Doing it with style
As a teenager, Tony Li spent all his pocket money on hard-to-get foreign fashion magazines, mesmerised by the colour and verve on display, features that were seriously lacking in the China of the early 1980s, a grimly monochromatic, and utterly glamour-free, nation.
Li left school at 16 with few qualifications, and no solid idea of how he could break into that tantalisingly exotic world, but decided that hairdressing might be a promising place to start.
It was a prescient call: Li was in the right place, at the right time with the right skills, including a fierce entrepreneurial streak that has seen him develop a chain of hair and beauty salons, a photo agency, a hairdressing training school and, as of this year, a new hair-and-beauty chain with plans for 300 stores spread across China within the next four years.
The hairdresser-cum-stylist, 39, is also the undisputed top-dog in his field, the go-to guy for the nation's top models and actresses when they want to be assured of a killer look executed by an international-standard talent. Many celebrities, such as Zhang Ziyi, Li Bing Bing, Fan Bing Bing and Faye Wong have become personal pals who he meets regularly for dinner to catch up on the latest industry gossip.
The boyish-looking Li loves to chat - in Putonghua, English or Cantonese, the latter two languages picked up from watching television and movies - conducting interviews in the cosy cafes that are always incorporated into the larger Tony Studio premises. Instead of heading down the minimalist route that is so prevalent today, Tony Studio designers were instructed to make the place homely, with warm-toned sofas and couches, a mood that encourages clients to stick around for a manicure, coffee, lunch or, better still from a business standpoint, come along with a bunch of pals for an afternoon of primping and pampering. Says Li: 'I put a lot of effort into the d?cor, not everyone is willing to spend money on it but for us we want every client to feel cosy, to feel they are coming into a home with the lighting and music and decoration. The coffee shop also helps with that mood ... customers come with friends and make a day of it, have lunch or dinner or even have a martini!
'I think customers trust our brand, the name is always in magazines, on television, or online. We do a lot of work with models and stars and celebrities, so everyone knows us. That is the reason they come in the beginning. They also know that we use real products like Wella, or L'Oreal, and some cheaper salons don't use the real thing.
'Our hairdressers have been training for many years. Training is vital, I was a teacher and I know every single detail of the hair salons. Everybody knows me and my work: a lot of hairdressers want to work with me.'
There are now more than 20 branches of Tony Studio across the nation's major cities. The just-opened Sanlitun branch, in the upscale Village shopping mall, has a full-scale kitchen, allowing customers to order lunch, or dinner, before or after their hair and beauty treatments.
The vast majority of Li's clients are career women, twenty and thirtysomethings who do not baulk at paying HK$1,500 to have their hair permed, or coloured, to stand out from the crowd.
'The price is not the highest - some other salons charge more - it is a fair price,' says Li. 'These are professional women who work hard and want to treat themselves; I would say that 80 per cent of our clients are independent women, they come every 40 to 45 days. We actually don't push people to spend a lot of money the first time they come; if they like us, they will come back.'
The first Tony Studio was established 11 years ago, when Li returned from a spell living and working in the United States. He and two investors sunk US$50,000 into decorating and equipping a Beijing city-centre studio, convinced that women would pay a premium for professionally-trained stylists, polite back-up staff, a sleekly comfortable interior and a welcoming environment, all novel features at the time.
The crimper's entrepreneurial instincts were right: the business took off in a major way and branches can now be found across the country, including Beijing, Shanghai, Xian, Qingdao, Wuhan and Dalian. Last year alone saw six new outlets open, two of them in prime Beijing locations.
Later this year Li plans to open a branch in the Australian harbourside city of Sydney, targeting the city's huge Asian population. The boss will fly over to personally ensure the decoration, and staff, meet the requisite standards, as he does with all stores. 'For the past four years during the spring festival I have visited Sydney - I love the beaches and ocean, something you can't find in my home city, Beijing,' he says. 'I was surprised when I walked on the street a lot of people knew me, especially Asians from the young generation, so it struck me that there was a business opportunity there, a salon where the staff have real expertise in cutting Asian hair.'
The Australia project is a side-show to Li's next main event, rolling out the DT brand, which takes its initials from his Chinese given name, Dongtian. The aim is to make DT salon prices more affordable, within easy reach of customers in the second and third tier cities and less-affluent people in the major cities.
Li has taken other investors on board to ensure funding is no handicap to the planned breakneck speed of expansion. Three are already operating, with another 300 due to open over the next three or four years, a formidably ambitious pace, even by China's rocket-fuelled speed of expansion.
Once the salons are established, Li will launch an own-products line, a potentially lucrative source of revenue. Customer trust is the major factor in that: the boss currently makes a point of using imported products, conscious that this is a country where fakes proliferate, whether it is shampoo, baby-powder or DVDs.
It will be yet another business in the ever-expanding Li stable. As well as the salons, there are also complimentary operations that include an agency that supplies hair and make-up artists, a training school and a vast suburban photo studio and a recently-opened gym.
Says Li: 'I first got the idea of going into business when I worked in New York for a while. I was always taking my portfolio from agency to agency and I thought there would be scope for a similar agency here in China. In the event, when I did return, I decided to open an agency and salon and school at the same time. It was the right time, people had a sense of style in China, and we thought big. You have the energy when you are young and I had the knowledge of the industry.
'I like every detail of the business, good or bad, it is all interesting and makes me happy. I like to trust people, you have to look hard to find the right people and then give them the trust.
'My basic management rule is 'don't think everyone is you', look at things from the other side. With staff, sometimes you have to be serious, sometimes you have to laugh as well.
'There are many layers to doing business and you have to do it at the right pace, you can't just hurry. With hair you cut it and it's gone, just like that; with make-up, you can easily take it off; but with business you have to take it slowly, and learn all the detail.'
Li is certainly a quick learner and avid student, if not in the conventional academic, or MBA, way. During his teen years, the trainee hairdresser spent his spare cash on foreign magazines which cost HK$10, a time, a big chunk of change more than 20 years ago. When looking at the hairstyling credits, the name Vidal Sassoon kept cropping up: the Briton, who was a key figure in the whole Swinging Sixties movement, was the first hairstylist to turn his name into a brand, launching a collection of salons and products.
'He was my hero and when he came to Beijing some years ago, a friend invited me to have dinner with him,' recalls Li. 'That was a real 'wow' moment for me, very exciting, he asked me a lot about salons in China.'
If Sassoon were to visit the Li salons today, he would find the atmosphere redolent of 1960s London, with real buzz and energy in the air, as young people flaunt their individuality with red, green or orange streaked hair, nose piercings and tattoos.
Although Li has plenty of staffers who are decked out in peacock regalia, he personally eschews any body adornment, or jewellery. But he does have burgundy-streaked hair, which is tussled and spiked, and is no slouch when it comes to wearing flamboyant outfits, often appearing at functions in a kilt.
'I think it is a very special garment,' says Li. 'When I first wore a kilt people were shocked. They said 'you are Chinese, you can't wear that!'. But nobody actually told me that it did not look good.'
The strikingly tall figure of Li can be easily spotted at the swishest parties in town; he is a particular favourite of fashion-industry professionals hosting international gatherings because of his fluent command of English. Li was on the ultra-exclusive dinner guest list when American Vogue editor Anna Wintour came to Beijing recently, able to fill her in on the latest on the fashion, music and art scenes in his native city.
'I would say that 80 per cent of creative people in China live in Beijing - artists, fashion people, musicians,' says Li. 'Shanghai is a window to show the world finance and business but Beijing is the city for creativity. I think the Olympics showed the world what Beijing could do.'
That can-do spirit, allied with forward thinking and meticulous attention to maintaining international standards is ingrained in Li's genetic make-up. A natural talent for self-promotion and opportunity are also useful assets.
Early on, he realised that a glamorous face associated with the brand would help establish and promote Tony Studio, so pal Lu Yan was signed up. The instantly-recognisable face of Lu, the first Chinese model to achieve fame overseas, beams down from giant Tony Studio posters located strategically in all major Chinese cities.
For the new DT project, the enormous power of the internet was harnessed. The company ran an on-line competition to find pretty women who will be hired to help promote the brand, a search that attracted 20,000 entries for the five positions on offer.
'I really love it after 20 years. I have never changed my mind,' he says. 'I do hair and make up and styling and even the business side of it - it is like layers I have developed over the years.'