It's like a fish market," says Jawed Habib, fondly surveying the Sunday-afternoon hubbub of his South New Delhi hair salon, one of 12 he runs in the Indian capital alone. Heaving with stylists wearing bold red-and-black shirts emblazoned with JAWED HABIB PRO TEAM, the salon calls to mind less the chaos of a fish market than the disciplined efficiency of a well-run kitchen. His golden quiff defying gravity, the 46-year-old Habib serves as both head chef and maître d', helping a matron into her chair, judging the angle of a junior stylist's cut, checking the helmet of sludgy green henna drying on an elderly gentleman's hair and mustache.
Habib's salons aren't India's poshest, but that's not the point. Over the past decade, the New Delhi native has brought branded hairstyling to a country where millions still get their hair trimmed by mummy-ji in the bathroom or by barbers whose salons consist of a tree trunk with a mirror tacked onto it. Habib has helped convince middle India that hair is not just something that grows on your head but a market waiting to be primped and tugged at. "People used to think hair care was a low-grade profession, with no future," he says. "I showed them that it's both a science and a business."
India's burgeoning middle class has responded with cheerful readiness, spending freely on personal products and services an industry that McKinsey forecasts will grow 9% annually over the next 15 years. Habib claims his empire grew 1,000% last year. There are now 155 Jawed Habib salons and 42 training academies across Asia, from Malaysia to Nepal and beyond. Like Tata's celebrated Nano, the $2,500 "people's car" launched last year, Habib's services are aimed at those who, perhaps for the first time, are enjoying a modicum of disposable income. In 2009 he launched Hair Espresso outlets, offering cuts for a little more than $2. Costs are low, turnover high: a three-chair outlet in Mumbai recently churned out 186 cuts in one day. This month, Habib will launch hair-care products for direct sale on TV, "so that customers in Canada and the U.S. can buy them," in addition to clients of his academies in Mauritius, Singapore and Kenya. "If Indian doctors and IT experts are so popular throughout the world, why not Indian hairdressers?" he asks. "It's our turn to capture the glow."
Habib's ancestors were working with Indian hair since before the subcontinent's independence. His grandfather was barber to both the last British viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, and Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister, and Habib's father cut hair too. But Habib's vision is broader. He wants his business to become the Walmart of hair care.
Over the past two years, he has targeted India's smaller cities and towns, where the explosion of satellite television, with its constant diet of ads and Bollywood, has fueled the hairstyling market. "In Delhi, people will just come to my salon asking for a cut that suits them," he says. "In Aligarh, they'll come asking to look like [Bollywood superstar] Shah Rukh Khan." The approach chimes with the findings of The Dhoni Effect, a 2008 report from consultants Ernst & Young. Named after Indian cricket captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni, a small-town boy made great, the report found that India's provincial consumers were increasing in importance, thanks to growing aspirations and incomes. "Earlier, it was just Bombay and Delhi, but since 2004 we've been seeing the rise of Tier 2 India," says Ashok Rajgopal, a partner in Ernst & Young's business-advisory services.
The question for Habib, as for other Indian entrepreneurs, is whether they can parlay national success into global presence. Rajgopal sees Habib's drive to expand in Europe, the Persian Gulf and Africa as "a little bombastic." India's success as an IT and outsourcing powerhouse doesn't necessarily mean its hairdressers can go global too. "He might do well in Tier 2 India," Rajgopal says, "but it's very difficult to succeed internationally. It's not as though India was a leader in fashion and hair." But Habib remains undaunted. "Someday," he counters, "I'm going to set up a salon on the moon." For some entrepreneurs, going global isn't enough.