Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 1 October 2020

Money & Me: 'We pay Dh10,000 to fly our dog to the UK every summer'

Farah Al-Khojai, of Pet's Delight, says the 'indulgence' allows Danny, the family Border Terrier, to enjoy a holiday too

Farah Al-Khojai, managing partner of Arab Land Trading and Pet's Delight, says her pet store chain was the first to refuse to sell animals. Reem Mohammed / The National
Farah Al-Khojai, managing partner of Arab Land Trading and Pet's Delight, says her pet store chain was the first to refuse to sell animals. Reem Mohammed / The National

Farah Al-Khojai is managing partner of ethical pet shop chain Pet's Delight and wholesaler Arab Land Trading, which was set up in 2001 when her family struggled to find suitable nutrition for their dogs. The daughter of an Emirati doctor and an English nurse, Ms Al-Khojai was the first horsewoman to represent the UAE internationally in dressage, winning a 2012 Arab Games bronze medal and competing in the 2010 Asian Games. Now 39, she lives with her husband Fareed, a former banker, in Al Garhoud, Dubai. They have two sons, aged 17 and 12, at UK boarding schools.

How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?

My father’s a consultant paediatrician. My mother was a nurse, but gave it up when they came here in the 1970s. It wasn’t a thing for women to work in those days. I had a lovely childhood. I was an only child, but wasn’t spoiled. I had to work for things and got money for birthdays that went towards things I really wanted.

Dad worked in Rashid Hospital for a long time. We lived in the given doctors accommodation, a bungalow. Then we moved to Al Wasl Hospital, then to Al Garhoud.

People have a greater understanding of buying from an ethical place and that buying better products doesn't always mean more expensive.

Farah Al-Khojai

How much were you paid in your first job?

Nothing has come easy to us, we’ve had to work at things. I got my work ethic (from that). Dad’s still a doctor, works very hard, and is also heavily involved in the business.

I’ve never worked for anybody else, always myself, although I did an internship at Lloyds Bank for a month at the Trade Centre when I was 16/17. I got a pay cheque, probably Dh500. I was chuffed as I never realised there would be money involved.

Are you a spender or saver?

That depends. In general everyday life I'm cautious with money, but if it’s something worthwhile, I spend it. I look at money conservatively; really cherish it when you have it, but we’re also happy to spend on what would bring enjoyment to us as a family. That’s important; it's not just there to sit in a bank.

What inspired your business?

Our two Labradors went through a bout of ill health and needed a special diet. We went to vets here and there was no constant flow of these important nutrition items. I researched and approached (nutrition brand owners) Procter & Gamble who said, "give us a business plan", which I worked on while at university, at London School of Economics.

My father lent us the money. We started as wholesalers only, Arab Land Trading, and our first container came into the garage in 2001. We started delivering in our car, predominantly to veterinary clinics, then pet shops. We realised there was a finite number of shops and clinics so decided to open our own shop; Pet’s Delight came in 2005. We wanted to make a difference, so were the first to refuse to sell animals.

What is your memorable financial milestone?

Probably the first container that arrived. That was the beginning of something. It was something tangible; you actually saw bags of food in the garage and you’ve got to sell it. We didn't realise how big it was going to be or whether it would be disastrous. It's a family business; we're in it all together.

Whats your greatest indulgence?

Flying our dog Danny, a Border Terrier … every summer we take him to England and back for the holidays so he’s not in kennels. It costs Dh10,000 in total. He has a holiday as well. He gets us all out and walking and he's allowed most places in England.

Ms Al-Khojai says many customers are careful with the amount they spend on their pets. Reem Mohammed/The National
Ms Al-Khojai says many customers are careful with the amount they spend on their pets. Reem Mohammed/The National

Does it cost more to be an ethical pet owner in the UAE?

People have a greater understanding of buying from an ethical place and that buying better products doesn't always mean more expensive. It's the quality of the ingredients, not necessarily the quantity in the bag. It is affordable to be healthy. You have to feed a lot less as well.

A lot of customers are more careful (with money), though. We definitely see a change; the big spenders, families on the big packages, have gone, it’s now a younger generation and they're more cautious as well.

Is it true you donate stock to homeless animal charities?

We all have to give back. We've sponsored K9 Friends for six years, feed their dogs for free and help by sending a nutritionist and educating at their events. A large chunk goes out, but K9 Friends are a good supporter of us as well. We also help Bin Kitty [a cat charity] where we can. It’s important to have that element in the business.

Ms Al-Khojai in one or her stores. Reem Mohammed/The National
Ms Al-Khojai in one or her stores. Reem Mohammed/The National

Do you manage to save?

A lot of it has been [by investing] in the business. Because we know it, we can control it and know where we need the money. I used to do stocks and shares but got burned terribly. You should always invest in something you understand. If I don't, I won't put money into it.

So are you risk averse?

I am. We have to be careful, we've got two children, you're thinking about school and universities, times are different to what they were. We have a property in the UK, I’d love more, but I'm not 100 per cent sure of markets there. We were burnt here. I told the family it would be great to invest in buy-to-let. We bought in Dubai Sports City, the crash came and the value of two apartments we put our names to was only half of what we committed to. I was taken in by people who made lots of money quickly. I wasn't in the know, we got in too late, at its peak. There's a lesson, learnt the hard way.

Are you wiser with money now?

Yes, but wish I was wiser. At this stage in life it's important we’re careful. It’s the unknown you have to be wary of. It's important the company grows organically, then you’re nimble. Five years ago we probably wouldn't have thought of having the app we just launched as a priority. It's about learning when to spend and when to switch off and let the market move forward. We’ve focused the business - we're very much dog and cat supplies - and we’ve now got eight branches, including one in Abu Dhabi.

What do you enjoy spending on?

Things to do with the family, usually visiting the boys in the UK, doing things with them. It's the quality and the time. Consumerism is pushed down our throats, so it's nice to get away and do other things. I’m not really attached to anything material. We had a great family holiday in Thailand, and went to Egypt last year.

Do you plan for the future?

The future is this business. It would be great if our house in the UK went up in value and that could go towards a pension plan maybe one day. I’d only raid my savings if there was a family crisis.

Updated: January 2, 2020 02:48 PM

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