John D. Hanafin is still getting settled into his brand-new office in Dubai’s Business Bay — Huriya Private, a fiduciary firm that he set up just a few months ago. The 40-something Dublin expat smiles when I mention that setting up his office must have surely been a cakewalk — after all he is an expert in helping people set up a business.
‘Yes, that’s what we do — help entrepreneurs and international businesspeople get their businesses up and running in Dubai,’ he says. ‘From a mom-and-pop store setting up business for the first time to international trademarked conglomerates and hotel chains setting up a branch here, and everything in between, we work closely with the DED, free zones and allied authorities.’
Dressed in a stylish three-piece bespoke suit tailored at Ascots & Chapels, John is a picture of elegance as he prepares for the photoshoot.
‘I’d always wanted to travel and see the world,’ he says, looking back on his career. He was 26 and working in the financial services in Ireland when he requested for an overseas transfer. He was offered a position in Gibraltar, which he grabbed. ‘I was there for about four months when I realised it didn’t rain as much as it did in Ireland, so I sought an extension for six months.’ It was granted and John ended up working there for five years before he was sent to Dubai ‘to discover what’s happening here’.
‘I spent a week in the emirate and reported back to my office saying we should set up an office here because Dubai is such an amazing place, buzzing with action and a land of opportunities.’ John was given charge to set up the office. ‘Our core business was helping people set up companies,’ he says.
Fifteen years later, John, who has a background in economics, taxation and law, decided to move on and set up his own firm. ‘It was an extremely busy time when I arrived in Dubai and it still is,’ he says.
A lover of vintage cars, John’s day begins at around 6am when he checks his emails for about half an hour and exercises for 30 minutes, before spending some time with his son ‘talking about everything an eight-year-old loves like football, dinosaurs and cars’, before heading off to the office, where he meets with clients planning to set up business ventures.
So, what should one keep in mind when considering a project here?
Cash flow is the first point, he says. ‘People assume that something would be easier than what it is. So, what is important is to have a solid business plan; study the market well before setting up a business.’
John offers a nugget of information: ‘There are 47 different jurisdictions in the UAE where you can choose to set up your business. So it’s important to study the various jurisdictions and seek the right advice before starting off.’
Aside from getting the legalities right, it is also important for potential businesspeople to understand if there is a market for what they are planning on doing. ‘Whether it’s tailoring or advisory services, restaurants or retail outlets, they should be clear about the market they are entering.
‘You should have a very strong business plan for 36 months with potential sales figures; and you need to look at it again and cut all the figures down to half before you start and assume a worst-case scenario,’ he says, adjusting his tie while slipping out of his jacket.
Having years of experience as a fiduciary, John also has some pointers on saving. ‘One important point is that it’s never too early to save,’ he says. ‘I’ve noticed that there is a big divide in the mentality between the Asian and Western way of working with money and saving. I know of people who can save 50 to 60 per cent of their earnings. I also know of people who would spend more than what they earn, enjoying themselves and living in the now. One of these cannot survive for long.’
The importance of saving needs to be inculcated in children from a young age, he believes. ‘I tell my kid that if he wants to buy a particularly expensive game or a toy, he should learn to save for it. I tell him ‘we’ll go 50:50. If you can raise 50 per cent (by earning pocket money doing chores), I’ll match it. If you have Dh20, I’ll match it with Dh20’.’
John says to many people who move overseas, lifestyle becomes more important than managing costs of living. He suggests having short-term as well as long-term goals. ‘It’s important to be on the path that will allow you to increase your income. If you are 25-years-old, have clear plans about where you will be when you are 30, 35 and so on, and ensure you keep aside a certain amount of your earnings for a rainy day.’
Ideally, what percentage of the salary should you keep aside as savings?
John takes a deep breath and considers the question for a moment. ‘If you are putting aside zero now, 20 per cent should be a target you should aim for.’ Having a buffer of funds is also very important. ‘Some would say 6 months’ salary is good to act as a buffer. I’d say you need to have at least three months’ of funds for a rainy day in your bank to allow you to survive here with your family. Certainly, if you can, you should not live month to month,’ he says.
As one of his staff comes by to kindly offer us a cup of tea, I ask John what lessons on people management he has picked up over the years.
‘A lot,’ he says, sipping the tea. ‘I’ve found that if you treat people well, they will respond well. It’s that simple.’
Differing in views from some business leaders, John firmly believes that ‘in any business I do, my staff comes first; customers come second. If you treat your staff as you want to be treated, everything else will fall into place.’
He also has far-sighted views on people management. ‘I’m not one who would run a business or manage employees through fear,’ he says. ‘I do the complete opposite. I believe in empowering people. I believe that if I’m the smartest person in the room, then I’m absolutely in the wrong room. So I try to hire people who are either smarter than I am or have the ability to quickly get smarter than me and will make the business flourish.’
Would he rate attitude over aptitude?
‘I think if you have the right attitude, you can do anything. Of course, when it comes to aptitude you need to be more or less from the right industry and have the right skillsets to grow in the business. But if you have mildly the right skillsets but the right attitude and willpower, you can be a success.’
While having the right attitude is crucial, another important factor for success is being personable. ‘Style means a lot to me,’ says John. ‘It includes how you look and act and who you are.’
Known to have an ‘eccentric style’ — don’t miss his pink socks — John’s favourite attire for business is a three-piece suit. ‘I prefer not following the beaten track and that’s a reason I chose Ascots & Chapels for my suits. They have unusual material, and can add nice touches that can elevate a suit and make it classic. Like, for instance, the interior of my suit has to be crazy,’ he says with a laugh. ‘I have no black or grey suits. I like to express the side of my character through the way I dress.’
A firm believer in first impressions, John says, ‘If you are wearing a suit that makes you feel like a million dollars, then that confidence will come through and portray itself to the client. Ascots & Chapels helps me do that.’