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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Money & Me: 'I don't believe in inheritance, I help my kids with their finances now'

School principal Stephen Duckitt says he supports his adult children now at a time in their lives when money is tight

Stephen Duckitt is the principal of Safa Community School in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National
Stephen Duckitt is the principal of Safa Community School in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National

Stephen Duckitt is principal of Safa Community School, Dubai, a role he took on in January 2015. Born in South Africa, he did military service and helped run family farms while attending University of Cape Town to become an educator. He taught in South Africa before moving to the UK to do a masters in education management and stayed for 23 years, including helping to merge two financially struggling private schools. Father to two UK-based children, a daughter, now 26, and son, 23, Mr Duckitt, 53, lives in Arabian Ranches with Belgian wife Hilde, who teaches English as a foreign language.

How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?

Mum was the first female accountant in South Africa. She eventually helped manage the farms. My father was a successful businessman. Two guys had started a company; collected bottles, and coins off the street, sold them and bought a store, sold that and made more money, eventually built up this big franchise of stores. He ran the company for them, was a successful guy, but never gave me money. He said ‘you earn everything yourself’. We lived on a farm. From the moment I could walk he gave me a lawn mower - our lawns were the size of rugby fields – and we built stables. It taught me that nothing comes for free; hard work and determination will get you anywhere.

How much were you paid in your first job?

Cutting people’s gardens was big business in South Africa. I probably made the equivalent of Dh25 for about five hours work. I had to buy lawnmowers, petrol and a hire car to take stuff. Eventually I did it all, but I knew if I kept at it, it would make money. You have to start at the bottom. I eventually undercut everyone, did a better job, got all the business. I used that money to enjoy myself and bought motorbikes.

How did you end up in the UAE?

I wanted to do something different, some international education and I saw Safa. My wife moved over here and my kids stayed in the UK because one was finishing university and one was working in London. It was good timing because I didn’t have dependents, effectively. My kids were looking after themselves.

Was there a difference to the job compared to the UK?

The first thing that strikes you is the multicultural nature, which I find fascinating. You learn so much from different cultures. Just before I came I ran an international boarding school so used to travel to Russia, Vietnam, China, Brazil and recruit students. I did a bit of teaching in those countries. I learned so much about education in other countries and try to bring that. You’ve got people from different parts of the world, all with different experiences, wants and desires. They bring such richness to the place. Expectations across the board are high. That’s not to say they aren’t in the UK. While I say it’s private education here, you have to have it.

Has the Dubai education market changed?

Five or six years ago, they told me there weren’t enough school places but now there are more places than children so it’s a competitive market. We’re lucky as we’re the new kid on the block, so we brought in a marketing strategy from the beginning whereas some schools here for a while rested on their laurels. Name is not everything anymore. School fee packages have been cut; there isn’t as much money around. People are more discerning, there’s more choice - you have to offer something different.

Are you a spender or a saver?

I’m a spender. I’ve got to be sensible, but life experiences are what I really want and the more places I can see the more things I can experience to enrich my life. My parents are elderly, so I need to make sure I’ve got money to look after them.

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Where do you save?

I’ve got bank accounts and property in South Africa, a beach house, so I put it in that. I will buy property in the UK; a flat for my son to live in; that’ll be my investment. I don’t do shares.

What is your philosophy towards money?

The first thing you must appreciate is not everyone has money. You have to look after what you’ve got, spend wisely. I’ve chosen to spend it on family, experiences. I’m not a great one for inheritance; people should have the money when they’re younger. I’m not saying I’m not going to put money away for my kids, but now is when money is tight for them. I fly them out to see me, pay their fares. We’ve done family holidays together – that’s valuable.

What is your most cherished purchase?

Three years before I came to the UAE I bought myself a turbo-charged Audi convertible. I paid cash, splashed out, but that car gave me - and my family - so much pleasure. It was impulsive. Having said that, I did the research and checked prices. I worked such long hours, when I got out in the car, I put the roof down and relaxed.

Do you prefer paying by cash or credit card?

A combination. I always carry cash as I like to pay with actual money. For big things, I use a credit card because I don’t carry that much cash. It’s a facility, but you can take your eye off the ball.

What has been your best investment?

My first house I bought in South Africa when I was 20, just before the boom started. Within three years the price doubled. If I hadn’t bought it I wouldn’t have gone to the UK, wouldn’t have had enough money to make the jump. It didn’t go that far because the exchange rate between the rand and the UK pound was horrendous, but it was a good decision. The beach house is a major investment because the price is going up.

Is there something you regret not spending money on?

I was going to buy a house in France, seven years ago. It wasn’t worth a lot and I knew I could do it up and it would work. Three or four family members said ‘you’re crazy’ and I never did it. I kick myself; biggest mistake I ever made. I had a great opportunity and should have done it.

Do you plan for the future?

I met a guy from Lebanon just before I came here. He won the Queen’s Award in the UK for best entrepreneur. I was just about to launch with him an enterprise and entrepreneurial programme for schools. We came up with a clever design; there isn’t anything like it in the world. He said there’s money to set up a centre in the UK or in Europe. When I finish being a principal, that’s definitely something I’ll pick up. I’ve also taken insurance policies, made sure if anything happens my family is well taken care of.

What would you raid your savings for?

I would raid every single penny for my family. if someone was unwell I wouldn’t blink an eyelid.

Mr Duckitt bought his first property when he was 20 in South Africa. Pawan Singh / The National
Mr Duckitt bought his first property when he was 20 in South Africa. Pawan Singh / The National