Business Class with Negin Fattahi Dasmal

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Photo: Courtesy of Negin Fattahi-Dasmal

Negin Fattahi-Dasmal, founder of Dubai’s The Grooming Company, talks to Savoir Flair about career, ambition, and challenges.

Talk us through your background. What is the back story of the creation of The Grooming Company?
I grew up in Dubai. My parents left Iran just before the revolution, thinking it would be just a temporary move, but, as it turns out, it wasn’t temporary; it was very much permanent. I left Dubai after high school to pursue my education in Los Angeles and then transferred to London for a year to be closer to my family, before returning to L.A. to complete my degree. I came back to Dubai after my studies and worked in the family business for a while.

I never dreamed of being a doctor or an architect. I’ve always known I would create a business, as I’ve always been extremely entrepreneurial; I think about everything in terms of a business model. I am also naturally marketing-minded; this was my major at university. So putting together my two passions, business and marketing, helped me create these incredible brands.

I never dreamed of being a doctor or an architect. I’ve always known I would create a business, as I’ve always been extremely entrepreneurial; I think about everything in terms of a business model.

How did N.Bar come to be?
Obviously, the nail bar concept wasn’t something new. It had existed for decades in other parts of the world, particularly in the U.S., but there was nothing like it in the region. I wanted to reinvent the concept and create a brand-new experience for women in Dubai.

Having spent much of my life in the States, when I moved back to Dubai it was frustrating that I wasn’t able to experience the typical nail bars I would find in L.A. Clients here were used to receiving quite low-end treatments; a very basic manicure, polish, and a service that wasn’t very clean but reasonably cheap. If you wanted something a little bit more refined, you had to pay a lot more to go to the high-end spas and hotels. I quickly realized that there needed to be a place where you could experience a high-quality manicure at a reasonable price, and not be forced to compromise on hygiene or the friendliness of the staff. So I suppose N.Bar is an old concept reinvented for this region.

The principles that I built the brand on were the pillars, the philosophy, if you like. The environment had to be ultra-hygienic. I borrowed concepts from dentists, like the instruments and the sterilized pouches. I contacted suppliers from the medical industry here and we bought the pouches from them. This is now the norm in the industry but at the time no one was doing this. For example, we were the first to have built-in sinks and fresh running water, which only enhanced our hygiene philosophy.  A lot of the reinvention of the concept was how I marketed it: excellent products, quality, training, efficiency, and overall speed.

N.Bar salon dubai
Photo: Courtesy of NBar

How many staff members do you have now across the board?
The Grooming Company currently has over 300 staff. We started with three technicians and it grew very quickly within the first few months. Palm Strip was our first branch and still remains our flagship outlet. Within nine months of opening, we had taken up the two adjacent stores to meet the overwhelming demand, which doubled the size of N.Bar.

How did you come up with the idea for 1847 and JetSet?
1847 came about by default. Existing clients of N.Bar had expressed an interest in getting their husbands, brothers, boyfriends, and fiancés to experience manicures. I knew I wanted to open something for men but I wasn’t sure how to market it. I couldn’t just open a nail bar for men, so I had to put myself in their shoes and look at everything from their perspective. My husband was my inspiration for 1847 because he is always very well groomed. I soon realized that men need an all-encompassing experience, much more than women do. 1847 had to be very masculine, very high-end, very refined, and with a very rich, manly interior. The concept is that it’s not just a nail bar for men; it’s a full grooming lounge for men. As part of my vision, I wanted to choose a discreet name, and 1847, the year of the invention of the safety razor, as a number, could be anything, so men didn’t feel it was taboo.

While N.Bar was the first of its kind in the Middle East, 1847 was one of the first premium lounges for men in the world, which was a big risk and a big deal for us and the industry in general. It did help us a great deal being in an environment where grooming is very much a part of the culture. So we had that added advantage.

It was very important when I came up with the concept for 1847 that we kept it as masculine as we could. 1847 has what we call ‘The Barbershop’, with a traditional barbershop shaving experience and haircuts. We offer manicures and pedicures from The Study, which includes comfortable chairs in secluded seating areas, books and magazines, WiFi, and even the latest movies on demand. Our Therapy Suites are also extremely popular, offering high-end massages and facials from highly trained massage therapists. 1847 has become a huge brand and it has created a new male grooming industry in the region.

JetSet also came about as a result of demand, because N.Bar clients wanted the same quality of service for their hair. Even today, every single hairbrush gets sterilized after every client. Hygiene is still a major priority for all of our three brands.

What are some of the challenges you faced in the beginning?
I was very lucky that I was in the right place at the right time with the right idea. I had everything on my side at the same time the market was in its infancy. I also think that it was a combination of the right idea and the right execution.

As for the challenges, finding a location definitely wasn’t easy.  Twelve years ago, we didn’t have all the malls we have now; there was Palm Strip and a few small street malls. I think the most challenging part was training the staff. I had to inspire them, make them believe in my way of working, and make them understand why cleaner practices, perfect polish application, and friendlier smiles made all the difference. I was training people who often had many years of experience and very defined ways of doing things, so my biggest challenge was creating that mental shift in their way of thinking to include those finer details. It wasn’t only about having them do it your way, but about inspiring them to continue doing it your way when you weren’t there to watch over them.

One doesn’t come across any N.Bars in the big malls or in areas where you’d find most other nail spas. Why is that?
As we were the first, our locations today are not the ‘newer’ Dubai locations. Our existing locations are a testament to how original and established we are. We are in the process of expanding to the newer areas of Dubai, where we will be able to service the new communities.

We realize that living in Dubai, everyone is super busy; they have less free time than ever, and are looking for convenience when it comes to grooming. Sometimes that means that they are forced to override the quality of the service that they are going to receive, because they need something quick and would rather have an ‘okay’ or average manicure than no manicure at all. When it comes to the grooming culture, we created a revolution; having manicured hands is now the norm whereas once it was an occasional treat. So we need to be accessible where our clients live and work.

Are there any aspects of the business that you enjoy more than others? And are there any that you don’t enjoy at all?
Aside from the creativity of the marketing of the brands, I absolutely love dealing with clients. I love talking to them, hearing from them, being friendly with them, and they eventually become friends.

Bearing in mind that we have over 300 staff in the company now, I think that my least favorite aspect is the training. Everyone will tell you that I’m a real perfectionist; I’m really meticulous about details when it comes to service and quality. Training is a lot easier now though; not only have most technicians been programmed to the N.Bar philosophy, but they also transfer their knowledge to others. Now we have a dedicated quality control and training department, which ensures our super-high standards are maintained at all times with ongoing training and regular refreshers for all staff.

Photo: Courtesy of JetSet Salon

Being passionate is probably the most important thing. I’ve been very fortunate because I’ve been able to combine my business-minded nature with my passion for beauty, nails, grooming, and glamour.

You’ve miraculously overcome and lived with advanced breast cancer for a number of years. Tell us how you managed to experience inspirational growth going though such difficult times.
During my fourth pregnancy, just a few months before my son was born, I was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. It was already very advanced and had spread to my liver, bones, and, later, to my brain. The prognosis for me was very bad. Considering that, my oncologist calls me her miracle. It really wasn’t a battle as much as it was a miracle.

I had a world of support from family and friends around the world. Everyone within my close family moved to be with me while I was receiving treatment in L.A., and it was this amazing love from my husband, my family, my children, my parents, and everyone around me, who were constantly saying prayers for me, that really helped me to overcome the illness.

How did you feel that your absence impacted your business?
I’ve been away on and off for the last four to five years. This absence had an impact on the business whether I like it or not because I was so hands-on and involved before. When I was diagnosed, not only was it very traumatic for me, but it also came at an important time in Dubai; it was in 2008, when the recession hit. With all these things combined, the business really felt my absence. But I am one of those people who, when they are put down, come back stronger. So I’m back…

What is your work ethic? How do you run your office?
I love surrounding myself with creative, helpful, and passionate people. I believe that it isn’t the size of the team, it isn’t the quantity, it’s the quality. I much prefer a small but strong team around me. I also can’t relax; I am constantly working and constantly sharing ideas. I love transferring knowledge to others who are willing to take it.

Short-term goals or long-term goals – which take precedence for you?
I work short-term, because, if you look at what we do, it’s a day-to-day business. The nature of our offering is hour-to-hour. Yet the industry is constantly changing and evolving. For that reason I have short-term goals, but long-term plans.

What is one of the proudest moments of your career so far?
I’ve gone through extraordinary challenges, so my proudest moments have changed over the years. Initially, it was creating the N.Bar brand. Then, it became 1847; I was really proud of that. Winning the Arabian Business Woman of the Year Award was a very big moment for me as the judges were very high-caliber businessmen from around the region, which gives a huge amount of kudos to the award. I’m also really proud to have had a lot of celebrities visit 1847, such as Andre Agassi, Roger Federer, and Deepak Chopra. Even Tom Cruise booked twice!

What advice would you offer to a business-minded woman who is trying to set up a company?
It’s so much more difficult today to set up a business, so it’s hard to give advice without it sounding cliché. There are so many established brands these days. I think what’s important is to really, really love what you are doing. Being passionate is probably the most important thing. I’ve been very fortunate because I’ve been able to combine my business-minded nature with my passion for beauty, nails, grooming, and glamour. You’ve got to believe in what you are doing and, of course, do a lot of research. I also think making mistakes is good because it shows you are trying. It’s called experience.

Is there anything you would have done differently looking back?
Because of my illness I was forced to be in exile, away from the business. That’s something that happened and it’s not something I chose so I couldn’t have done it differently if I had tried. I guess I wouldn’t have changed anything. The most important thing is to look ahead. Now, moving forward, we have a lot of big plans.

How do you juggle being a full-time mother, doting wife, and a businesswoman?
It’s not easy when you’re someone, like me, who needs to excel in whatever you choose to do. I think it helps not to put so much pressure on yourself. Being a working woman, a mother, and a wife, something’s got to give. In my case, something did give, and I became unhealthy. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself.

Speaking as a perfectionist, time management is one of the most important things. I really juggle but it’s a balancing thing. My children understand why mommy is at work, why mommy is busy. I think it’s important for kids to see you working; I’m instilling qualities in them that they may not see today but will appreciate one day.

I am also lucky to have a very understanding husband who has always been there, supporting me and giving me encouragement every step of the way. For this I am very grateful. Now I want to enjoy my family. I am trying to live for the moment. I think that people who are able to do that are very happy. It’s so much easier said than done though!

What is on the horizon for your company?
Moving forward, we have a vision and a plan to expand. We’re opening four new branches in Dubai. We’re also finally starting to franchise. We’ve been bombarded with requests from the day we opened N.Bar, so we’re in the process of opening an 1847 in Abu Dhabi, and an N.Bar franchise in the region. I think every major European city could use an 1847 so I would like to look at this at a later stage. Europe is really ready for something like that. I created the brands on a franchising model and we spent the last four years working on our franchise manual, so I am convinced it’s the right way to go.

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