ANITA WONG likes to be challenged.
The founder of PHS Hairscience built her hair care business from scratch, based on a simple strategy — fulfilling women’s desire for that resplendent crowning glory.
But in an industry filled with hair salons, how could she stand out? She realised she had to get closer to the root of the issue. So, she settled on the scalp.
Based on her understanding of the market, she figured Asian scalps needed a formulation better suited for this climate.
The former Singapore Airlines girl navigated a business environment of heavy hitters from France, Europe and Korea, picking her path based on her observations of what the market needed and some luck. Though she says there’s no such thing.
“It’s all hard work.”
To some extent, you could say Wong’s involvement with hair was inevitable. She used to help her mother at her hair and beauty salon in Katong Plaza, starting as a shampoo girl at the age of 16, working her way up to a stylist.
A five-year stint as a stewardess with SIA ended when she got pregnant with her first of three children.
“After giving birth, I had $30,000 and took over a bakery in East Point Mall in Simei. I saw three Disney characters on the walls from the previous tenant and I thought it would cost too much to fix that, so I decided to start a nail salon for children.
“It took off and I recovered my investment in six months.”
When she started, her family was lukewarm to her plans. “My family asked me why I couldn’t open a normal hair salon. They didn’t understand my concept,” she laughs.
The hair industry is fast growing, currently estimated to be worth US$87.73 billion globally, and expected to breach the $100 billion mark by 2024.
Reflecting this upward trend, PHS has grown and now employs 90 staff. Wong gets involved in all areas of the business, to understand what is required, but is instrumental in developing new product and concepts. She is also ever ready to roll up her sleeves and help out on the shop floor if needed.
“As an entrepreneur, you have to look at opportunities and challenges. A lot of people look at challenges and then start to look for opportunities. You’ll never make it. So, opportunities must come first.”
She parallels her optimistic outlook to playing video games: “I love the challenges at each level, and as I overcome them, I go up to the next level.”
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At her Wheelock Place Lab — as she calls her hair centre — Wong is chatty as she recalls the process she developed for an unknown to break into the Orchard Road belt. Coming from a small neighbourhood business, it would have been an uphill challenge to bring a simple hair and beauty concept into the posh retail precinct.
Wong was already using the organic products from the French botanical hair care brand Phyto and she approached them to create a hair spa in Singapore. It was a new concept, and it was an ambitious move that had a swishy ring to it.
“When hair is damaged you can just cut it away. So many salons are trying to treat damaged hair, but nobody was doing anything about the scalp,” Wong observed
The idea of a hair spa intrigued Wheelock Place enough to lease a space in 2006. Business was comfortable, but after a few years, Wong realised she needed to up her game.
“I was still buying the product from Phyto, and with a small market I wanted to see results,” she said.
“We started creating our own product in Korea and launched Professional Holistic Solutions in 2014.”
Even then, the ambitious Wong had plans to spread her range. And in order to achieve that, a long name wasn’t going to help, so she shortened it to PHS.
“When we started, we had 80 variants. Now we have around 150. We have to keep thinking of new products all the time,” she stresses.
Wong sets personal targets for herself and the brand as a way of staving off complacency, and to keep egging herself on.
“Every six months I will review the business and move to the next stage.”
Combing New Markets
PHS products are already available in Thailand, and Wong is looking to India as a next big market.
“India and China are huge potential markets, but when it comes to the scalp and hair, India is much bigger. Now we have to create a product at the right price point,” Wong said.
To differentiate herself from the competition, Wong will enter the Indian market as a hair specialist. Where others go in offering a range of services, she feels following them will only lead to her becoming an also-ran.
“If you’re just another salon you will not be noticed. You need to be very focused when you go overseas. You don’t want to conquer the whole market. You mustn’t be greedy,” she cautions.
While her product appeals to a smaller group of well-heeled customers, Wong wants to reach out to the masses with new concepts and products.
She opened two more hair labs along Orchard Road but also created a range of home care products for men and women. While the labs welcome a predominantly female audience, her new Capsule retail boutique sees an even split of customers, who are also generally younger.
The Capsule retail boutique concept trims the frills and pampering and allows the suburban market access to her products. Currently, they are in Bedok and Parkway Parade, with plans to build more.
“I have not reached the masses with my products. Currently, mass hair products have ingredients that are not so good, so it causes problems. What causes hair loss? It’s not so much about stress, but more about not using the right products,” she stresses.
But more importantly, Wong wants an uplifting story to tell.
“Hair loss is always selling fear and negativity. I want my customers looking good and feeling good with a positive image,” she says.
In this climate of quick bucks and fast acquisitions, Wong’s success has attracted a few potential suitors.
“We have a lot of investors enquiring about taking a stake in the business, but I don’t want to because I don’t want to lose control,” Wong explains.
“Our potential for growth is still huge, so it isn’t time yet. Three years ago, Watsons approached us to carry our product in 104 of their stores. But, for me, building the brand was more important,” she recalls.
“I’ve seen a lot of people with passion in their business sway along the way. When power and greed get into it, it’s very hard to stay focused.
“This journey has been very painful, especially when benchmarked against international brands and with limited funds.
“But, I am enjoying the journey, and I’m confident I will never fall because I started from zero and I’m always thinking ahead.”
In a climate of uncertainty and disruption, Wong is banking on basic human desires like wanting to look good and having a healthy head of hair, to keep her trade buzzing. Automation may be on the cards, but when it comes to getting one’s hair done, it’s not just about getting the ideal cut, it’s also about the human touch and interaction.
Having loyal customers makes it more about the person than the business.
Here, Wong’s natural charm and down-to-earth friendliness works to her advantage.