They Call Him Mr Fantastic

But what does make Alan Austin-Smith so special?

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I’m sceptical when it comes to hairdressers claiming to have a ‘new concept in salon experience’ or using ‘the very latest techniques’. The last time I was suckered into believing either of those phrases was many years ago when my mother fell in love with Lady Di. Actually it was Diana’s hairdo that she really liked and, since I was the only blonde amongst her daughters, it was down to me to fulfil my mother’s desire to have a look-a-like in the home. “But Carolyn has all the latest techniques at the salon,” she argued when I point blank refused to have my hair done in that particular style. Of course I had my hair cut just like Lady Di’s, sure it looked awful on an 11 year old and took a very long time to grow out, even longer to forget the horror.

So I’m not adventurous when it comes to my hair. My friend Grace has been cutting it for as long as I can remember so - and this is the reason I’m telling you this - when I was asked to try out the new hairdresser in town, Fantastic Hair, I didn’t jump at the chance. I decided instead to barter a deal in which I got a wash and blow dry in return for an interview with the founder Alan Austin-Smith which I suppose could be looked at as a form of insurance.

Originally a hairdresser, Alan put away his scissors in 1970 and left Vidal Sassoon to join L’Oreal. Over the next decade or so he concentrated on climbing the career ladder until reaching the heady heights of Business Sales Manager. He worked out that the more successful the salon, the more products L’Oreal were able to sell to them so they began concentrating on making the salon successful, training the owners and the staff.

Eventually he decided to do what he did best for himself and set up his own business education company travelling the globe sharing his knowledge with the hairdressing industry.

“The hair industry is similar to the restaurant industry,” says Alan. “It’s one of the few other industries where the customers come into direct contact with the creative talent only in a restaurant the chef stays in the kitchen!”

“A chef in a restaurant can be good at cooking but that doesn’t mean that they’re good at running a business,” he added. “There is the same failure rate between hairdressers and restaurants which is around two years.”

Alan teaches business skills, marketing, customer service, standards and his favourite saying ‘Price Match Experience’. “It’s not good enough simply to be a good hairdresser anymore.”

Speaking about his new High Road premises, Alan said, “Many of our clients have been asking for an academy environment especially the international ones so I’ve been looking out for a place for around three years now. I travel a lot but I live in Chiswick so I don’t want to have to travel far when I’m at home. I had my eye on this building for the past few years. It came up and now we got it.”

That explains the academy, but why the salon?

“The salon is all because of that wall”, he points to a large concrete structure that divides the interior. “We couldn’t do anything with the wall because it’s the staircase leading to the flats above so we were left with a space that needed something in it. So we thought we teach others how to be the best salons across the world, why not put our money where our mouth and open our own?”

“It’s sort of a shop window where we practice what we preach although it’s important to stress that hairdressers here are fully qualified, experienced professionals. They know how to do hair well; it’s the other 50% they’ve learnt from me.”

“The 50% rule applies to any job – good is good until you hear fantastic. We say we’re fantastic so we’ve got to be that - not believe, not want, but have to be.”

His concepts can be translated into other industries. “We do around 20% of our business outside the industry with companies as diverse as Warner Music, Guinness and City West Homes. The housing association came about because the woman in charge was asked to improve customer service at the organisation. She thought about where she received the best customer service which turned out to be at her hairdressers which in turn transpired to be clients of mine.”

Alan lives in Chiswick and is married to Annie who owns Grove Park’s Personal Best. He is the author of three books, The Fantastic Hairdresser, The Fantastic Boss and The Fantastic Salon. These can be bought from the Fantastic website website where details of courses can also be found.

Emma Brophy

June 24, 2009