Friday 24 May 2019

The barbershop chain becoming the Ryanair of the male-grooming sector

Boston Barber Bars has carved out a niche in shopping centres, writes Gabrielle Monaghan

Les Duffy, founder of Boston Barber Bars, in one of his shops, in the Swords Pavilions. Photo: Tony Gavin
Les Duffy, founder of Boston Barber Bars, in one of his shops, in the Swords Pavilions. Photo: Tony Gavin

Gabrielle Monaghan

The celebrity-driven trend for the hipster beard has triggered a boom in the male-grooming industry, with barber shops multiplying in every town in the country. But off the high street, in shopping centres across Ireland, a no-frills approach to men's haircuts is fast turning Boston Barber Bars into the Ryanair of the barbering sector.

The chain, which charges an average of €15 for its no-appointment, seven-days-a-week haircuts, has become one of the largest of its kind in Ireland. Some 750,000 haircuts are carried out every year at its 37 outlets and nine franchisees.

The company, a two-time winner of National Franchise of the Year, was founded by 57-year-old Les Duffy. He cut his teeth in the industry at the age of 16, when he spent weekends and summers as a floor sweeper at a unisex hair salon at Brown Thomas in Dublin.

"The money was terrible," he says. "But the seed was sown - it made me want to have my own salon."

When he was 17, Duffy secured a job crewing on cargo ships for the B&I line. He earned extra money on board by becoming the cargo ship's unofficial barber.

"If they liked the cut, they would give me two or three pounds," he says. "But I'm better at business than cutting hair."

The budding entrepreneur returned to Ireland with some money in his pocket and a business idea he picked up on his travels. In Malahide, Duffy set up Hokey Pokey, Ireland's first yoghurt, fruit and ice-cream bar. But Ireland wasn't quite ready for the concept.

"Once we tried to sell the yoghurt with mixed fruit, we couldn't give it away," he says.

"So I went to visit my brother in America and went to New York to see what was trending there. I spotted a smoothie bar in Macy's and thought 'that's exactly what I'm trying to do'."

Back in Ireland, Duffy replicated the idea for selling frozen yoghurt blended into a smoothie at kiosk-style units in shopping centres. The result was a chain called Juice Junction.

"Somewhere down the line, I thought 'Why can't we do the same with barbering and hairdressing?'" he says.

Duffy realised his formula of operating a small stand-alone service from a kiosk could be applied to any retail business, especially when shopping centres, beset by falling sales as customers increasingly shopped online, were offering more services and food outlets to boost footfall.

In 2007, he set up Boston Brand Bars with a business partner called Petch Cundill. Initially, they set out to emulate the American trend for casual blow-dry bars in shopping centres.

"The first blow-dry bar I saw on the internet was in Boston," Duffy says. "So, in my head I kept calling my business Boston Blow-Dry Bar. That led to the name Boston Barber Bar."

But the timing of Boston Blow-Dry Bars - on the brink of a recession - was inauspicious. Women started to save money by blow-drying their own hair.

So Duffy decided to focus on Boston Barber Bars instead: he reckoned men would always need a haircut, "recession or no recession".

Boston Barber Bars targeted reluctant male shoppers who were tagging along with wives or girlfriends in shopping centres and were willing to pass the time by getting a haircut.

Duffy's business model had another advantage: by growing Boston Barber Bars in an economic downturn, he could negotiate lower rents with operators of shopping centres keen to let out empty units to attract both footfall and those elusive customers - men.

"But there's a trend coming down the line in shopping centres: an estimated 25pc of them could be closed in the next five years, all stemming from the likes of Amazon," Duffy says. "They need to bring in more services and more social offerings where people meet, get their coffee and get their hair cut. When shoppers are all under the one roof they will buy handbags and jeans - we're an inherently lazy race, which is why online is working so well.

"There's nothing for guys in shopping centres. One of the reasons our business works is because men see an opportunity to grab a quick haircut instead of standing around like a fool. They realise it's a good service and cheap, so they keep coming back.

Initially, Duffy kept costs in check by operating a modular system, building small pods off-site for each salon. But as Boston Barber Bars expanded and its outlets became busier, it went on to rent out entire stores.

In 2012, the company opened the Boston Hair Academy in Kilkenny, the first of its three training academies, which are aimed at offering training to in-house staff as well as to aspiring barbers and employees from rival hair salons and barber shops. This helps Boston Brand Bars spot and train their own barbers.

Duffy says: "Opening our own academies is not financially clever, especially when the service is open to any other business that wants it. But we are able to pick the best fish out of the pool - the academies have been instrumental in us being able to recruit barbers in a horrendously tight market."

Duffy expects the number of Boston Barber Bars to reach 44 by the end of next year. "Nobody can compete with us in Ireland because we are so far ahead of them and there aren't any other big barber chains," he says.

The company has also ventured abroad, trialling one shop in the US and opening four in Australia, all operated by partners in those countries because "we can't run them from here".

"Because of the name, some people think that Boston Barber Bars is an American business that was brought here," Duffy says. "But, in fact, we're bringing Boston to America."

Duffy also harbours ambitions to expand into UK shopping centres, where "there is a huge opening because barber shops are still mainly on the high street". If the company's quest for a UK-based partner is successful, the first outlet there will likely be a lower-cost pod.

Boston Brand Bars' size has also been bolstered by its merger earlier this year with its first and largest franchisee, American Barber Company, which is run by Jody Hearne and Pat Gallagher, two accountants who used to work in the City of London.

"They have been with the company since the beginning as franchisees," Duffy says. "It was such an important move for us because they had such a fantastic financial background and we were somewhat lacking in that."

The company has already started opening Boston Beauty Bars, including at Mahon Point in Cork and Scotch Hall in Drogheda. Duffy would ultimately like to have one barber shop and one beauty salon in every shopping centre in the country.

"Every guy who comes in for a haircut at Boston Barber could get a Boston Beauty voucher for his girlfriend, wife or mother, and the Boston Beauty salons could return the favour," he says. "We can beat the big beauty salons with their large shops and air-conditioning because ours will be grab and go."

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