How do you build a business that will last decades? Nargis Manji who has kept her salon business alive for 44 years has mastered how to retain good employees, never stop learning, and the right time to move a business to another location.
From a young age, Ms Manji says she knew her passion was hairdressing.
“When I was 14 years, my mum saw me do a friend’s hair. She encouraged me to do her hair and makeup every Saturday,” she says during an interview at her salon in Nairobi’s Sarit Centre.
Having known her career path early, she enrolled in a hair and beauty course at the Alan International Hairdressing School in London, the UK to fine-tune her skills.
“I went to London in 1973. After finishing my training, I worked at a salon in London. After six months, I was promoted to be the salon manager which was quite an achievement for me because I was the only Asian working with all British hairdressers and beauty therapists,” she says.
After four years, she came back to Kenya to set up her salon in 1978, after being nudged that Kenya offered better prospects than the UK or Canada.
Salon Narcisse started small, in a block of flats behind a petrol station. With a ready clientele of Kenyans and expatriates looking for a beautician with the know-how of making Caucasian hair, customers seeking high-quality nail art in a period when there were few nail technologists, professional barber services, and afro-hair stylists, Ms Manji’s business grew year after year.
“My husband and my father-in-law helped me do all the electrical wiring in my first salon. We painted the walls by ourselves,” she says.
“The first chair was from our Peugeot car. It was worn out but we re-cushioned it and put it up on a stand, ready for customers. After six years, I moved the business to the main road on Nairobi’s Mpaka Road and opened a proper salon and a beauty section,” she adds.
Few solo businesses stay strong for over four decades, but hers has stood the test of time and competition.
So far, Ms Manji says, she has invested Sh10 million into the business.
“I didn’t have a penny on me when I started. I think my first salon must have cost me a maximum of about Sh35,000 to Sh40,000,” she says.
Changing locations is a strategic move that many entrepreneurs fail to master. To court more clients, she moved her business again to Sarit Centre, a shopping mall that has adapted to changing lifestyles of Kenyans and now attracts thousands of people in a week.
Those who spend a day shopping or enjoying the cafes get to visit her salon or notice it. Her prices range from Sh1,500 for blow-drying hair to Sh4,500 for braiding hair.
“We get a lot of new clients through word-of-mouth, Google, and through Sarit Centre’s advertising,” she says, adding that some of her clients are third-generation.
She has employed over 20 workers; 11 hairdressers, six nail technicians, four shampoo girls, one receptionist, and a manager. Some of the employees, she says, have worked with her for about 15 to 24 years, which is uncommon because the downfall of most salon businesses is retaining talent.
In a market with new salons opening almost monthly, the stylists hop from salon to salon. Keeping professionals happy to work for you is every entrepreneur’s headache.
“I have trained some of my staff. I sent them to Revlon School. They were street children. [About 15 of them] I trained them, paid for their college fees and they are now working for me. I also helped set up kiosks for their parents,” Ms Manji says.
She imports some of the products from the US such as nail and gel polishes. She also distributes them to other salons.
“But I also buy some colours locally from two or three Italian companies that have offices in Nairobi. A lot of my afro products are from L’Oreal. I must approve every product used to maintain the standards as the salon is in a hypermarket,” she adds.
Succession in business is another headache for entrepreneurs. None of Ms Manji’s children is so far interested in managing the business.
“I run the business on my own. None of my children are interested in taking over. They give me advice, ‘mum do this, mum does that," she says.
Since the 1980s, Kenya’s beauty industry has morphed with new products and spaces coming up. To keep herself abreast, she is studying for an advanced diploma in hair and beauty in England whilst learning new techniques on the internet.
“Hair and beauty is a kind of profession where you are never old to learn. I'm constantly learning. That is how I progress. I would tell the young hairdressers; don't think that just because you've done college training, learning is over. Constantly learn from other hairdressers or nail technicians by watching them. You are never old for this profession.”
On expanding, she says, she is content with focusing on one branch.
The cutthroat salon industry and the rising cost of imported products have edged some entrepreneurs out of business. How has she stayed resilient?
“When I started, my salon was the fourth in Westlands. Today, there are well over 50 salons in the same location. Competition is very stiff but my staff is very well-skilled and we have our fair share of our clients,” she says.