I consider that I'm already free in this respect.

Do you approach money and finances differently in the Emirates?

I've been to 45 countries and worked in 10. Money is just a currency and the denominations change from country to country. I remember being in Uganda in the 1990s and it took a wheelbarrow-load of cash to pay for dinner for two at a restaurant. Here in the UAE, you can buy dinner with one note. But I have to say there is a serious advantage in not paying income tax in the UAE.

What do you enjoy spending money on?

Family, friends and food. And, of course, I'm guilty of being self-indulgent as far as clothes are concerned.

fglover@thenational.ae