Sam Whittam, the founder of Adventure HQ, honed his people skills behind the counter in his father's deli, and sums up his philosophy as: "Work hard, spend wisely, save if you can, but live for the moment."
Money & Me: Find adventure, and the money will follow
Sam Whittam is the general manager and founder of Adventure HQ, a 30,000-square-foot outdoor adventure superstore that opened in Dubai's Time Square Center last month. Mr Whittam, who is originally from Australia, moved to the UAE in 2008 to launch the concept for the Sharaf Group.
Describe your financial journey so far.
I grew up on a chicken hatchery in a low- to mid-income family. My parents both worked 90 hours a week. When I was seven, we moved to Adelaide, where my mother set up a furniture manufacturing company with my uncle. My father ran a delicatessen. Financially, it never seemed like we had a lot of money, but it never felt like we didn't have any either. I started working in my dad's deli at the age of 12 and did five shifts a week to buy myself my first bike to start racing with. Being behind the counter was where I first developed a love of retail and customer service and understanding people's psyche.
What is your approach to money?
Work hard, spend wisely, save if you can, but live for the moment. The advice my father gave me - to do something you love and the money will come - was probably the smartest thing he ever said because I've been very fortunate for someone who left school at 15 and never went to university. I left school because I didn't feel I needed it and started working as a hotel night porter before moving into fashion retail. By 17, I was managing a fashion store and people twice my age. Then something quite monumental happened: my mum died of cancer within four months of being diagnosed. She was the real business person in the family and out of a desire to carry on her legacy, I pushed through to be a smarter, better business person. Knowing that something like that could happen so quickly and easily made me want to live for the day.
How did you get involved in the adventure business?
I am a passionate cyclist and in 2004, led the founding team for Anaconda, a start-up outdoor adventure brand in Australia, which taught me the whole mechanics of business from scratch. Then in 2008, I was headhunted by the Sharaf Group, which was interested in launching a similar concept that was regionally tailored to the Middle East. Adventure HQ is a Sharaf Group initiative, so it is financially 100 per cent invested, but they have given the opportunity to me, the business head, to create the business with the support of the board. It's the most exciting challenge of my career as it's the first Adventure HQ in the world and we're looking to expand around the UAE, to the GCC, the Middle East and any other country where demand is not being met.
Did you move to the UAE for financial reasons?
As a grass-roots retailer, I could only ever get to a certain earning potential, so moving to Dubai was not only an exciting career move, but also a financial opportunity that was too good to refuse, not because they were paying me a huge amount of money, but because of the tax benefit. As an Australian citizen living in the UAE as a non-resident, I do not pay tax so it's a great situation.
Are you a spender or a saver?
Prior to living in Dubai, I was a spender, but now I'm both. My earning capacity in Australia was not giving me the surplus income to save and the small amount I could seemed pointless. So I thought I might as well spend it and enjoy it. When I came here, I had more income and took on a more mature approach to my future. I started to save because I heard there were two types of expats who come to the UAE - those who spend it all and those who go home with a lot. I didn't want to be the person who spent it all. I wanted to be the one who went home and proudly said to my family and friends, "Yes, I worked hard and, yes, I had a great opportunity and I didn't blow it". I'm also saving more for the future and the family I intend on having one day. I'm getting married in November and that's had a big influence on my finances. I want to be an adequate provider.
What do like to spend your money on?
Adventurous activities and bikes. I'm going to the Tour de France to guide a group of New Zealanders and that's an investment not only of my time, but my money. A friend runs a bike tour for a travel company and he asked if I'd be part of the tour and help him guide it. It's a long-held dream to go and living here in the region has given me the means to be able to do so, not only financially but also geographically because I am that much closer. I also like to spend money on nice dinners and general entertainment, but I don't throw money away on ridiculous things as I support some of my family members. It's not support to the point where they rely on it weekly or monthly - it's just giving back to the family.