Women Of Worth 2015

Makeover queen

From being a naive teenaged hairstylist to B:Blunt's big boss, Adhuna Akhtar has trimmed all the obstacles along her path

A decade ago, hairstyling meant spending hours figuring out a neat haircut for yourself, going to your friendly, neighbourhood ‘parlour’ and asking the hairdresser to follow your instructions. Cut to today, when I walk into B:Blunt, a salon in the tony south Mumbai locality of Kemps Corner. The hairdresser at the minimalistic outlet greets me with a friendly smile, seats me on a high chair and gets to work. Minutes later, I have an edgy yet extremely flattering haircut, without having to intervene or interrupt the hairdresser’s work. This flawless process is thanks to the salon chain’s founder Adhuna Akhtar, given that her focus from the time her first salon opened in 2004 has been to provide a great experience to the consumer.

Now 48 years old, Akhtar has come a long way from being a 14-year-old apprentice hairdresser in the UK. Prompt her to talk about how her passion for hairdressing kicked off and Akhtar says, “It all started in England, when I was in school. I used to go to various salons with my mother during the holidays.” Born and brought up in the UK, that is also where Akhtar honed her fashion skills till she was 25. She had debuted much earlier as a teenager. 

“I remember the first time I got paid, back in ’92 — my salary was just £25 a week — at a salon in England, where I worked at that time. But I got my first break at 17, when I was awarded the junior champion award for hairdressing at a national competition. The euphoric feeling that award left me with made me realise that I have chosen the right profession for myself and I decided to strive harder to become the best in my field.”

At this point, Akhtar decided to move to India along with her brother Osh Bhabani with the sole motive of becoming a name to reckon with in the world of hairstyling. However, it was not that easy to break into a new market. Akhtar persevered and worked as a freelancer at salons. She worked as a guest stylist at the Oberoi Hotel in Mumbai and joined L’Oréal Professionnel in 1996. The experience she amassed over these years led to her and Bhabani opening a salon named Juice in 1998. “Initially, the whole thing was a struggle. But we decided that we needed our own set-up. Things started working out and soon, Avan [Contractor] joined us at Juice,” she says. Contractor is a reputed name in the hairstyling business and has worked with many famous names in the film industry. 

Long time coming 

Together, Akhtar and Contractor worked on the coming-of-age hit Dil Chahta Hai — directed by her husband Farhan Akhtar — in 2001 as hairstylists, which was also the first time the duo got recognition for their work in a film production, complete with their names being a part of the end credits. This was Akhtar’s first big break in the Hindi film industry, and it got her noticed. “My work did get noticed when I got the chance to style for Dil Chahta Hai. It felt amazing to be recognised and the project was a good all-round experience,” she says. While Akhtar concedes that many factors are responsible for her success in the industry, she says it took a lot determination and commitment on her own part to make things happen. “I think I can safely say that it was my hard work and my craft that led me to where I am in life. Of course, there are many other people who also contributed to the process but we really need to be able to give credit to ourselves.”

Learning from the mistakes and successes that they encountered at Juice, Akhtar and Bhabani set up B:Blunt [B stands for Bhabani] in 2004. “Osh said he wanted to cash in on my talent and, honestly, we make a great team, so we set up a business together.” When asked how difficult it was putting together B:Blunt, Akhtar explains, “Entrepreneurship always takes a lot of effort. Renting a property, handling other people — all these small details take up a lot of time. We managed by separating and demarcating our roles and responsibilities. Osh and I decided that I would take care of training and the creative side of things and he would handle logistics. Everything worked out that way.”

As for her own training and education in the art of hairstyling, Akhtar learned the ropes early on in life from an acclaimed hairstylist in England called Tony Connell. “Connell used to handle nearly 15-20 clients a day and was a very busy stylist but he still shared many tips and tricks of the art with me.” Apart from Connell, another person Akhtar credits for her success is her mother. “Being a professional guidance counsellor, my mum is very balanced and down to earth. She lives far away from us and yet always gives us the right advice. She has always allowed us to do whatever we want and never imposed her choices on us. Although we were the first generation in the family to try our hand at a business, we had full support from our family.”

Akhtar’s experience of moving to India was also no less than unique. “I realised that people here were apprehensive about cutting their long hair and experimenting with different hairstyles. India is a land known for beautiful, long tresses and nobody wanted to do something out-of-the-box. So, initially, we faced a lot of resistance. But, over the years, we learnt how to approach people and we always tried something new for our customers in terms of style.” 

Changing crop

When it comes to personal transformation, haircuts feature at the top of the list and the right hairstyle can often make or break your mood. After all, as Coco Chanel famously said, ‘A woman who cuts her hair is about to change her life.’ Akhtar says she keeps this firmly in mind when customers new and old walk in through the doors of her salons. This is also why she pays a lot of attention in training and grooming her own set of salon professionals, giving them key insights into how to approach and deal with choosy customers. In fact, she credits her success so far to the group of people she has worked with.

“Managing your team is a difficult task. There are small things that need to be taken care of. I have been lucky to have worked with people who shared my passion, so training them has always been a fun experience.” Of course, being a woman entrepreneur in a country like India can be quite a rocky road at times. Even if it was a bumpy ride for Akhtar initially, she says women entrepreneurs don’t face a lot of trouble in her field. “Although we did face a few limitations such as finding the right people to work with and building a customer base, I was blessed that I never faced discrimination. The positive side of being in the beauty and wellness business is that you always share work space with both men and women belonging to different cultures, and this in fact enhances your creativity.” 

Akhtar explains that another reason the hairstyling field is so egalitarian is because running a salon business is not limited to any one gender — there is no stigma attached to it either way. Both men and women stylists who are equally talented have made a mark on their own in this space. “This profession runs purely on the basis of talent. If customers trust you enough, they will keep coming back to you.” Despite being the most sought-after hairstylist in the industry, Akhtar says she manages to shell out time for herself and her family. 

Akhtar does her best to get some me-time. “I make sure that I take time off work and spend some quality time with my family. Irrespective of how busy you are, you should always take time out for yourself to unwind.” She is fond of horse riding, painting and sketching, but most of all loves spending time with her kids. “That’s a real stress-buster,” she says. 

The big inflection point for the chain came when Godrej Consumer Products bought a 30% stake in B:Blunt. Godrej perceived an opportunity to offer a ‘mass premium’ brand through the salon chain. Currently, B:Blunt has 17 outlets: 16 across India and one in Dubai. As far as competition from local and international brands is concerned, Akhtar is not too worried about it. “We tend to concentrate on ourselves and don’t worry too much about the competition. If you look at other countries around the world, India has a long way to go before we are anywhere near saturation in terms of salons.” The price of a haircut in the salon starts from ₹900 and goes up to ₹3,100, unless the customers want their hair styled by the creative director herself. 

When asked about her next big move, she quips, “If I tell you, I might just have to kill you.” Despite a strong foothold in the market, Akhtar still has both feet fixed firmly on the ground. “One has to keep striving to learn new things and work hard. After all, you are just as good as your last haircut,” Akhtar trails off.