128 salons and counting! Veena and C.K. Kumaravel talk to Priyadarshini Paitandy about taking their beauty chain to small towns and creating job opportunities

No jazzy music. No flashy lights. No waiting lounges stacked with magazines. Only single-room ‘beauty parlours' where clients sat huddled awaiting their turn, while the ones getting the works done sat with their faces slathered in gooey pastes or hair pulled back into embarrassing knots with the others looking on. So much for discreet beauty treatments. The alternative was probably to walk into a five-star hotel and get services done at their posh fragrant salons and of course shell out a lot extra. There weren't enough mid-level salons to bridge the gap between the two and that's when Veena thought of starting Naturals. The first salon came up on Khader Nawaz Khan Road in 2000. “It was a way to keep myself occupied. At that point Chennai mostly had small parlours and many people weren't comfortable walking into a big hotel, so we thought a salon such as this would be a good idea,” says Veena Kumaravel.

“Initially funding was difficult. Even banks wouldn't fund salons. It was a hassle those days to procure salon equipment. The furniture for the salon was imported from Italy. It's easier now,” says Veena adding, “We broke even after three years and then opened our second salon in Anna Nagar.” More outlets were opened across the city, the business grew bigger and required more help. So, Veena's husband C.K. Kumaravel, who already had his own business, joined her. And the fairytale continues as the salon has just launched its 128th outlet in the country. It is probably the only salon from Chennai to have such a wide presence. So far Naturals has branches in Pune, Bhopal, Hyderabad, Secunderabad, Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Calicut, Cochin, Thiruvananthapuram, Ooty, Puducherry among others. “We are also catering to smaller towns such as Cuddalore, Tirupati, Thanjavur, Salem, Ranipet, Pollachi, Tirupur, Nagercoil... These are good markets for us as there is not much competition there. It is amazing how beauty conscious people are these days. Television has penetrated their living rooms and they aspire to be what they see on TV,” adds Kumaravel.

The couple recalls that till about a few decades ago going to a parlour was considered taboo. When Naturals came up with unisex salons, the conservative Chennaiite wasn't too comfortable with it. But gradually things began to change. And most men stopped going to ‘barber shops' and got introduced to the world of salons.

Veena believes that this industry suffers from misnomers. “Earlier people thought that those who were not academically inclined would take up this profession. But today we get graduates approaching us for training,” smiles Veena.

Naturals have their own training academies in T. Nagar, Coimbatore and Siliguri and shortly plan to open in Bengaluru and Hyderabad as well. “By opting for the franchise model we ensured the proper functioning of the salons because it was getting difficult for us to handle everything on our own,” she adds. Most of the franchisees are women and Veena and Kumaravel are happy that they have empowered more than 600 women and provided about 15,000 jobs.

Following the success of Naturals, the duo wanted to establish a high- end salon and in 2010 Page 3 was launched. “We tied up with Kerastase and Keraskin for treatments. This salon focuses on a different line of treatments and products altogether,” says Veena.

What's next? “We're aiming at a pan-Indian presence. Actor Genelia our brand ambassador is also our client,”they say.

Ironically, a business which lets its clients sit back and relax doesn't quite let the owners do so. “This industry has got its own challenges. It's important to be innovative and keep the staff motivated. It is vital to take our clients' feedback seriously. We have received complaints from our clients about certain aspects and we ensure we correct them,” Kumaravel says and adds with a grin, “Yes, I do enjoy hair spa treatments here.” Veena laughs and intervenes, “Having a salon helps because no matter what time of the day it is you can always get an appointment for a hair treatment!”

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Priyadarshini PaitandyJune 28, 2012