“It’s heart-warming to know that Naturals supports women entrepreneurship as one of the major pillars of their business. I hope they hit the 3,000-salon mark, making them the most sought after salon chain in the world” -Kareena Kapoor
“I was one of Naturals’ first customers. In 2010, I found out that a franchisee spot was open and got on board. Now I manage the salons on OMR and the two Page 3 outlets,” says Rebecca Samuel, 34, who left a cushy job in marketing to join the purple team. “Naturals is very employee friendly—we provide the 6,500-strong staff everything from room and board to great incentive packages. Veena and Kumaravel are very approachable and work with you to increase sales,” she says, adding that last year her salons (especially Page 3) made around Rs. 25 lakhs a month.
Sowmya Vijay, 38, manages three salons in T Nagar. “Naturals is known for being market leaders. We were one of the first to tie up with Kerastase, bring in treatments like Argon oil therapy, and launch speciality services like ice cream pedicures,” says Vijay, adding that one of the brand’s strengths is their unity. “The franchisees meet up once or twice a year for a picnic or team-building effort. And every New Year, we take the staff out for a whole day’s celebration.”
According to computer engineer-turned-franchisee Sherin Sebastian, Naturals’ strength lies in its attention to detail, standards of hygiene, trained personnel and great service. “We make sure the staff (called smile providers) grow with us. We find out what they need and provide training—it’s almost like a corporate culture,” says the 34-year-old. Another strength: targetted marketing. “We create customised packages for our regulars, and also make sure we get their feedback on areas of improvement,” she says.
In the last decade or so, if anything has become as ubiquitous as the yellow and black Chennai autos, it’s the purple signboards of Naturals beauty parlours. What started off as a single, well-appointed unisex salon on Khader Nawaz Khan Road, has grown into a many-tentacled being with over 350 salons nationwide (210 of which are in Tamil Nadu). And now with Kareena Kapoor on board as Naturals’ brand ambassador, the largest beauty chain in the country wants to grow its operations into a mind-boggling 3,000-strong force; and, according to co-owner C K Kumaravel, global domination could be a part of that picture.
“Small European chains have made their presence felt in over 130 countries around the world. But there isn’t a single Indian name out there. Naturals is a product that has the potential to change this—if not globally, at least in Asia,” says the 48-year-old, with a glint in his eyes that says he is dead serious. We don’t doubt his confidence, especially in the light of Naturals’ inception and its rapid growth.
The 60k start
“We started Naturals with the idea of helping my wife (K Veena) earn Rs. 60,000 a month. I believe that being a housewife is a curse—a woman’s potential just stays locked within,” says Kumaravel, who was so firm in his opinion that his wife should have her own identity that he encouraged her not to take his name as a surname—instead, it’s been condensed into an initial.
They had three options when they decided to turn entrepreneurs: pre-schools, boutiques and beauty salons. “In 2000, there weren’t any good salons. You could either go to salons run in people’s homes or you could spend a fortune at one of salons in the city’s five star hotels. So we decided to launch something that would fit in the middle,” says Veena, a B Com graduate with a passion for beauty and interior designing. The initial idea was to go all natural—hence the name Naturals—but they soon shot down the idea “because it was not a feasible option if we wanted scalability.”
However, Veena admits, in those salad days, scalability was the last thing on their minds. In their first year of operations, they made Rs. 20 lakhs and lost Rs. 10 lakhs. The second year was better: Rs. 30 lakhs with a loss of Rs. 5 lakhs. “Everyone told us to get out of the business. But we were learning and our losses had come down (in the third year, they made Rs. 40 lakhs and lost just Rs. 2 lakhs),” reminisces Kumaravel, who had by then given his herbal shampoo business, Raaga, to his brother and joined his wife full time. By the fourth year, they began making a profit. The next step was to branch out. “My husband went knocking on every bank’s door. Finally, in 2005, the 54th bank said they’d help us. Thus we opened six salons in six years,” laughs Veena, remembering how Kumaravel would stand outside Pantaloons in Spencer Plaza, handing out gift vouchers, trying to attract customers.
Powder puff girls
As the business grew, the couple realised they needed help. And Kumaravel, who names Anita Roddick (founder of The Body Shop) as his role model, decided to follow the Britisher’s example and bring in franchisees. “Initially, there were no takers, so we roped in family and friends. But as our brand name grew, we began attracting franchisees and clustering became our strength,” says the man who is proud that 184 of them are women.
The couple is quite firm that they are not beauty specialists—it takes a “generalist to grow a business”. So while franchisees take care of day-to-day operations, they oversee HR, training and the brand’s future. They also oversee the tie-ups (Naturals features all the biggies like L’Oreal, TIGI, Kerastase) and the introduction of services. “We keep an eye on trends and decide what to bring in. Skin lightening is one of our most popular services across the country,” says Veena, who loves getting hair spas and pedicures.
With their sights sets on expansion and creating brand recall in North India, Kareena Kapoor (who replaced Genelia D’Souza as their brand ambassador) is an integral part of their road map. They brought the actress on board as they believe their goal of 650 salons by the end of 2014 is only possible with a face that is recognised pan-India. “The market is not just in big cities like Mumbai and Delhi. Some of our best markets are small towns, where we don’t have much competition. With television’s penetration, the people there are beauty conscious,” says Kumaravel.
The duo, who is justifiably proud of “bringing organisation to an unorganised market”, is not threatened by the other big salon brands. “Many of them (especially the foreign brands) are yet to understand the Indian market. And they are not very supportive of their franchisees. In our trust-deficit country, our way of working has gained us trust and goodwill,” says Kumaravel. Another one of their advantages: their many training academies. Shortly they also plan to open a college on ECR.
With the success of their unisex salons, Naturals has also diversified into more exclusive fields, like Naturals Lounge (premier services), Naturals W (exclusively for women) and Page 3 (luxury services). “Salon chains are more popular down South than in the North. But we will change that. After all, we want to groom India,” smiles Kumaravel, flashing his ‘Be Happy’ badge. Ever on the job, the couple say even their holidays are opportunities to check out competition and get inspired—like the quick cuts for men (a 10-minute cut for $10) they spotted in Singapore and then introduced in India as Star Cuts.
Next on the agenda: a set of special services called Kareena Signature Services. While keeping the exact nature of the services under wraps (they are still finalising it), we were told it would include premium/exclusive products and highly-specialised service. Naturals also plans to up their visibility—be it through their online campaigns via social media or through their offline initiatives, like the recent Naturals Cut for a Cause (where they sourced hair to make wigs for cancer patients). “Right now we have no financial or profit targets. We merely have simple goals for the brand for the next six years: have 1,000 women entrepreneurs, 3,000 salons and 50,000 jobs,” signs off Kumaravel.
With a game plan to open 650 salons this year and Kareena Kapoor as brand ambassador, Chennai’s home-grown beauty chain is ready to become one of the most recognised names in the country.
– Surya Praphulla Kumar (firstname.lastname@example.org)