The vertical farming entrepreneur says using a money management tool is a fun way to monitor his finances
Money & Me: 'I use a personal finance tracker to manage my spending'
Omar Al Jundi is the Saudi founder and chief executive of Badia Farms, the region’s first vertical farm in Al Quoz, Dubai. Meaning Oasis in English, Badia Farms grows plants indoors in stacks, placed vertically, and also uses hydroponic technology to grow plants without sunlight, soil, or pesticides and with 90 per cent less water. It currently sells micro-greens and herbs to local restaurants and caterers. Mr Al Jundi, 41, studied industrial engineering and an MBA in Florida before spending 10 years working in his father’s engineering firm in Jeddah. He has lived in Dubai for four years with his wife and three children, a son, 7, and two daughters aged 5 and 2.
How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?
My parents were both working professionals - my father a civil engineer, my mother an architect - who met at college in Cairo. My father had to take a loan to put himself through college. From an early age, I was taught the value of money and hard work. When I was in college Dad would give me pocket money - $350 a month (Dh1,285) in my freshman year. At the end of each month I would record where the money was going using [personal finance management tool] Quicken and send my father the statement. He wouldn’t send me the next month’s money until then. I spent my first year in Pennsylvania then wanted to transfer to the University of Miami in Florida. He told me, ‘It’s a good school but, as a city, it’s wild so you get good grades or you’re coming back to Saudi. You’re not there to play'. He was not your classical Arab father who would just send you the money: he was well off but gave only the basics - the rest you had to earn.
How much did you get paid for your first job?
I took an internship in a construction company in Jeddah my first summer off from college, and was paid $500 a month. When I graduated, I got offers to work for Unilever, on the east coast of Saudi, and Saudi American Bank (now Samba Financial Group). But I had been away from my family for six years, so part of going into corporate banking was to be around my parents. What attracted me to Citibank, though, was its training programme - it was like a mini MBA in six months. I was paid $2,000 (Dh7,345) a month and was there two years. My parents advised me, for the first 10 years of your career, don’t look at the money. Work hard those first years then you are able to set yourself apart.
Are you a spender or saver?
Neither. I am an investor in the sense that, when money is going out, it’s got to be going to the right place. There is an opportunity cost. If I buy sneakers, it’s because the old ones are done and I’m running a lot. Rather than spending $2,000 on a watch, I have a $120 Fitbit. Spending thousands doesn’t make any sense to me when it could have a lot more benefit to me, my company, my kids.
What is your most cherished purchase?
I’m not that big on possessions but when I was maybe 14, I was so into tennis. Andre Agassi came out with a new Nike kit, bright yellow and pink - the first time that colours were introduced on a tennis player. I was dreaming of those clothes for so long, We travelled that summer to England. I bought them on the spot - my parents did - for $50 or $60. I wore them every day, so my poor mother would wash them every day.
Have you ever had a month where you feared you could not pay the bills?
It’s still happening. I started the company just over two years ago, so we are a pretty fresh company; there are still sales targets to reach and we’re still not reaching them every month. Everything I have, I’m putting in the company. Making sure the company can pay bills and, more importantly, salaries, is number one. A lot of vertical farms and hydroponics fail. You really have to get comfortable with the uncomfortable.
Where do you save?
I want to make sure my money is there, accessible, when I need it. I’m not looking to do 10, 15 or 20 per cent returns. Anything above three to four per cent, I don’t want to take that risk. I invest in very low-risk funds or government bonds, making sure the small return is covering any fees.
Do you have a business loan?
My family taught me, don’t spend what you don’t need, don’t be leveraged. The company is funded by the family. They are the dream investor because they realise the magnitude of what we’re doing and that it could change the course of agriculture in the region. We were delayed several times but they said that, even if it was delayed, we have accomplished something big. Indoor faming is our way forward.
How do you teach your children about money?
What we’re trying to do is to teach them how to earn money and the value of money. We have a points system - if they make their beds or finish reading a book, that equates to points and, at the end of the month, maybe they will get a gift for those points. Any time we go out and they want to buy something, we tell them they need to work for it. Sometimes we’re successful, sometimes not. Then they meet their grandparents and they spoil them.
Do you prefer paying by credit card or in cash?
Absolutely credit card. You can trace all your expenses and analyse them. I still use Quicken; I upload all our expenses, it breaks it down into categories, then I sit with my wife to see, are we spending in the right place? For me, it’s fun. The money I am earning is for myself, my wife and my kids, so I like to involve my wife in these discussions. We’re partners.
What has been your best financial investment?
The kids’ schooling, which costs Dh50,000 to 60,000 per year per kid. When I was in school, I was called a trouble-maker. When my parents moved me to another school, the same things were defined as leadership skills. It showed me how education is crucial. They are in the English school system; it’s very disciplined. There are also ballet and piano classes for my daughter, football and science for my son. One part is educating them, another is trying to find their passion. The earlier you can discover this, the more you can invest in and develop it.
What do you most regret spending money on?
I started a record label in 2006 in Saudi with two other partners and we ended up shutting it after eight months. I lost maybe $120,000. At the time it was 100 per cent regret and frustration. I think now that it was a great learning experience; we are in the learning game after all. I also invested in start-ups – a gaming company, one that does online reviews on Arabic books, one that sells musical instruments online. Some are doing well, some not – one I lost $25,000 to, another $15,000. From these start-ups you learn a lot: ecommerce, how they dissect a market and capture one small segment before moving to another or hit milestones in one country before going onto another.
What financial advice would you offer your younger self?
The risk that I took, for instance in investments, should have been more designed. In each industry, you learn something. The money that goes out, you need to make sure it adds value somehow. I went to something I liked rather than using it as an educational experience - restaurants, manufacturing, customer service would come in handy. What you learn in college is one thing - the university of life is another ballgame.
Do you have a financial plan for the future?
To have a house we own (we rent one now), to have basic funding for myself and wife, to send the kids to university. After university, they’re on their own. Never over-spoil yourself, stay humble and grounded. That’s my plan.
If you won Dh1 million, what would you do with it?
I would want to educate people on modern farming and hydroponics. We are among the highest consumers of water in the world in the UAE and Saudi. I cry inside when I see the amount of water used on car washes. I would put mini farms into schools, which they have started to do in the US, to teach children about modern farming.