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'I didn't want to be a personal barber to the stars'

Last updated on: December 05, 2013 16:11 IST

Image: Jawed Habib runs over 340 salons in the country.
Photographs: Courtesy Jawed Habib

Hairdressing has been in Jawed Habib's blood. His father runs the successful Habib's Salon in New Delhi and had once counted Pt Jawaharlal Nehru amongst his clients; his grandfather was the barber to Lord Mountbatten and several Indian presidents.

Yet it took Jawed 26 years before he could figure out what he wanted to do in his life. But when he did, there was no stopping him.

Part hairdresser, part entrepreneur, Jawed Habib has taken the hairdressing business in India by storm. And there's no stopping him. Not just yet though.

Hairdresser Jawed Habib is a hard person to miss. He's dyed his hair blond and has his picture on all of the 340 odd salons that bear his name.

Having started out in the business rather late in life -- he was about 26 when his father sent him away to study hairdressing -- Jawed has made a name for himself in the business.

Arguably one of the most successful hairdressers in the country Jawed comes from a family of barbers. The family has witnessed history unfold before its eyes.

Jawaharlal Nehru is believed to be one of his father's clients and his grandfather was in the employ of Lord Mountbatten.

Jawed Habib has already begun expanding his business internationally and has ambitious plans of opening up to 5,000 salons in the coming years.

Admittedly, his plans sound tad ostentatious. But again, this is the man who started out from scratch, well almost.

More recently, Jawed Habib has launched his new book, Hair Yoga (purchase a copy here), in which he's spoken extensively about haircare.

In the book, he seeks to answer several hair-related doubts (does oil massage cause dandruff? do shampoos make hair weak? etc), takes up seemingly commonsensical topics (such as how to oil your hair for instance) and offers tips to using hair care products.

When he isn't writing, Jawed Habib is busy expanding his business. He's gone from zero to 340 salons in less than a decade and has plans to launch more. 

In this first-person account, Jawed Habib talks about his journey:

My father Habib Ahmed studied at the Morris School of Hairdressing in London. He couldn't have afforded the education had it not been for Lord Mountbatten.

His father and my grandfather Nazir Ahmed, was the barber to the Viceroy. He had joined the services of the British government in India around 1936 at the Viceroy House. After India became Independent, he continued working for the Presidents who occupied the palace that came to be called the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

I was born there!

'My eventual plan was to pursue a career in hotel management'

Image: Habib Ahmed returned from England in 1969 having studied at the Morris School of Hairdressing, courtesy Lord Mountbatten
Photographs: Courtesy Jawed Habib

When the Viceroy left for England, he'd asked my grandfather if he could do something for him. Granddad requested him to sponsor his son's education in hairdressing in England.

Lord Mountbatten agreed and my father, Habib Ahmed went to the Morris School of Hairdressing in London to study the art of cutting hair! In 1968!

You can imagine how overqualified he may have been when he returned to India a year later!

The job opportunities for a young man having studied hairdressing in London weren't an awful lot back then.

But again, he was also quite sure that the Rashtrapati Bhavan wasn't the place for him to be.

This was the late '60s/early '70s. Hairdressing was still decades away from becoming a respectable profession but that was all he knew. So around 1972/73, my father started out working in the salon at the Oberoi Hotel in New Delhi.

He quit about a decade later and on October 16, 1983 he set up his own salon -- Habib's Hair and Beauty -- at the Lodhi Hotel in New Delhi.

At the time when both my brothers -- Parvez and Amjad -- were assisting my father I was happy sitting at the reception, collecting the cash.

I was pursuing my master's degree in French from JNU (the Jawaharlal Nehru University) and remained reluctant to join the family business, despite my father's not-so-subtle hints.

My eventual plan was to perhaps pursue a career in hotel management. I'd imagined my knowledge of the French language, would offer better prospects.

By then I was 26. And still confused.

So my father did what most fathers would do -- he suggested I give his profession a go.

My father made a few calls to his friends at Morris -- we still couldn't have afforded the fees -- and managed to get a scholarship for me.

Before I knew it, I was on a flight to London. It was the first time I'd sat in an aircraft.

'If you don't like it, come back', he'd said.

This was 1986.

At McDonalds I discovered the importance of setting up a system

Image: It was at McDonalds that Jawed Habib learnt the most important of his career. Seen here A Ronald McDonald balloon floats down Sixth Avenue during the 87th Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York.
Photographs: Eric Thayer/Reuters

I cannot say I took to hairdressing very quickly.

The first time I held a pair of barber's scissors  was at Morris. It felt strange. I was confused; I wasn't sure why I was here and what I was supposed to do.

London was an alien place. I'd not seen so many blond-haired people before and I wasn't even sure I wanted to be a hairdresser!

I was the only brown kid as far as I could see; I used to be made fun of and I didn't have a lot of friends.

Then again this was London! It was the most stylish place I had been to. This was an opportunity of a lifetime and just for that I thought I should stick it out.

A little over a month into the course, I realised this wasn't as bad as it may have seemed.

I had appeared for my first test and stood third in my class. My father wasn't wrong after all. This could work, I told myself.

That was also probably when I fell in love with hairdressing.

It was a nine months-long course and involved about 1500 hours of training and practice.

Our college timings were from 9am to 5pm. Over the weekends I'd work at salons honing my skills, putting to practice what I'd learnt.

But that wasn't where I would get my greatest lesson of my career.


On weekdays from 6pm to 11pm, I would work at a local McDonald's store.

I didn't have many friends to hang out with and so working somewhere seemed like a good idea to spend time and make some money.

At McDonalds I discovered the importance of setting up a system.

There, they train you well, make you go through various departments decide upon your salary and raises only on the basis of the exams you appear for.

No one person is important. The system is what works; the system keeps things going. People may come and go but as long as the system keeps running, your business keeps running too.

McDonalds is where I realised what a difference a well-put-together system can do.

It was where I learnt the importance of punctuality and what difference training can bring about.

Although I didn't know it then, these were the lessons that I would eventually put into use when I'd start my business.

I returned to India and started assisting my father.

This was 1987.

'Every town I went to, I learnt that the needs of the people there were very, very different from those in the big cities'

Image: Since 2000, after he became the spokesperson for Sunsilk, Jawed Habib has been in the limelight. And seems to enjoy it.
Photographs: Courtesy Jawed Habib

My father is of the belief that hairdressing is a personalised profession. People visit a barber's store because they are comfortable the way they are treated there and it's a bit of a habit.

On the other hand, I believed that it was possible to build a brand that people can associate with and rather than going to a particular salon, visit one that has branches all over.

We'd always differed on this. He thought it wasn't possible to set up a system in this unorganised sector; I thought the contrary.

So I began reaching out to people outside of his world.

I started conducting seminars and workshops in small towns. Whenever, I would conduct a workshop, I would follow it up with a press conference where I'd talk about the science of hairdressing, why it's important etc. But along the way, it was also a great learning experience for me.

Every town I went to, I learnt that the needs of the people there were very, very different from those in the big cities.

I may have learnt hairdressing in London, but that would be of no use to my life if I didn't deliver what my clients wanted.

Remember, this was still the time of 'step cut', 'Sadhna cut' and 'Dimple cut'. I couldn't have possibly introduced anything revolutionary back then. It'd have to be a slow process.

While I was continuing with my workshops, I worked alongside my father and taught at his academy.

Then in 1997, I suggested that we do something that'd get us the attention we deserve. And so on February 15, I attempted to set a record for cutting hair for 24 hours.

In that time, I did 410 haircuts and set a record.

This was the turning point in my life. I'd stepped out of my father's shadows.

For a change, the media attention was on me now. It did make him and my brothers tad uncomfortable but there hasn't been bad blood.

In 2000 Sunsilk signed me on as their spokesperson and I became their brand ambassador. It made me a familiar face because I did their shows and appeared in their television advertisements.

All this while, I never stopped cutting hair nor did I stop my workshops. These were the two things that kept me rooted and in touch with my market and understand my clients' need.

Along the way, I had also begun reaching out to my students, asking them if they'd like to start a business with me. There were some who responded.

Then in 2004, I started out on my own.

I've believed in living one day at a time

Image: To this day, Jawed Habib ensures he services his clients at least once every week
Photographs: Courtesy Jawed Habib

By now, I had set up 35 salons in several smaller cities in association with my students. When I separated my business from my father's, I took those salons with me and changed the name from Habib's to the Jawed Habib brand.

We had salons in towns such as Bhatinda, Amritsar, even Siliguri as well as in larger cities such as Cochin, Ahmedabad and Bhuvnaeshwar among others.

I shifted my offices to Mumbai and that was when began expanding my business by setting up a system in place.

The first step was to start by charging a franchisee fee because if you want to grow, franchising is the way to go.

It wasn't very high but it was important to get everyone under one umbrella. The fees helped us standardise things -- the charges, the look and feel of the salon, the overall experience etc.

In exchange for the fees, we would provide expertise and the permission to use our brand name.

Needless to say, there were some who backed out but most of them continued their association with me.

I cannot say I faced a lot of challenges getting my business to where it is today because I've believed in living one day at a time. If I like an idea, I want to execute it as soon as possible. I don't mull over anything for too long because I believe it is important to get things going. When you live a day at a time you realise there's so much to get done.

Since 2004, I've focussed largely on how to expand my business and testing the system at all times.

I have been associated with celebrities and I was also associated with Miss India in 2003. It didn't take long for me to realise that the celeb culture wasn't meant for me because it restricts my creativity. I didn't want to be be a personal barber to the stars, doing only what they want me to do.

Today, the only target before me is how to expand the number of salons.

In it, I have now launched separate brands. The flagship brand is Jawed Habib Hair and Beauty that offers the entire range of services. Then there is Jawed Habib Expresso that only offers haircuts for Rs 99. I have my academy and a new brand called Bevels by Jawed Habib that is a high-end salon chain providing a holistic experience -- from makeover and styling to colouring and grooming. So I am catering to the entire spectrum.

Soon, I plan to start a new brand called Hair Yoga where I am hoping to formalise the Indian champi. If the Thai massage can go global, why can't the champi?

The idea is to take small areas and specialise in them. Expresso for instance is growing at a fast pace because it needs small investments offers basic services and yields quicker returns.

We've now also expanded internationally and have branches in Singapore, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman and London.

Eventually, we hope to set up 5,000 salons in India itself. The number may look daunting but think of it again.

There are some 672 districts in India. Across these districts, there could well be close to two lakh individual salons and beauty parlours. If I could convince even a miniscule proportion of them to join us, how long would it take to build reach that figure?

I travel a great deal every week to set up branches, explore newer opportunities etc. We're hoping to get into licensing products under the Jawed Habib brand soon. But there's one thing I've never stopped doing -- cutting hair.

Once every week, I visit my Khan Market salon and do what I started out doing because this is where my I learn the changing trends. My clients are my R&D. However large my business gets, I cannot afford to forget what I really do for a living.

As told to Abhishek Mande Bhot