By Lubna Hamdan
The founder of salon concepts including the exclusive 1847, Negin Fattahi Dasmal claims to have set the standard for the UAE beauty industry. The perfectionist details how she did it
“I don’t enjoy getting my nails or hair done at all,” says the founder and chief executive of The Grooming Company, Negin Fattahi Dasmal.
“It becomes a chore. You have to have breakfast when you wake up. You have to brush your teeth. You have to get your nails done. You have to do your hair. And you don’t have time and you have to make time for it. Sometimes you will literally hear me say, ‘Oh my God, I have to get a blow dry,” Dasmal continues.
But the Iranian-born Emirati does not feel the same about managing her business, which holds under its name the ladies’ nail salon NBar, hair salon JetSet and men’s grooming lounge 1847.
Having developed a passion for entrepreneurship while working in the marketing department of her family’s furniture giant Bafco, Dasmal spotted a gap in the UAE market in the late 1990s for high-end salons with mid-range pricing.
“It was a fact that in those days in this market, you either had very low-end service at very reasonable prices - and that is what a lot of people chose to go for - or very high-end, costly services at five-star hotels,” she says.
With no intention of borrowing capital from family and no investment of her own, Dasmal applied for a bank loan worth AED1 million ($272,000) under a scheme run by Emirates National Bank of Dubai (then Emirates Bank International) to provide finance to young nationals. Despite what she calls a “gruelling” and “horrific” application process, her business plan was granted the approval stamp. Less than a year later, the first NBar was born.
Fast forward 17 years and The Grooming Company now has a total of 18 stores across the three concepts, plus a franchise in Tehran and plans to expand in the GCC and beyond.
But Dasmal insists her success does not lie solely in launching salons. She claims to have set the benchmark for doing business in the beauty and grooming industry, starting with sterilised tools ordered from medical suppliers. Sterilised tools are now mandatory in beauty salons throughout the UAE.
“I wanted to [create] the most hygienic nail bar. [The start] was the sterilisation process; we sanitised then sterilised every single tool. I decided that everything should be ultra-hygienic and that I wanted [the salon] to be comparable to [medical] clinics,” Dasmal says.
“I just remembered all of a sudden how dentists use all their tools only when they come out of a sterilised patch and it was a disposable patch, a onetime use only. So I contacted a dental supplier that supplied products to dental clinics. And in fact, they were not readily available here in the UAE. I had to order them from a medical supplier in the US.
“Sixteen years ago, no one was doing that. Even in the 5-star hotels, where salons would charge you AED250 for a manicure at that time, they would never have one-time use disposable nail files.
“All the different initiatives that I started, the ways, the methods … they were what determined what everyone did afterwards; they become ‘the way’. You open a nail place, this is what you have to do.”
Dasmal is happy to take credit for the current health standards across the UAE beauty industry.
“What is really, really interesting is that these measures, it felt like they just suddenly awoke or triggered this response in the Dubai municipality. They did not have these standards and today’s standards for Dubai municipality are 180-degrees different to what they were when we started,” she says.
“Those little details that I started with and that people copied became the benchmark for how you do business. [Now] you get slapped with a big fine if you don’t follow them.
“I think that is one of the biggest testaments to how we do what we do. It’s a big compliment for me personally because I know I was the one who started it. It was my thoughts and my actions.
“I saw the - we call them copycats - the competitors starting to do the same thing. And now we get the municipality giving us a list of the way we should run the stores and it’s really funny. They keep changing and updating, but we do all of them already. There’s nothing that the municipality asks that we have to adjust. Maybe one thing over the years.”
Brandishing her competitors as “copycats”, Dasmal says she feels little threat from her opposition, mainly because she believes her business was the first of its kind.
“We don’t really feel threatened by competition, because we were the first and that’s thankfully one of the things time can’t change and people can’t claim otherwise because it’s a fact. I think the better they do, the more opportunities there are for us. It’s a way of keeping us on our toes,” she says.
But the beauty mogul is doing much more than keeping up with competition. By May 2017, The Grooming Company expects to have added another two salons in Dubai, taking the total to 21, as well as opening a branch of 1847 in Abu Dhabi.
Despite NBar and JetSet accounting for a large chunk of the company’s revenues, the men’s grooming lounge is the company’s strongest brand. Having launched in 2004, the concept was the first in the region to offer men every salon and spa treatment, from a traditional shave to an ‘executive manicure’.
“We really get a lot of franchising inquiries about 1847,” Dasmal says. “Women will go to other nail places in Abu Dhabi because they need to [due to convenience]. But with men, it’s different.
“We have clients who come [to Dubai] from Abu Dhabi just to come to 1847 and then they do a couple of things while they’re here and then they go back. They don’t come to do a few things and pop into 1847. They come from Abu Dhabi to Dubai with a very specific purpose of coming to 1847.”
She is also looking to expand 1847 beyond the UAE.
“We’re looking at outside the UAE, perhaps the GCC, but maybe not entirely. We’re going to be very picky about where in the GCC we exhaust our energy. It would have to be one of the more liberal places. Doha is one of them - it tends to be cool on many levels. Kuwait maybe. They’re very style conscious, very image conscious,” she says.
“We get requests from the region and beyond. Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi, Bahrain and even India and Turkey.”
But the next step may actually be a hop – across the oceans to Europe and North America, where Dasmal says “there is a gap 100 percent”.
“I’m objective. There are some fantastic hair salons, hair concepts abroad, outside of what we do. But nails, I’ve yet to see a really well-executed brand. And the same thing goes for male grooming in Europe,” she says.
The company’s expansion is actually behind schedule. Dasmal says if she had not been forced to slow down in 2012 due to ill health, The Grooming Company would be double its size already.
“Had we not had the setback, we should have had by now easily 35, 40 locations - outside of the UAE as well,” she says.
“Over the years we had to close a few stores because I was at a time when I was not overseeing the business personally myself, as the visionary, as the person who founded the business and who knew every little thing about it.
“It’s probably well known that the company went through a difficult time when I wasn’t there. That’s not something that I want to hide, because it was also known that when I was there, it was so successful and became so big. So the absence of the person, the visionary or whatever you want to call it, was very much felt.”
Despite setbacks, The Grooming Company saw double-digit growth across three of its brands in the face of a slowing economy and sinking oil prices, with some of its locations having witnessed 25 percent growth in revenue since 2015.
While Dasmal concedes people are spending less, she claims it has not critically affected the business.
“People still love to get their nails done, that doesn’t change. People still love to look good,” she says.
It would not be the first time the firm saw growth in dire economic conditions. Dasmal says the company experienced two of its best years during the recession of 2008-2009.
“It surprised us at first, because everybody was ready for some bad times. But I think we’re very lucky because what we do, in a very cliché way, feeds your soul,” she says. “So, when things are not going great, when it’s all dooms day out there and everybody’s just down and things aren’t going the way you hope, I think this is like an escape for people, whether it’s man or woman, whether it’s getting your nails done or your hair done. That’s the reason it worked.”
Had Dasmal started her business in Tehran, she does not believe she would have had the same success.
“Iran is a very difficult market. It’s one of those Saudi-type of markets where there is tremendous potential, but it is extremely difficult to run. There are a lot of restrictions to set up and maintain and run and just to operate a business there, especially in the beauty and women sector,” she says.
“You can’t have foreign workers so easily, whereas here we have people from the Philippines, Indian ladies who specialise in waxing. [In Iran], we have to hire Iranian women to do the services. [Also] beauty and grooming are almost frowned upon by the government; beauty goes against a lot of their principles.”
Regardless of challenges, the company still receives requests from Iranians for the franchise rights. But the 40-year-old founder stands by her decision to abstain from operating independently in Iran.
“I’m a true Iranian at heart. I visit Iran very often and I have done so throughout the years, but I would’ve never dared open a location in Tehran by myself, because it’s very difficult and it’s one of those markets where you want to be on top of it whether you’re a franchisee or the brand itself. It’s not easy in any business but specifically in ours where standards, hygiene, all those factors are so much more difficult to maintain outside of where you are,” she says.
“So when the franchisees came to us, it felt like it was a calling.”
With a franchise to supervise in another country, 18 to operate in the UAE and three to oversee in the pipeline, Dasmal has a lot on her plate. The secret to her attainment, she says, lies in loving what she does.
“You have to really love what you do, as cliché as it sounds. And it goes back to this one quote, ‘Love what you do and you’ll never have to work a day in your life’. It really resonates well with me because I never felt that I worked. I’m just doing something that I think I’m really good at and that I love,” she says.
“It’s been hard, it’s been difficult but it’s never felt like, ‘Oh I have to get up and go to work’. Maybe I’m very fortunate because it’s something that belongs to me. It’s my legacy. It’s something I started and I created. And it turned into something very successful and big, relatively. So that probably makes it a lot easier to love what you do.”
But meeting the mother of four it is obvious her success is also influenced by perseverance and vision. As she walks into the new VIP suite at 1847, the self-proclaimed perfectionist juggles rearranging the furniture, contacting designers and changing the background music.
Seventeen years after launching The Grooming Company, this is still one woman with plenty of energy.