Cyba Audi, the founder of Saba Consultants, started her career as a receptionist for Emirates Airline in London. Antonie Robertson/The National
Cyba Audi’s varied career path has given her an all-round perspective of the financial world from the inside and out, both as a stockbroker and private banker, then as a news anchor reporting on financial and business news from Dubai. Ms Audi, who is Lebanese, set up her own company, Saba Consultants, in Dubai in 2010. These days, the 51-year-old and her team of 14 all-female employees provide counsel in media communications and reputation building to government departments, listed companies and high-profile individuals.
How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?
My dad was a self-starter who successfully built three companies, and always influenced us that we need to earn money to get what we want. During summer breaks from school, and almost every day when I was studying for my business degree at the American University of Beirut, I’d work for him in the offices of his contracting engineering business. He taught me how to touch type when I was 10.
How much did you get paid for your first job?
My first salaried position was as a receptionist for Emirates airline, for around £2.80 (Dh13.26) an hour. I’d just moved to London after graduating and wanted to work for a dynamic, young company, which Emirates was at that time. A couple of months later I fell pregnant and it wasn’t the easiest of pregnancies, so I quit.
Did you then take a career break to raise your two daughters?
I needed to get some work because although I was married, I was supporting my family. It was a very tough time, as the economy wasn’t doing so great. My next job was a part-time position for Marks & Spencer, on £2.88 an hour. It was always a matter of making sure that I stayed out there working, and remained innovative in what I was doing.
How did you make the jump from retail to banking?
I stayed with Marks & Spencer until I found a job with a private French bank, Banque Francaise De L'orient. By that time I’d separated from my husband, and the need for me to financially support my two daughters was even greater. The only job vacancy there was as a receptionist, and I was overqualified. But instead of turning me away, the bank’s manager took a chance on me. He gave me a 260-page book about offshore companies to read, and told me to come back if I was interested to work in this field. I accepted the challenge and qualified as an offshore trust specialist. For the next five years, I was setting up offshore companies and succession structures for the bank’s wealthy clients, for a salary of about £12,000 -£13,000 a year.
What did the banking industry teach you about money?
It opened my eyes to how important it is to make money not only to make ends meet. You make money because you want to invest and accumulate wealth, and this gets you the life that you really want to live, not just covering the necessities. I started teaching myself new things, and became accredited as a Nasdaq broker, certified by the Financial Services Authority in the UK. I then worked for Merrill Lynch as a private banker for four years.
How did you make the switch to television?
In 2003, I was headhunted to work in Dubai as a news anchor, presenting business news for the Arabic service of CNBC. It was an amazing opportunity, and a big shift, but in some ways it involved doing more or less the same as I’d been doing before – analysing stock markets and helping people understand how it could affect their wealth – but addressing a much wider audience.
What prompted you to leave television and set up on your own?
I wanted to put my experiences as a banker and in media together to create something meaningful and affect change. In 2010, when I was presenting for Al Arabiya New Channel, I got the opportunity to interview Dubai government’s head of finance, at a time when Dubai was trying to cancel its debt. I noticed that he hadn’t been media-trained. The whole world was looking at Dubai, and people needed to perform well during those interviews. So I contacted Dubai government and asked them to allow me to media-train their employees. That’s how I came to set up Saba Consulting. The scope of work kept growing, so I quit my TV role and started ramping up the business with other clients too.
How did you fund your business?
My salary in the year that I left television had grown to Dh40,000 a month, but to start the business, my income had to be cut all the way down to zero and I had to live off my savings for a while. Starting your own business is something only the brave or the foolish do.
Do you pay yourself a salary now?
When the business started to get up on its feet, I assigned myself a salary, which I still earn up until today. But this salary is almost 40 per cent of my previous salary – it's even lower than the Dh26,000 salary that I started with when I came to Dubai in 2003. While I can now afford to pay myself a higher salary, I've found I can live on the lower salary. I prefer to invest my money back into the company and grow it, because we are currently in a high growth stage.
What’s your philosophy towards money?
Money is a tool, not an end in itself. If I have it I use it to help others, not necessarily through handouts but to empower them, whether that’s by giving them jobs or sharing experiences.
What are your most cherished purchases?
The two holidays that I had with my daughters (now aged 28 and 24) before they left home. We went for a nice slow drive down the coast of California, and then to Kenya on safari. We created many lovely memories.
Where do you save?
I have financial investments that pay dividends. I have some stocks, but I don’t look at them on a day-to-day basis. My husband and I also own our house, in Jumeirah. I put any excess money I have back into the company.
Do you prefer paying by credit card or cash?
Cash. I was paying by credit card during a certain period of my life, and that experience meant I don’t ever want to use one again.
What has been your best investment?
In the late '90s, when I first started learning about investments, I had US$1,500 saved up that I put into an account with Charles Schwab, to learn how to trade stocks. I came out with $100,000 after two years. I was helped by a colleague who really knew his stuff. It made me think that maybe I have the skills needed for this kind of work, and I started to study for my trading qualifications.
Do you plan for the future?
I do now, but for a long time I had to put my head down and look after myself and my kids, just to make sure my head stayed above water. I wasn’t able to look further than the present.
When would you like to retire?
I don’t have a particular age in mind. On bad days I think I’d like to retire today, and on good days I think I never want to retire. I don’t plan on retiring until I’m sure that I feel like I’m done.
What luxuries are important for you?
In my office we all have very nice furniture – beautiful ergonomic chairs, for example. For a small business that grew organically without any outside investors, this is a luxury. But I think it’s important to work in a nice environment, surrounded by beautiful things, and with well-designed and comfortable furniture. It’s the same in my own home. I also love good food – I buy organic and if I can’t find the good quality food that I want, then I will go without rather than eating anything just because it’s cheap and available. Part of the reason I work hard is to allow myself those luxuries. Luxury to me is a very well-made handbag, but not a Gucci handbag. My bag is luxurious because of how it feels, not because it’s expensive.
Source: The National