x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

My hard sprint for success

Since opening her first bank account at the age of seven, this former athlete has found ways to fill it.

Lucy Roberts, account director, says she opened her first bank account at the age of seven.
Lucy Roberts, account director, says she opened her first bank account at the age of seven.

I grew up in the UK, in Farnham, Surrey, and I moved to Dubai five years ago. I'm now 34. When I was seven, my mum took me to Barclay's to open a Super Saver account for children. The bizarre thing was that the staff all used to tell the kids that Superman lived upstairs, probably on account of the name. It's strange the things you remember. Around that time I started to receive £2.50 (Dh15) of pocket money a week, which was good going in those days.

I would feed the family's pet guinea pig and tidy my room to earn the money, and use it to save towards running equipment. I was very athletic in my teens and used to run cross- country. I took it very seriously, and was nearly good enough to run for England. I also enjoyed ice-skating. I had to keep replacing the special competition tights, and they were about £3.80 a pair. I also had to save up quite a lot for running gear. When I was 15, I nearly qualified to run for England. At the time I had saved for the latest running leotard, which the sprinter and Olympic gold medallist "Flo-Jo" (Florence Griffith-Joyner) was wearing at the time. The sports shops would give me a good discount because I was known locally as "the runner".

I never earned any money from my running, but sometimes I'd win prizes, such as sports kits and energy drinks. When I was a teenager, I had a paper round, which developed into a Saturday job at the local sports and leisure centre. I'd earn about £15 each Saturday by helping the kids do somersaults. In 1997, when I was 18, I moved to London because my parents were driving me mad. My first job there was at Tower Records in Piccadilly Circus. I was surrounded by Goths and wannabe rock-stars, and thought it was all extremely cool. I lived in central London's trendy Soho district in a small flat with a friend.

My weekly wages were about £180 and my rent was around £70 a week. I was always broke, but I didn't really care because it was so exciting to be in London. After about a year I left Tower Records and went to work for a promotions company. While I'd rather not name the company, I can say I did quite a bit of travelling for work, to places such as the US, Greece and Romania. My last job before I moved to Dubai was for an estate agency in Clapham, south London. I became their top-selling estate agent.

With commission, my annual salary was around £40,000, and this was during the property boom between 2001 and 2003. At this point I started saving. I started a pension scheme with Abbey National, and this is something I have continued to do in Dubai, even though my salary has been more modest. I have a savings fund with Friends Provident, which I have been paying in to for the last three or four years at around Dh1,500 to 2,000 a month. It's a medium-to-high risk fund, and has returned around 12 per cent of my investment. I also have a few thousand dirhams in National Bonds.

It's a good idea to keep cash close to home, so I put some money into a money box that I bought at a roadside stall on the way to Hatta; it's one of those you have to break open to reach its contents. When I first moved to Dubai in 2003, I worked for a Syrian lady who was a graphic designer. I became the head of new business, which meant I handled clients and made sure the product was delivered on time.

I think many people who arrive in the UAE realise they can reinvent themselves, and it wasn't long before I decided I'd had enough of working for other people. A conversation with a friend led to a bet about whether I could run my own company. She basically had enough of the business, and decided to leave and move on to something else. So I came in one morning and essentially took over the company. And it cost me nothing. The original investors were still around, and they were more than happy for me to take it over.

I now run Plug UAE, a website design agency that caters to the needs of small businesses. We offer a quick, affordable service. I hate meetings and formality, and we are straightforward and give our clients value for money. It's been two years and we're going strong. When I took over the design company I actually stole some of my previous employer's clients. I was quite honest about that, and a bit ruthless. But I knew I could offer them a much better service than my previous employer. She didn't listen to clients, and she struggled to truly understand her target market.

I have two invisible shareholders who are investors; I call them "invisible" because they don't interfere in the day to day running of the company. One of them bankrolled the project by paying me a salary of Dh10,000 a month. They also covered my rent, as I was working from home, which was Dh4,500 a month. I wasn't earning a lot, but there is something fun about living hand to mouth ? you appreciate things more.

My salary has almost doubled since I started, and I know it will only go up as the company does better. I might spend a few thousand dirhams on groceries and going out. My main vices now are spending money on travel, but I've also saved a fortune by doing my own manicures and making my own packed lunches. I do worry that I am not saving enough for retirement, but at least I don't have any credit card debt.

One of the things I am proud of is that I bought some land in Sri Lanka last year for Dh45,000, and plan to build a house there to use as a holiday home. It's located about 30 minutes from Galle, a city on the southwestern tip of the country. A friend of mine also has a house there, which is one of the reasons I decided to purchase land there in the first place. Because of the recession, our clients at Plug UAE have downsized, and this of course means they've cut their budgets. This impacts our profit margins - even though we have more clients, we don't necessarily make more money.

I think we're going to turn the corner in a few months and start making good money. I believe we're as good as the big agencies, and our clients can save some money by working with us. We don't have the arrogance that some large agencies have. In the meantime, I'll keep using my boyfriend's credit card. His brand consultancy is still doing very well. It's a buyer's market, and companies need the service he provides.

I'm very confident my company will reach that point soon. * As told to Jola Chudy