She has won numerous awards and is the founder and owner of a multi-million ringgit hairstyling business. Yet few people remember that Winnie Loo, synonymous with the A Cut Above hair salons, struggled her way to the top. KINIBIZ has her story.
At 58, Winnie Loo looks at least 10 years younger. She moves with the air and grace of a much younger woman and her smile lights up her entire face when she greets you. Such is the first impression that she gives.
When she starts speaking, she comes across as likeable and amiable, with a quiet dignity expected of someone in her position. However, when she started out as a hairstylist, her likeability was unappreciated by her peers and some of her clients.
After graduating with Diploma in Comprehensive Hairdressing from London’s Morris, Sassoon, Alan International (affiliated to the British Federation of Hairdressing Council), the Ipoh-born Loo began working in a salon in London.
She was barely 20 then, but her petite stature and friendly demeanour were not appreciated by the salon customers, who treated her as a rookie and refused to have her cutting their hair. So she ended up doing menial tasks in the salon, except cutting hair, which was what she dreamed of doing.
She tried working at two more salons in London, but faced similar problems. “In the UK (United Kingdom), I was perceived as less than capable. But I wanted to be famous in Asia and rather achieve that than be just a stylist in a salon in the UK,” she recalled.
Undaunted by her experiences, she decided to try her luck in Singapore. She got hired as a hairstylist for a salon inside a hotel, with six other hairstylists as her colleagues.
“I stood out compared to my colleagues, I looked and spoke differently from them, they initially liked me but later became jealous. My boss decided to take their side when she realised that they had ganged up against me,” she said.
Things went downhill from there for her.
Her boss kept trying to get her to leave. One incident stood out in her mind. “I was a little upset my boss wouldn’t let me go on leave a little earlier so I could go home home for Chinese New Year. I ended up arriving home at 4pm the first day of Chinese New Year. When I got back to work, my boss didn’t give me a token ang pow as per Chinese tradition,” Loo said, adding that that was the last straw for her, causing her to quit her job.
“The lesson I learned from this is that you may want to take care of the new without overlooking the old. I strongly believe that in business, you must have a balance between the old and new, even if you have to chop down all the old trees to save one new tree,” she emphasised.
Her challenges didn’t begin there. In fact, her parents were opposed to the idea of her pursuing a career in hairstyling. “At 14 or 15, I saw an advertisement in the newspaper for a UK professional hairdressing course, but my dad wouldn’t allow me to pursue the course at that age.”
“So I came down to KL and enrolled in Stamford College’s London Chamber of Commerce Diploma in Business Studies,” she said, adding that to her dad, hairstyling was just a hobby to her and not something she could end up doing for a living.
Her late father, Loo Yew Poh, ran a successful tin mining business and three iron foundries in Ipoh. Being rather old-fashioned, he didn’t think that hairstyling was a suitable career for her.
Upon completing her diploma, Loo was all set to pursue her business degree in New Zealand. However, she overlooked an English language entrance exam that she needed to sit for in order to enroll in her degree programme, and the result was deferred by a year. “I was very disappointed at the time,” she recalled.
“But I believe in destiny and fate. I asked my dad permission to pursue a nine-month hairdressing course in the UK. I ended up pursuing a full course for two years,” she said.
How did she get interested in hairstyling in the first place?
“My interest in hairstyling started in childhood. I’m the second youngest of eight children, my older siblings used to go to the salon to do their hair and I used to tag along with them. My older brother’s then-girlfriend was a hairdresser, so I had perms and curls at a young age. I found the different shapes and textures of hair interesting,” she explained.
After working in Singapore and the UK, why did she decide to return to Malaysia?
“I believe in values and am very attached to my family,” she said.
So she headed back to Malaysia in 1977 and began working in a hair salon in Kuala Lumpur. Reflecting on her tormentors while she was working abroad she said that she felt thankful for them. “I became a very strong person because of them and my likeability as a person increased as a result.”
It was when Loo was working at the hair salon that she met a customer who wanted to start a hair salon with her. They started out with a capital of RM20,000 each to open the first A Cut Above salon. It was 428 square feet and located in Wisma HLA (formerly Wisma MPI). It was May 1979 and she was but 23 years old then.
“I was in a partnership for a very short time, my partner asked me to buy her share of the business as she wanted to focus on her family business. With the support of my then-boyfriend (now husband and business partner) Richard Teo, we forked out the money and managed to keep the salon running,” Loo explained. Loo took care of the creative side of the business, while Teo’s expertise was in marketing and business development.
“I believe when opportunity knocks on your door you should take it,” she said of her foray into entrepreneurship.
In our next article, Winnie Loo talks about how she expanded her hairstyling business and her plans for the business.
Tomorrow: More to life than cutting hair