A Cut Above’s Winnie Loo had an eventful journey as a hairstylist, but there was more to come for the hairstylist-turned-entrepreneur, as she soon discovered. She tells KINIBIZ about her experiences and the plans she has for her business.
In our previous article, A Cut Above founder and group chief creative director Winnie Loo shared the stories of her struggles in her early days as a hairstylist, including parental opposition towards her choice of career and later, vicious politicking in the workplace.
But her challenges didn’t stop there, in fact, they only increased when she entered the business world in 1979 with her first A Cut Above hair salon. As a matter of fact, she had many decisions to make in her subsequent years in business, including some painful ones.
“In my 36 years in business I have seen a lot,” said the diminutive Loo. Among the difficult decisions she has had to make was to close outlets, due to being played out by dishonest staff members.
“In the past I trusted people too much. I trusted outlet managers in the past who stole data, which forced me to close some outlets. The lesson I learned from this is not to trust people who are pretentious. You need to learn to be able to identify these people,” she advised.
Another mistake she made was listening to naysayers. She said: “In 1997, I was mulling opening an outlet in Suria KLCC mall. But I listened to people who told me that it was bad timing and that the outlet would not survive. My lesson from that is to always listen to your inner voice, the heart never fails you.”
The teething problems she faced in running and expanding her business didn’t daunt her, however. “If you do business, you can’t be fearful. You need to soar above the storm, a good businessman doesn’t allow staff or individuals to bring him down. No one can kill a brand just like that,” she said.
Her determination has not let her down. Today there are five A Cut Above hair salons, seven X-Cut hair salons, four Restyle, and one Restyle+ hair salons, as well as the world-renowned A Cut Above Academy, a training academy for up-and-coming hairstylists.
Going forward, Loo plans to ride the green movement, to be able to feed into a new era, as she calls it. For instance, the brand Restyle+ follows the Aveda concept of going green by offering environmentally-friendly products. Aveda is an American line of eco-friendly haircare products which are currently available at the Restyle+ outlet in Nu Sentral.
When asked how much revenue A Cut Above group makes a year, Loo answered a little hesitantly that its revenue is in the RM30 million range. She declined, however, to share more financial numbers, citing competitive reasons.
She acknowledged that the industry today is highly competitive. “Rental is expensive, clients are smarter today they know what they want and they can use social media to try and frighten you,” she said.
On her expansion plans for the group, Loo said quite frankly that for this year, with the uncertainties of the global markets and the goods and services tax (GST), she doesn’t intend to expand A Cut Above further just yet.
“We will still grow Restyle and second-line brands and are currently looking for a new location for the next Restyle+ outlet. So we are not testing the waters this year, we don’t want to be everywhere, we don’t have to be in every place,” she said.
She appeared unconcerned about GST, however. “GST is something people will forget very soon. People will have to learn to accept GST, the country wants to implement it so they have no choice,” she said.
Loo is also behind the School of Charisma, which she co-founded with branding expert and fellow entrepreneur, Steve Wee, and communications specialist, Wong Chui Ling. The training centre essentially focuses on training related to personal branding and etiquette and is her first non-hairstyling-related venture.
“I have given talks to SMEs (small and medium enterprises), have spoken at business forums — there’s more to me and my life than just cutting hair,” said Loo.
She also has a published autobiography chronicling her experiences as a hairstylist and an entrepreneur, titled ‘A Cut Above: Built On Hard Work, True Grit And A Pair Of Scissors’. Loo shared that she has started work on her second book but remained mysterious on what it is about.
Besides that, Loo has numerous awards to her name. In 2010, Ernst & Young (E&Y) named her the Woman Entrepreneur of the Year and in 2013, Women In Leadership Forum Asia presented her the Most Innovative Woman Entrepreneur award. She also won the Grand Masterbrand Laureate award in January 2014.
She shared that she is grateful to have won the E&Y award. “I feel fortunate that through the E&Y awards, I had the opportunity to meet the world’s best. It was then that I realised that no dream is too big, you just have to just make it happen.”
This year, she has been nominated for the Star Brand award, a new BrandLaureate award. “It’s always good to work hard and to get something unexpected in return,” she said.
She has kept this attitude despite some challenges throughout the years. 2013 was an especially tough year. It was the year which Loo was hit by a car in the basement of a shopping complex in Subang Jaya. She sustained injuries to her left eye, nose, and cheekbones but was back at work as soon as she had fully recovered from her injuries.
The same year, Loo was embroiled in a social media controversy when an irate customer started a Facebook page to boycott A Cut Above, after Loo’s daughter – Hazel allegedly threatened the customer after reading her criticisms towards A Cut Above on a Facebook page. The problem was eventually resolved after Loo’s daughter apologised to the customer and the customer also apologised to Loo and her family.
What is her advice to business owners dealing with social media?
“Be firm. A lot of people use social media to try and gain advantage over you if you are not firm. If you know you are in the right, then go through it (the situation). If it makes your client feel better, then go through it,” she said.
“If the problem can be solved in an amicable way, then go for it. Unless you’re dealing with a rascal, then do it the rascal way,” she laughed.
What kind of habits or mindset does she recommend that new entrepreneurs adopt?
“I have sustained the business for this long because I have been very driven, determined, and focused. You need a balance, I have always been an all-rounder. Health is important, and a person needs to be mindful of everything. Relationship-building skills are important, you need to build good public relations with your team.”
Succession planning is also important. “It’s important to realise that the business is not about me the business owner, it’s about teamwork. I can take a long break and know that the business will not falter if I am not around. Can’t do it thinking it’s about you, it’s about the people,” she emphasised.
When asked if she has any final advice to entrepreneurs, Loo said: “I believe in the quote by Richard Branson: ‘If your dreams don’t scare you, then they are too small’. If I hadn’t dreamt big enough, I would still be a hairdresser.”
Yesterday: A blast into the past