The Syrian entrepreneur says his fortunes changed because he was hungry to do business
Money & Me: 'I rose from a store assistant to running my own real estate brokerage in Dubai'
Firas Al Msaddi arrived in Dubai 12 years ago from Syria to work as a store assistant before founding fam Properties in 2009, a real estate brokerage and management agency that manages a portfolio of properties worth Dh2 billion. It counts developers Meraas and Dubai Property Group among clients it has sold numerous units for. The chief executive, 33, lives with his wife and two sons, ages five years and three, in Al Manara, Dubai.
What brought you to Dubai?
I wanted a job, to get out (of Syria) because opportunities were limited. In any job as I knew I’d progress and grow. I moved to Dubai aged 21 to be a salesman at Armani, Deira City Centre. I didn’t speak fluent English. From the first day, for 18 months, I did two (eight-hour) shifts. My first year there I was the top salesman.
Why did you switch from retail to real estate?
The shop was ‘suffocating’. I decided to look for another job. I got rejected from at least 40 different job interviews … insurance, a lot in retail but head offices where the horizon is wider. I was driving in Dubai, saw all these towers being built. I said ‘I refuse to be an audience’. I wanted to be part of it, but couldn’t leave Armani because I was salaried and this job is commission based. So I took my vacation and worked in real estate for 20 days. The market was booming. I did a few residential lease contracts, raced back to Armani, resigned and joined a real estate agency. I enjoyed everything about it. At Armani, I used to tell colleagues, ‘when I’m 35 I want to have a few companies’. Between fully owned and being a major partner I have seven now.
How did your upbringing shape your attitude to money?
My dad is an engineer, my mother is a housewife but also an English literature graduate, so both are educated. I grew up in the best area in my city, Homs. My parents were on the conservative side so they didn’t want to spoil me, or my younger brother Fateh (now the chief operating officer of fam Properties). I always wanted to work and do sales. As much as I was hungry to do business I never really thought of money. I wanted to shine and lead from the front.
What were you paid in your first job?
We have a shop selling shoes in the souq in Homs. At 12 I’d go there; I loved it. You had to go into the souq. If there wasn’t enough footfall I’d take a few shoes, go to the road and scream at people to come. It was like Dh30 a week.
When did you decide your future was away from Syria?
Maybe 16. I started to socialise with friends who would come for summer vacation, from the US or Dubai, Saudi. They were bringing a mentality we’d never seen. I needed to learn English so whenever someone came to town and spoke English I'd spend time with them. That allowed me (enough English) to take the Armani interview in Damascus.
Are you a spender or a saver?
I’ve always been a spender. I’m a big believer it takes money to make money. I spend on stuff that may appear to others as wasting money, but I know exactly what I’m doing, what I’m getting out of it. The best example is the vehicle number plates I have that are now worth maybe $2 million. For many it sounds like a waste of money, but in a place like Dubai, the business world, it’s not; you get status.
Where do you save?
Every month, for the last five years, I have bought some gold. I don’t look at the price. It is security for the future. I believe in gold, real estate and cash only – they are the three forms of my wealth. I don’t believe in investment banking, buying bonds and shares.
Are you wise with money?
Definitely. I always get the best value for my dollar. Whatever I’m spending on, whether it’s something personal or for my business. I believe in referrals. I do research, I think, I define exactly what I want to get out of it before I jump.
What is your best investment?
I invest in anything that will buy me more time; my secretary, my drivers. If I go somewhere I go for the VIP pass, because I know I can do a lot with my time. A driver is probably the best professional investment I’ve made.
Do you have a philosophy towards money?
Money gives you options. But if you think only of money it will change the way you do business because your target becomes just money. For me it's never the money, not because I’m naive or trying to be idealist; I think whenever you succeed in doing something money will follow. If you do it thinking of the salary at the end of the month or commission, it distracts and you will never be the best. Money is one of the results when you succeed in something.
What are you happiest spending money on?
Family. When things started in Syria, I brought my parents here. When I realised it was a ‘long journey’ in Syria I bought them an apartment. When you make someone happy it gives energy to strive and confidence that God is with me and I am a good person.
Do you pay by cash or credit card?
I always have cash. I’ve never taken a loan or a credit card. If I have it I spend, if I don’t I don’t spend. I don’t feel confident spending money that’s not mine. I don’t like exposure. I’ve never taken a loan on a property; I buy with cash. I don’t buy if I don’t have it. I use a credit card that uses my money, not the banks; you put a deposit against the card.
Do you plan for the future?
The last two years I did more family time. I was always busy. I compromised a lot and my wife has supported me so much. Now it comes before business. I would tell myself I’m working so hard because if I’m strong I’m good for my family. I want to establish a structure where I can leverage on others. It takes time to grow people around you; you need to trust their loyalty and know-how to execute your plans. For the company I have a three-year plan, to do with expansion. I didn’t come this far to stop.
What car do you own?
My best car is hopefully coming in a year, a Bugatti. I placed the deposit. I have a Lamborghini limited edition Pirelli, a Bentley GT, two Range Rovers, a G-Class (Mercedes) and a BMW 7-Series. I don’t know much about cars, but I love speed. I don’t know much about cars, but I love speed.
If you weren’t in real estate what would you be doing?
Kickboxing is my passion, the only thing I do for me. I immerse myself in it; if I’m angry, stressed, depressed, happy or sad. If I did kickboxing 15 years ago I might never be where I am today. It is also very competitive. Now, I think, I’m too old to take it to the next level.