I was introduced to this term for the 1st time in my life when I started my Banking career with ICICI Bank in the Gulf. Prior to that I had worked in the telecom sector in India and all that I was familiar with until then was GSM/ CDMA technology, activation of SIM cards and what charges one would incur while making and receiving outgoing/ incoming calls.
(Remember that was the era in early 2000’s when you had to pay even to listen!)
So yes, I had arrived at Muscat International Airport in Oman on a bright sunny afternoon in Aug 2005 in what was a journey with many firsts attached to it.
It was my 1st step on foreign soil, my 1st overseas job stint and of course my maiden foray into Wealth Management*.
(*In layman terms you are a Relationship Manager for High Net Worth Individuals who want to park their money with you, in anticipation of returns higher than what a normal savings account or FD would yield)
As I made my way to the airport’s Immigration counter with the luggage in my hand and mixed feelings of hope and nervousness in my head, the glass doors with bold Arabic letters said, ‘Marhaba!’ (meaning Welcome)
Those doors suddenly opened up a whole new world for me. It had fascinating terms and complex instruments like Shares, Bonds, Derivatives and Private Equity. Yet I found that I managed to slip into the shoes of a Relationship Manager with consummate ease. It helped that my immediate boss Anupam and other colleagues were very supportive in this regard.
Very soon I was meeting NRI’s who had been settled in Oman for varying number of years. Some had come in a decade ago, others 30 years back and few astonishingly had even been born there! It was this diverse spectrum of their stay abroad, that astounded me.
Of course, there were some newbies too, like me who had flown in only recently (within 1-2 years). We did not spend too much time meeting them because we understood they would not have sufficient savings yet to invest with us 🙂
For me, however the real wealth lay in the narrow lanes and by-lanes of an area called Muttrah. This was the corniche area for Muscat city. Wikipedia defines the Arabic meaning of Muttrah as darkness because in the crowded stalls and lanes where the sunrays do not infiltrate during the day, the shoppers needed lamps to know their destinations.
It was more than 200 years old and it was here that I found light.
Muttrah area with its famous Souq (market) was a hub of activity. From local shoppers to expatriates, from travellers to taxi drivers, from wholesalers to retailers – everyone was here.
Cruise ships travelling halfway across the world, laden with tourists would dock at Port Sultan Qaboos nearby (named after one of Oman’s most loved and revered Kings). Then bus loads of them would visit Muttrah- for shopping and sightseeing.
The shops themselves were as varied and innumerable as the crowd visiting them. With common walls they were interlocked with each other like a chain, on both sides of a narrow lane. The sequence of shops was broken only when the lane would end abruptly at a passageway leading out to the main street.
The shop owners sold everything – from exotic frankincense (perfume extracted from a tree) and silver khanjars (the dagger is a National symbol of Oman) to ordinary dishdashas (ankle length garment) and the locally sourced nutritious dates.
It was here in the shady confines of the souq, sitting on soft mattresses on the ground with their hands on a wooden desk in front of them, were my most beloved clients’ – the NRI trading community from Gujarat.
For some of them, their families had been based in The Sultanate of Oman for almost one hundred years! It was their grandfathers/ great grandfathers who started their journey in a boat from the Gulf of Kutch in Gujarat. They crossed Karachi and before landing in Muscat, had a stopover in Gwadar. In fact, Gwadar was part of the Sultanate of Oman until 1958 when the Pakistan Govt. purchased it for a sum of USD 3 million.
Throughout this adventure the boats would keep getting heavier as they added spices, silk and their dreams onto them.
These gentlemen formed a significant chunk of my client base. From them I learnt how wealth is made – baiza by baiza, rial by rial and the effort that goes into creating it. (1 Omani Rial =100 baizas) For, before one can do Wealth Management one must create wealth first.
Day in and day out they would sit in their shops, their eyes radiating humility and greeting every customer with a smile. I was amazed at the way they had ingrained adaptability to foreign conditions as a personality trait.
For the country they operated in, is starkly different from India in so many ways – in culture, climate and the community. Yet they had learnt with ease a foreign language as difficult and alien as Arabic, and switched it effortlessly with Gujarati when needed!
One of the top grossing items was confectionery. Never before in my life I had seen such a fantastic array of candies and toffees as I saw in these shops. They were placed in glass jars and in boxes by the thousands. They were imported from countries as far and varied as Turkey and Malaysia.
I would patiently sit on one of the chairs provided for customers. Retailers from the interior regions of Oman would flock to these shops and purchase stock in bulk. Accounts were still being maintained in hard bound paper registers though the computerised era had already set in. Yet our Gujarati brothers kept the digital age at abeyance – they believed in their ability and trusted their brains more than MS Excel!
One of my most beloved clients would always greet me with a cheery, “Jai Shree Krishna, Wasim bhai!” and wave me into his shop. He could rapidly calculate a page long of prices in a jiffy even at the ripe age of 65 and took immense pride in it. I once challenged him with my mobile calculator but he came out trumps, smiling like a school boy who had topped his Math class!
Keeping things simple and clinging onto age old traditions was the unwritten mantra here.
On the other end in the spectrum of my NRI client base was of course, the more in-the-eye and visible executive segment. They were the senior management of the various firms that made up corporate Oman. These gentlemen had started from the middle ranks to rise over the years to occupy the posts of GM’s and CXO’s. They held significant clout over the running of their respective businesses and their Omani partners/owners accorded them immense respect.
I worked and stayed for about a dozen years in the Gulf. During this time, my personal wealth started accumulating too. Money gave me a lot of freedom and the choices to fulfil most of my aspirations. Gulf countries do not tax individual income; so, whatever amount was on your offer letter, the same was credited into your bank account each month.
Hence, I could travel, buy my dream SUV and go on exotic holidays once a year. I could shop for expensive suits, wear a TAG on my wrist and even could afford to plant the odd Mont Blanc pen in my shirt pocket. Such were the riches offered by God!
I started thinking of investments in property, gold and stocks. In the strictest sense possible I was doing my own personal wealth management, in addition to my professional side too.
But all along I always remembered what the guys in Muttrah Souq had taught me – to stay humble, to stay grounded even if wealth had propelled you from economy to business class.
However, like all good stories mine too had to unravel at some point. I do not know what triggered it, but in time I started feeling stagnated. Both in life and at work. Suddenly my posh office with its’ high ceilings and low-slung executive chairs began to bore me. They lost their sheen. Work became a chore and the monthly targets a drag. I found myself unable to cope with both.
After giving it much thought I decided to resign and come back to India. I was no longer doing justice to my employer. Not just to India but I came back to my hometown Bhubaneswar- to my parents’ house. A place where my innocent childhood days had metamorphosed into the exuberance of youth.
A place I had always called home.
Then life dealt me a shock which was totally unexpected and an eye-opener. I entered into a prolonged period of illness which literally was a gut wrenching experience. (Refer my post –Tropic of Cancer)
Somehow the illness altered my view on wealth and its importance. Yes, I could pay my hospital bills because I had money. But it’s use was up to a certain extent only. I realized the hard way that not only with a snap of its fingers, life could make you disappear but also the money you made could ground to dust.
The adage “Health is Wealth” that I had learnt and forgotten all those years ago in school, now came back as a large sized poster in my hospital room (and life) from which I could no longer keep my eyes away from.
Along with this realization I started seeing other things too in the sea of life. When I was sinking in my boat, objects which had submerged with the passage of time were gradually coming to my notice.
As I started collecting them one by one, they started surfacing in the sea pulling me up along with them.
- Catching up with those long forgotten friends from my Botany Honours days in college and refreshing those wonderful memories; Meeting some of my school friends I didn’t even know existed!
- The joy of having breakfast with my ageing parents who were relieved I was back after almost 20 years;
- Spending evenings with that uncle and aunt of mine who took me for holidays to places like Srinagar and Sikkim while I was a teenager; and who now suffered from the ‘empty nest syndrome’. (both their kids reside outside Odisha)
- Going for cycling early in the morning and again visiting all those back alleys, I frequented in my youth.
- Reading story books and newspapers with my feet propped up on my balcony and simply soaking in the roadside views.
Suddenly all these small things started giving me immense joy. They started propping me up and boosting my immune system which had started flagging in my later years abroad.
Then out of nowhere came COVID. Ironically in all the chaos caused by the pandemic, I further settled into this cocoon of comfort. Happiness started sprouting for me in small measures.
- A teaching assignment that I had lost out at a prestigious Institute (If you follow my blog closely you will guess its name) came back to me. This was because the staff from New Delhi could not travel in the lockdown.
- I dived into my online assignment with full gusto. At the end of the semester, when I received messages from some of the students that how much they had enjoyed my classes, it gave me a new high!
- At the same time I started focussing on this blog which hitherto was lying unattended, like a neglected child. Soon, compliments started pouring in from people that how much they were enjoying reading my posts.
So, yes life seems to have come a full circle for me. I now realise it comes with its finite moments carrying infinite possibilities with them. It is up to us how best we utilise and ‘live’ them.
The 2 sides of Wealth Management
It makes me look forward to each day with a bit of greed as to how much returns I can extract from time- the most valued asset class in Wealth Management.
I have also realised the more I express my gratitude to God for giving this ‘other wealth’ in my life, the more I receive it. Unlike my financial assets this intangible wealth does not have any NAV*. It cannot be measured for there are no units to measure it. Yet I realize it enriches me, enlivens me!
(*NAV = Net Asset Value. An unit to measure various financial instruments like Mutual Funds)
This realisation also brings forth the responsibility of managing it well, just as one would manage financial assets. It adds a different dimension to my concept of Wealth Management.
I have stumbled a few times in the effort, but I now understand that I have to handle them with care right up to the finishing line.
For when I will finally switch off the light at the end of the day and go to sleep, it will be this wealth in my inner savings account that I will carry along with me and not the Cash and FD’s in my bank account.
Both Illustrations by phantasmicart (her Insta Id) -your creativity always impresses! Thank you so much Ritwicka 🙂
Reader's Corner Dear Reader, would you agree that the intangible wealth is equally important as the tangible wealth in our lives? At this particular moment in your life, where would you place both of them on a scale of 1 to 10. (1 being least important and 10 most important) Do share your thoughts below on the subject. I would love to hear from you!