Dubai: With the UAE globally-recognised as a date farming nation with over 40 million date palms producing more than 76,000 tonnes of dates yearly, it’s easy to assume why Abu Dhabi-born Tony N. Al Saiegh chose to get into the business of making healthy snack bars from locally-sourced dates.
However, the 38-year-old serial entrepreneur revealed that this was personally a natural transition for him when managing an Emirati family-owned UAE date brand, ‘The Date Room’, which grows 200 tonnes of dates per year at about 20 farms in Al Ain and the Northern Emirates.
“With the UAE’s date-rich heritage, stepping into a food business here at times felt like a tightrope due to customer safety guidelines that come with it, alongside its own set of costs, which can be quite different based on what kind of business you’re running,” the Syrian expat explained.
“But the challenging journey was worth it as the business ‘broke even’ after just 1-and-a-half years of operation,” he said, who went on to describe how the recent pandemic affected them. “As of now we’re okay but surely very far from peak and yet to reach more regional and international markets.”
Bringing tech know-how to AI-produced snacks
Beyond entrepreneurial experience, it was years of technological know-how that prepared Al Saiegh to start a subsidiary brand of the family-owned business at age 30, and spearhead the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to develop and package vegan, sugar-free date-based snack bars.
“By using AI technology, we've automated our processes and track everything, even down to the individual seeds we extract daily,” added Al Saiegh, who also currently manages an online shopping enterprise, Virtual Dusk, the holding company of Souqplace.com, aside from his date businesses.
The AI-run snack bar manufacturing business was self-funded by its founders, he said, without disclosing the exact amount that was invested initially. However, he detailed the key costs included booking a trade name, getting a trade license, and rental fees (Ejari).
“There were also fees charged by Department of Economic Development (DED) for administrative and advertising, other charges for waste-related services, etc. If you trademark your brand, that's a different process. For our business we spent between Dh10,000 and Dh12,000 on the license.”
By using AI technology, we've automated our processes and track everything, even down to the individual seeds we extract daily
Business Lesson: ‘Hasty decisions prove costly, so hire judiciously, and choose an apt location’
For Al Saiegh, the vast majority of financial surprises for his business came during Covid-19. ”It was unplanned and had to know how to deal with it. I think we are still working it out, it has drastically changed things and even now as we still go back to normal, the normal is still not very normal.”
“Throughout my journey, the recurring lesson has been the necessity of meticulous planning. Also, avoiding hasty decisions saved me a heap of time and money later on. Money-wise, I've picked up some vital rules: hire judiciously, and choose a good location for your business,” he added.
“Be it in business or personal finances, taking the time to map out a strategy can save you from costly mishaps down the line. Moreover, learning to manage finances judiciously, without rushing into decisions, has been a lesson well learnt from my early career stages to now running a business.”
“My interest later pivoted towards technology and business management, and I also managed communications at a caviar farm back then. Today, as I oversee family businesses, I still work with the same investor, who's also my mentor.” Al Saiegh also recalled how saving habits dates back to his childhood.
From a young age, Al Saiegh said helping out with accounting and “very basic bookkeeping” at his family jewellery business when he was between 13-16 years of age instilled in him respect for hard-earned money and the nuances of handling finances sensitively and sensibly.
Growing up with initial lessons in money management
“Growing up, a weekly allowance of around Dh120, which was my pocket money in my school days, served as my first lesson in money management. If I didn't plan out my spending, I'd run out before the week was up. That childhood practice helped me learn to balance spending with saving,” he said.
“The allowance wasn’t lavish, but it taught me to manage my expenses well. For my kids, I plan to take a similar approach, but with a greater emphasis on imparting real-life financial skills. I intend to nurture their understanding of money management, banking, and the like from an early age, something I find very crucial and which was somewhat missing in my own early education.”
On a lighter note, he remarked he spends his time perfecting his artistic hobby of photography during his leisure time. Al Saiegh, who considers himself to be an avid traveller, still fancies exploring different cultures in his travels.
“One crucial lesson was realising that simply starting a business isn't a guarantee of instant financial success. It taught me the value of careful planning and financial management, grounding my understanding that a good idea needs a solid financial strategy to flourish.”
Over the years, Al Saiegh, who has bought apartments, in the UAE, Russia and back home in Syria, has dabbled in different investments, including stocks. “If there’s one strategy that stood the test of time for me, it’s investing in real estate. It's a reliable path, and looking back, I would focus solely on real estate both here and overseas for secure and fruitful investments,” he added.
“For retirement, my strategy is straightforward — real estate. I prefer long-term investments, buying properties at initial stages, developing them, and then either selling for a profit or renting them out to ensure a steady income stream.”