Brave Enough to Venture

The SME Series, by BDRC Asia

There are myriad hair and beauty salons in Singapore, so how does one build a successful international business in this sector from scratch?

Irene Teo, Director of The Hair Secrets, founded the company in 1981, and through her hard work, perseverance and business acumen it has since evolved into what it is today: A distinctively professional service provider of hairstyling and beauty services, with two outlets in Singapore and overseas branches in Shanghai and Brunei.

Born in Malaysia to a family of modest means, Irene stated that while she was growing up there were only two ways to learn—“You go to school, or become an apprentice hair stylist.” After being trained at Vidal Sassoon in the UK, Irene, not wanting to borrow money, saved earnestly to open her first salon in Singapore. While she acknowledged the inherent risks in setting up her own business, she believed that passion and hard work would overcome whatever challenges lay ahead.

Hair Secrets’ aim is “to provide premier services to cater to the very needs of clients with dedication and professionalism”. While it is easy to create mission statements like this, Irene reached her goals through applying her core skill as a talented hair stylist with sophisticated management and marketing approaches that included a subtle form of market research at its core.

Over 30 years Irene has had a captive audience of respondents—her customers—who not only helped her to learn English but have also provided her feedback with, opinion, and advice on many aspects of her business. Irene comments, “The customer—they gave me a lot of information, so today I succeed.” This data ranges from good locations for her salon outlets, to how she should internationalise her business, including which markets to enter and how to succeed overseas! Customers even offered advice on the naming of her business. Her direct contact with them has enabled her to bypass both market research and creative agencies.

Although lacking a ‘higher education’, Irene implemented a series of management initiatives to enhance her business, the thought behind which seems typical of a business school graduate.

She first recognised the importance of total quality management. Her personal relationships with customers were important, but the business had to consistently deliver on its mission statement of ‘dedication and professionalism’ across all staff. She accomplished this through extensive training schemes, sharing her ideas and dreams with her staff, and also implementing formalised quality control measures. The result? The Hair Secrets was the first hair and beauty salon in Singapore to earn an ISO accreditation.

Irene also recognised the importance of sponsorship in raising The Hair Secrets’ profile in a crowded market. Since 2004, she have sponsored beauty competitions and is currently a sponsor for Miss Singapore Universe 2012.

Recent years have seen The Hair Secrets introducing a range of products under the Beaufond brand which includes firming, slimming, eye, and sunblock creams. While these products constitute a small portion of revenue, Irene takes the product and branding very seriously as a means to promote her core hair and beauty business: She has plans to distribute Beaufond products more widely through retailers

While Hair Secrets has been using sophisticated marketing techniques, Irene is still quite maverick in her business decisions. She admits that she “does not believe too much in numbers”—and this includes market research reports! Intuition guides her, and if she feels she can do something, she will go for it: “If somebody tells me I can’t do it (e.g. entering a competitive market), I will do it, and I will succeed.

From BDRC Asia’s SME series a common theme arises—how the success of a business is closely linked to a focus on its vision, its staff, and its efforts to ‘sow’ into community. The Hair Secrets regularly supports charity work. Once, the company organised a Children’s Charity Show where 20 percent of sales were donated to the Children Cancer Foundation. Such companies are motivated less by profit than impact, but this usually happens as a result of getting everything else right first.

A last point to consider: Since hair and beauty salons have a captive audience, it might be a good idea to ask customers to fill out questionnaires through touchscreens for 30 minutes for a discount on their salon bill—a pretty random sample of people, even cheaper than online research! Perhaps this will be Irene’s next enterprise idea—or yours.