Dubai-based Ni­cole Ro­drigues be­lieves jug­gling five dif­fer­ent busi­nesses across sev­eral coun­tries is easy if you have your pri­or­i­ties right. By Shiva Kumar Thekkepat

Friday - - News - sthekkepat@gulfnews.com @Shiva_fri­day

She’s the next top busi­ness­woman – for­mer model Ni­cole Ro­drigues, who jug­gles five com­pa­nies, says be­ing su­per-or­gan­ised is the se­cret of suc­cess.

Ni­cole Ro­drigues is in a hurry. She’s just re­turned from a busi­ness trip to Lon­don and in less than 24 hours she will be off to La­hore. In the time in be­tween, she has sep­a­rate meet­ings sched­uled with the heads of the five busi­nesses she owns and yet she’s any­thing but fraz­zled.

As Ni­cole is walk­ing around her Dubai of­fice and brief­ing her sec­re­tary, she stops to get up­dates from her 68 staff while be­ing in­ter­viewed by Fri­day. The mother of two and se­rial en­tre­pre­neur takes multitasking to the max. “I can jug­gle so many things at one go be­cause I pri­ori­tise,” she says. “I just love my work, so noth­ing is a hard­ship. I am a lists per­son, so I al­most never slip up.”

Ni­cole packs a lot of di­verse tasks into a sin­gle minute, jug­gling them with an adept­ness and guile that would charm even her tough­est crit­ics. A client wait­ing to meet her is given a smile, while a friend who has dropped in gets a kiss blown across her swanky open-plan of­fice. She even man­aged to scout the best board­ing school for her chil­dren, Vic­to­ria, 10, and Vic­tor, seven, dur­ing her trip to Lon­don.

At 40, she has a model agency – she’s a for­mer model – called Diva Mod­el­ling and Events that she launched in 2003. She branched out into real es­tate in 2004 with Diva Hold­ings when she re­alised there was a killing to be made in that field when she bought her first home.

The prob­lems she faced launch­ing her busi­nesses gave her ideas – such as pro­vid­ing ac­count­ing ser­vices to small busi­nesses in 2010 through NM In­vest­ments. Her beauty salons – she opened her Diva Salon busi­ness in 2011 – were an ad­junct of the mod­el­ling busi­ness. And when she moved to a new neigh­bour­hood and found it lack­ing in ser­vices, this gave her the idea for Diva Laun­dry in 2011.

The port­fo­lio may seem di­verse, but one busi­ness or­gan­i­cally led to the other. And by any­one’s stan­dards Ni­cole has been suc­cess­ful. Shuaa Cap­i­tal, a Dubai-based in­vest­ment bank, has val­ued Ni­cole’s busi­nesses at more than Dh100 mil­lion. Diva Mod­el­ling alone has been val­ued at Dh20 mil­lion. She was also the win­ner of the peo­ple’s choice award of the SME Ad­vi­sor Stars of Busi­ness 2011 given by busi­ness mag­a­zine SME Ad­vi­sorMid­dle East.

“It’s im­por­tant to find out what ig­nites your pas­sion, and to seize an op­por­tu­nity when it is pre­sented,’’ she says. “Any­body can start a busi­ness. But one rea­son many peo­ple fail is they cre­ate their own fears and man­i­fest them into re­al­ity. Diva was not built to just make money, but as a plat­form for peo­ple to be able to de­velop them­selves. I be­lieve if you go for the chase, dream the dream, your re­ward will come. The idea is to have fun with what you are do­ing. It’s im­por­tant not to fo­cus on the goal, but on the jour­ney. Oth­er­wise there is no en­joy­ment.”

Sin­gle-minded and de­ter­mined

The fire in her was ig­nited at the age 16 in Mum­bai, In­dia, when Ni­cole, who hails from a con­ser­va­tive fam­ily in Ker­ala, de­cided she wanted to walk the ramp. “Be­ing a model was pretty much un­heard of in my fam­ily at that time,” she says. “Most mem­bers of the fam­ily were pro­fes­sion­als – my fa­ther is an en­gi­neer, my un­cles are lawyers, doc­tors... So there was a lot of con­flict at home when I de­cided to be­come

a model. But that didn’t stop me. I just went out and be­came a model. I wanted the glam­our, the trap­pings that went with it.”

Ni­cole par­tic­i­pated in in­ter-col­lege fash­ion shows where she was spot­ted by noted In­dian de­signer Vikram Phad­nis. “I did fash­ion shows with him, and then mod­elled for mag­a­zine cov­ers like Fem­ina and Health and Nu­tri­tion, among oth­ers,” she says. “I re­mem­ber in 1994 I was on the cov­ers of 12 mag­a­zines in one month!”

But she wasn’t just an­other pretty face – she stud­ied maths in col­lege. “I have a great head for num­bers,” she says. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing, she moved on to work as air­line cabin crew. “I wanted to travel, and for free!” Ni­cole smiles.

In 1995 she landed a job with Gulf Air and moved to Bahrain. There she met her hus­band Hen­rik Larsen, who works in con­struc­tion. When her first child was born, Ni­cole quit her job and they moved to her hus­band’s na­tive Copen­hagen in 2001.

“Den­mark was like mov­ing to an­other planet for me,” she says. “Ev­ery­one’s equal, ev­ery­one gets the same rights, and the peo­ple are re­ally nice. I learnt some valu­able lessons in­clud­ing that ev­ery­one has both neg­a­tives and pos­i­tives, and one needs to fo­cus on the pos­i­tive side in­stead of dwelling on the cons.”

Ni­cole and Hen­rik moved to Dubai in 2003, to “test wa­ters. We had been here on a hol­i­day, liked what we saw and de­cided to move”.

At first, she started work­ing with a PR firm as a busi­ness de­vel­op­ment ex­ec­u­tive. “But my per­son­al­ity is geared to be­ing a leader, so I de­vel­oped my own busi­ness plan for a mod­el­ling agency in 2003, and man­aged to at­tract in­vestors will­ing to put in Dh50,000,” she says. “Af­ter open­ing my of­fice I re­alised I had very lit­tle money to roll on, so I ended up be­ing the man­ager, busi­ness de­vel­op­ment per­son, ac­coun­tant, pro­ducer and re­cep­tion­ist. I worked nearly 20 hours a day, fol­low­ing a timetable I cre­ated for dif­fer­ent du­ties. It was hec­tic, but I loved it.”

It paid off. Diva to­day has 14,000 mod­els on its rolls and was named one of the top 100 small busi­nesses in 2011 by Dubai SME, a Dubai govern­ment agency.

Spot­ting op­por­tu­ni­ties is win­ning half the bat­tle in busi­ness, ac­cord­ing to Ni­cole. “Act­ing on them is the other half,” she says. Her real es­tate foray is a typ­i­cal ex­am­ple. Ni­cole was in­ter­ested when The Springs de­vel­op­ment was launched in 2004. “My hus­band and I had Dh60,000 in sav­ings, and I wanted to buy a house, as I felt it’s bet­ter to own than rent,” she says. “The very next month I found that my in­vest­ment of Dh60,000 was worth Dh100,000. That’s when I de­cided to get into real es­tate se­ri­ously and launched Diva Hold­ings. To­day we own 28 properties world­wide – in Lon­don, Bos­ton, Rio De Janeiro, At­lanta, Den­mark, Dubai and In­dia.”

But Ni­cole is very clear that her core busi­ness is Diva Mod­el­ling. “The key is not to spread one­self too thin,” she says.

She has a very con­ser­va­tive mind. “My prin­ci­ples and ethics are old-fash­ioned. While my friends were splurg­ing on high-end lux­ury cars I pre­ferred to in­vest my money in busi­ness ven­tures. You have to get your pri­or­i­ties right.

“It’s easy to make a mil­lion and spend it on a car. Or you can in­vest it in a good busi­ness and work on mak­ing the next mil­lion. I’d rather buy a sec­ond-hand car than a brand new one that will start de­pre­ci­at­ing the mo­ment you start driv­ing it.”

Ni­cole’s for­mula for suc­cess is sim­ple. “Plan­ning is ev­ery­thing,” she says. “If you plan well, you can do any­thing. The prob­lem is peo­ple don’t want to plan. For in­stance, in the real es­tate scene, if you have the fun­da­men­tals

right, and plan it well, real es­tate can work for any­body. The im­por­tant thing though is to never over­stretch your fi­nances... never bor­row more than 10 to 15 per cent from the mar­ket if you have to.’’

Ni­cole has plenty of ad­vice for prospec­tive en­trepreneurs. “You have to define your goals. You need to be clear what you want to be, where you want to go and what you will be do­ing five years from now. You can’t just jump into the mar­ket and ex­pect to get lucky.

“For in­stance, if you are set­ting up an of­fice where you ex­pect 50 peo­ple to be work­ing in five years but have only 10 now, build one that can house 50 peo­ple. Oth­er­wise there will be a lot of wastage and cost es­ca­la­tion when you move or ex­pand to a new of­fice and that will bring your prof­its down.”

Youmust al­ways keep learn­ing

Keep­ing abreast of de­vel­op­ments is para­mount, says Ni­cole. “You have to keep ed­u­cat­ing your­self as you ex­pand into new fields. Oth­er­wise you are set­ting your­self up for fail­ure.”

Ex­pan­sion is in­evitable if you suc­ceed in busi­ness, ac­cord­ing to Ni­cole. “In busi­ness while ex­pand­ing there are two op­tions: you ei­ther do ‘same prod­uct dif­fer­ent mar­kets’ or ‘dif­fer­ent prod­ucts same mar­ket’,” she says. “I chose the lat­ter – en­ter­ing real es­tate, beauty salons and ser­vices sec­tors. Af­ter hav­ing es­tab­lished that, I’ve switched to the for­mer – ex­pand­ing Diva Mod­el­ling in Doha, Bahrain, Kuwait and Turkey. I will soon be en­ter­ing In­dia and Pak­istan.”

One of her most im­por­tant lessons in busi­ness is to “align your­self with strong peo­ple. Don’t feel threat­ened. Weak peo­ple may make you feel good tem­po­rar­ily. But be­ing sur­rounded by strong peo­ple can make you grow. You be­come stronger too.”

Be­ing a good leader is equally im­por­tant. “A good leader will al­ways lis­ten,” she says. “And ob­serve. They see and hear things that oth­ers miss. While many peo­ple can see only one side; a good leader can give you the com­pos­ite pic­ture. In fact, that’s my car­di­nal rule in life – ob­serve, lis­ten, learn.”

De­spite her hec­tic sched­ule, Ni­cole says she is very good at pri­ori­tis­ing. “I’m great at mak­ing lists,” she says. “My fam­ily tops the list, be­cause they are the ones I’m do­ing it all for. I be­lieve in work­ing smart at the of­fice and go­ing home to spend qual­ity time with fam­ily.”

Ni­cole says it’s im­por­tant to fo­cus on the jour­ney, not the goal, oth­er­wise there is no en­joy­ment

Ni­cole’s fam­ily is at the top of her list – hus­band Hen­rik, chil­dren Vic­tor and Vic­to­ria

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