Money & Me: Live life to the full says capital’s Señor Habano

For cigar smokers in the capital, Sunil Kallukattayil is the familiar face behind the counter in the city’s only full Cuban humidor outside a hotel, La Casa del Habano, in Abu Dhabi Mall. The 53-year-old hails from Thrissur in India’s Kerala state and moved to the UAE seven years ago from Riyadh, where he was working as a factory manager. He fell into the world of fine cigars “by accident”, but can now discuss at length the finer points of a Cohiba Behike, which retails at around Dh160 per smoke.

Describe your financial journey so far.

I started out running my own business in India, a video editing studio I had started from scratch. But the market shifted and the business started to make losses so I had to close it down and get out. I moved to the Middle East 11 years ago, first to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia to work at a factory making transportation containers such as big refrigeration units. That was better than at home but the living conditions were not great and you always felt like people were watching you – the laws are very restrictive. That is the main reason I came here. I started working in Dubai first, in indoor sales. Then I fell into the cigar business by accident – a neighbour was working as a brand manager for [Baqer Mohebi Enterprises, which owns La Casa del Habano and almost all other Cuban cigar distribution in the UAE] and told me there was an opening. I have been working for Mohebi, mostly at La Casa del Habano, now for four years in Abu Dhabi.

Are you a spender or a saver?

Oh, I think I am more of a spender. Saving is tough. I get back home once a year to visit my wife and my son, who is pursuing an engineering degree at a university. They come here also and travel takes up a lot of money. I have started to save a bit more now and looking long term at using that to restart my video editing business at home eventually.

What is your philosophy towards money?

My philosophy is that life is to enjoy. I do not care that much about money except as a means to an end. I am fairly conservative, basically. It is important for things such as my son’s education and to start the business.

Have you made any financial mistakes along the way?

Yes, a lot mistakes [he laughs]. The first time around in business, before I was doing various formats – VHS, then cd’s, then digital. I made investments at the wrong time, I was too advanced and people were not ready for it. … Also, I made investments about five years back, insurance-related investments that didn’t work out. It’s when some of the big international firms came to India – MetLife, Allianz – and I bought investments on the advice of a friend that were supposed to give a fixed return. But it turned 100,000 rupees (Dh 5,603.7) into 75,000 rupees instead. My friend also took losses.

If you won Dh1m what would you do with it?

That would not be enough to restart my business so my priority would be to help out some family members with some of their goals. Also, I would like to buy a new car – nothing fancy. A family car, maybe a Camry.

What has been your best investment?

Training and education, both for me and for my son. I got a lot out of the training I did in video editing, also in retail sales and in the last few years learning about fine cigars. I think a trip to Cuba would really help me learn more, but somehow that has not quite worked out yet!

What do you enjoy spending money on?

Really, just being with friends, a day out at the beach here. And spending time with my family.

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