x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Money&Me: From queuing for bread to making it big

Michael Szczepanski came from humble beginnings in Poland and is now the general manager of Ruth's Chris Steak House in Dubai.

Micheal Szczepanski came from humble beginnings and is now the general manager of Ruth's Chris Steak House in Dubai. Sarah Dea / The National
Micheal Szczepanski came from humble beginnings and is now the general manager of Ruth's Chris Steak House in Dubai. Sarah Dea / The National

Describe your financial journey so far.

Everything started when I emigrated from Poland in 1979 at the age of 23 to look for a better life. I didn't speak English, only had US$7 (Dh25.71 at today's rate) in my pocket and left behind a young family in Poland - my son was only 18 months at the time. The challenge was to learn a new language and get a job because the $7 only lasted a day. So I separated myself from the Polish language completely and got a job as a truck driver. I persuaded this gentleman to give me the job by telling him I would work for free. Within three days I was on the payroll; that was a great beginning.

How did you end up in the hospitality industry?

I used to be a member of the national showjumping team in Poland. When I participated in the world championships in Kiev in 1975, I had an accident and pulled out of the sport for a year-and-a-half. I worked as an instructor, but decided to also look for another career so I did a two-year apprenticeship at the first western hotel to set up in Warsaw. As it was, when I left Poland, where my sports career was entirely paid for by the state, I discovered what an expensive sport it is. Buying my own horses, keeping and training them was beyond my capabilities in Australia. But once my language was good enough, I went back into the hospitality business, working as a room-service attendant in a hotel in Perth and then as restaurant manager. Later, I was fortunate to meet an Italian man who was the owner of various restaurants and gave me everything I needed to take my career more seriously. He allowed me to bring my family from Europe. They arrived in 1983, four years after I'd left.

What is your philosophy towards money?

I come from a poor background, but I've always managed to have money in my pocket. It hasn't done me any good, though, because it has made me hungry for it. Those moments when I don't have any money, I feel powerless. When I went to a new country and left all the money behind for my family, it was very strange. It's been a rocky journey, but I've learnt to respect the dollar.

Are you a spender or a saver?

At this stage in my life, I'm more into saving. I always say you work to live, but you don't live to work because life is too precious to waste it. But at 56, I think it's important to create wealth behind me and not depend on others. The last 10 years allowed me to be introduced to that philosophy. But for most of my life, I was probably a bit flamboyant.

Have you ever experienced any financial difficulties?

Yes, twice. The first time, in the 1980s, I lost everything on the stock market. I was doing extremely well for three years and was silly enough to not build any security behind it. You could call it greed. I was trying to convert all the money into more money and one day I woke up and didn't have a roof over my head and somebody came to collect my car. The stress was too much for my wife and she left me, so I packed my cases and started again by going off to work on cruise ships for six years. Then in 1996, there was another stupid thing with the stock market. It did not wipe me out totally, but I felt the pain.

What do you spend money on?

I like the fine things in life. My fiancée needs a new watch and I've already committed to not spending anything less than Dh10,000. I'm against buying fakes - I'd rather wait, save enough and, when I'm ready, buy something good. My latest purchase was a beautiful espresso machine. Because I love nice coffee, I didn't mind spending Dh5,000. It took me three months to find the right one.

Has your spending changed since moving to Dubai?

It's such a hard thing when you live in such a beautiful place with everyone spending so much money. I have tried to put as much as a regime on my personal spending as I can, but having a fiancée who is 23 years younger is not easy. She needs to live a normal life, too.

Is money important to you?

Absolutely, yes. I come from a poor background, with my parents earning $30 a month from the state and queuing for five hours for a loaf of bread. When you grow up in such an environment, money is a big part of that. But I think it's about keeping the balance. I would be so rich if I'd kept all the money to myself, but I would probably be miserable. My son is much wiser than me when it comes to money. He is an IT project manager in Australia and owns five properties. I think he learnt from my rocky past.