Robert Rogers, Director
Robert Rogers, Director of Haight ashbury, talks about his life and career.
I started my career in 1969, a young man aged 16 years, with no direction in my life. I spent most of my days surfing on the coast of Paraparaumu.
I hated my schooling which had forced me in the direction of book keeping and commercial practices.
As a 13-year-old I always wanted to follow in my Dad’s footsteps as a cabinet maker. Wood craftsmanship fascinated me, I loved the smell of timber and as my father owned his own business, it seemed like a natural progression. Then fate intervened. My father lost all his fingers in a tragic accident and his cabinet-making business was closed.
One of the things I learned from school was that I had a talent in art, constantly drawing and painting large murals on my bedroom walls of my favourite rock stars.
This artistic ability was noticed by a neighbour, a hairdresser from Scotland who raved about how men were becoming successful hairdressers in Europe.
It was a long shot... she was, after all, talking to a surfy with long salty dreadlocks, and no experience with even a comb!
After a long deliberation and moral support, I convinced my best mate that if we tried it out, we could have a lot of fun meeting the opposite sex. We both agreed we needed a change, and a trade.
The Continental Hairdressing Academy in Wellington
Armed with nothing but enthusiasm we signed up. I did hard labour at the timber yard on weekends to fund my new career, a fantastic workout. It was a funny contrast: splinters by weekend, soft hands by week.
The academy was good fun, and lived up to our hopes - plenty of ladies and little competition! Although initially we were hopeless, our tutor was patient and maintained that in 12 months, we would come out tops. We did.
Work as a new graduate
We were automatically offered jobs in a plush salon, amusingly named “Airline Beauty Lounge”. It was huge. There were 20-25 hairdressers distinguished by the stripes on their lapel: one for juniors, two for intermediate and three for senior.
The smell of hairspray filled the room: it was a hive of activity, with private rooms to have your hair cut and set. Customers were offered a complimentary pack of cigarettes - you were supposed to take one to have under the dryer. As I was apprenticed to the company, I was to be seen and not heard. I had to wear a three-piece suit and stand to attention outside my boss’s cubicle. I shampooed, cleaned and was general dog’s body to the stylists. I was earning 16 pounds a week and still living at home.
Eventually the salon expanded to premises in Hay Wrights department store (where Farmers now stands on Lambton Quay), run by a stylist with enormous talent and good business sense,
While he had secured a very good team of hairdressers, it was a dreadful place to work... it had no windows, no air conditioning and if the power went out we had to use candles to keep going. I worked alongside a stylist who did only long hair all day. Every 15 minutes, she would set one and comb one out. I would wash one, comb one, all day, every day. In between you would stand and hand up rollers or pins. The tedium was high. My boss and I clashed over a number of things, and he was always trying to cut my long hair off. We constantly had reviews and they were not always great.
Once again the salon expanded and opened another branch in Porirua. All the hairdressers dreaded the announcement on who would staff the new branch, but it was no surprise who got the short straw. My career path was not going the way I wished.
Despite the down-at-heel location, my new manager was lovely. I ventured onto the floor doing more hairdressing, and practised in the weekends by working in a small suburban salon in my home town of Raumati South. It was mainly blue rinse and funny little sets - hardly the path to international fame and glory - but it was practice. Those days in Porirua became the start of a transformation into the young stylist I could be.
I made lots of mistakes but learnt from them. My worst experience was with a cute young girl who had beautiful long hair. Tasked with trimming and reducing weight, I picked up the wrong scissors, took one cut close to the roots and a whole section came off. She looked back in horror at a bristle standing up on her crown! As expected, she did not become a regular client nor did I get the date I had imagined. How embarrassing!
First ventures on the Kapiti Coast
I earnt my styling stripes and soon outgrew the Porirua salon. A business had become available in Waikanae and while I knew nothing of business, I was a competent, cocky new hairdresser armed with plenty of motivation. My father assisted me in the purchase. I had to get the owner to agree to stay on as I was still only an apprentice and could not employ staff.
It was a funny little salon, not much bigger than most people’s double bedroom. It had just one basin, and a colour bay behind a shower curtain. Waikanae was a sleepy little town, with a mix of locals and yuppies from the city. They were the backbone of my business.
The salon prospered, my apprenticeship was complete and we outgrew our basic premises. We shifted next door to a medical centre. This was a mistake, it still looked like a medical centre waiting room with bench seats and though I was building a great reputation for my cutting, the location put people off.
We had to move so I bought out my opposition - a nice classic local salon, lace curtains and all - they were the first thing to go! My staff started to grow, and our profile was building all the time. I was becoming more ambitious, doing competition work in Wellington and competing round the country. These results inspired a great competitive friendship with my old boss from Wellington and really grew my business. Soon enough we were expanding again.
Now married with two children and having purchased my first home, it was time for something really big. The next business in Waikanae was four times larger - it resembled that first big salon I had worked at in the city. The dryers were banked down one wall, there were five basins in the wet room, five cutting bays and lots of gilded mirrors.
Despite the big vision, you knew you were living in the country. The local women would even bring the evening meal down to prepare while having their hair done... podding the peas under the dryer, or even peeling the odd potato!
I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to further my career, but this meant being a truly international quality hairdresser - something unlikely to happen on the sleepy Kapiti Coast. To achieve it, I needed to go to London.
We rented out our Kapiti home, booked into Salsoon’s Acadamy, packed up and just went. Arriving in London was amazing... we shifted into a friend’s house, which was owned by Bryan Ferry, man of the moment. It was in Holland Park, a nice part of London.
I pushed myself to do as many courses as possible and Salsoon’s was the place to do it, a fabulous experience. My tutor who was artistic director for 12 years, went on to open his own salon and invited me to join as a stylist in one of London’s fashion ritzy areas.
This was to be the crossroad in my life. The leap had been made, but where was my future going? It was our intention to stay two years but London was expensive and bringing up two children was not easy. Moving to Liverpool where we had a family home seemed to be the sensible solution, there, we could hunker down and rescue our finances.
The house had to be 100 years old and not lived in for 10 years. Grass grew around the windows, inside you couldn’t see for cobwebs and the beds had straw mattresses! In the winter icicles literally hung from the ceiling. Heating was by means of open fires in each room, but you never got warm. Crucially, we had no rent to pay, so despite the dire conditions, we stuck it out and stayed for just over 12 months.
My work was now with one of the biggest hair salons in the world. They had 250 or more salons in the UK alone. While I was employed as artistic director, the role came with many managerial responsibilities, including trouble shooting and problem solving around the region, mainly in Liverpool’s St Helens and Manchester.
This was the first job which properly opened my eyes to how a business really works, particularly at scale. It’s an experience that still guides me in the day by day running of my business today.
Armed with a wealth of knowledge, it was time to leave the UK and return to NZ.
A golden return to Wellington
I had many offers of employment, and was able to earn top dollar for my hard-won international experience. I eventually joined an old friend, and we went into business together as Robert/Nicholas.
It was a high profile salon that generated a huge following. We worked and played hard, and the business went on to be a success for 7 years. Sadly, the nature of partnerships is that they usually head in different directions. Ours was no exception, and after a good run we closed up. It was time to go back on my own.
I set up “Dangerous Acquaintance” around a core of loyal old staff, and an old friend whom I secured from the UK. I had managed to get residency for him so he was always doubly committed to the team!
It was the mid-80s: power suits and power styles. We had an up-to-the minute trendy pink and grey fit out. What was I thinking? Not long after opening came a troublesome time for me. With all success comes a price to pay, and we were living the high life. We had high levels of borrowing and the rising interest rates began to bite.
Troubled times in the 80s
Then came the stock market crash. My life was in tatters. My marriage was broken, I had to sell the beach house, I couldn’t afford the boat. The tax man was chasing me for unpaid taxes and my suppliers were cutting me off. Oh, how your life can change overnight.
The salon battled on through, avoiding receivership by the slimmest margin. It would trade out and survive. Drained by the experience, I sold out to my old friend and he took over the business. It was time to get my family together, so we started a new life in Taupo.
Naturally, I went back to hairdressing, but couldn’t cope with working for someone else. The backwater styles and basic salary were demoralising. I even worked as a barman to subsidise my income. My health was not good, and my past was still catching up with me.
Looking for new avenues, I redoubled my work efforts and took up a career in Real Estate. It was to be a surprisingly rewarding change. For a time, I absolutely forgot about hairdressing. Unsurprisingly, the basic principles of customer service (learnt from being a stylist) worked a treat. Although the crash made it difficult and the market remained depressed, somehow I made my mark as a successful salesperson.
I continued this for two years until one day, out of the blue, I was offered a site in the first K-Mart plaza in Wanganui. At the time it was a very attractive offer... and they wanted a high profile name. Still slightly unsure as to how the opportunity arose, it suddenly became a reality.
The salon wasn't my cup of tea, Wanganui just wasn't ready. The town was only looking for value, not the high end class salon I was offering. To save my sanity, there was really only one thing for it - return to the city and build my client base again.
The beginning of Haight ashbury
The second return to Wellington proved easier than expected. I was really only away for four years, so went back to join my friend at Dangerous Acquaintance, now a totally refurbished salon with a new look. In an amusing reversal of fortune, the owner went back to the UK, while I stepped up to manage his (previously my!) salon.
When the opportunity to open what is today Haight ashbury arose, I wanted to do things differently. It was another partnership but we set it up and ran it like a co-operative. We were early adopters of a new model: our own mini-businesses under the one umbrella, sharing the rent and all costs including staff.
We decided from the outset that HA would be a real “destination” salon. It was a beautiful building with immaculate presentation, but had no particular street appearance. Because of our large client base we relied on word of mouth. We were open to other stylists who wanted to join our co-op, and eventually secured one other partner, reducing our costs and improving our profit levels. It was a successful formula. Key to the success of this structure was a special friend who ran the whole organisation. Lynette (who currently still works at Haight ashbury) was once a hairdresser and had all the knowledge of the industry. Her input was invaluable.
Some years later, business was progressing well and we purchased a second salon in Dukes Arcade, it was big business, the foot traffic was huge.
This expansion proved to be our undoing. Having lost one of the directors to illness we sold the original Haight ashbury lease to an up and coming hairdressing business. They ended up defaulting on the rent, which put us in a terrible spot. We were the guarantors. It was a trying time but after 2 years we were able to close the door on a huge learning experience.
Rising from the ashes
I went out in search of a new site and a new start for Haight ashbury Salons limited. With limited finance available a site was chosen in Johnston St. It was far too big but thankfully the landlord was obliging and prepared to assist in the fit out. All I needed was a good architect who would translate my experience of a workable salon.
The task and expense was going to be huge and a few people close to me thought I had lost the plot! Four of the original staff wanted to stay with me but between them they had very little experience. I was the star act and the bread winner! While we looked consummately professional, we lacked a client base. There was nothing for it but to band together and support one another without compromise.
As the years went by we added more and more professional hairdressers, and grew to around 16 including beauty. Finally we were able to employ a dedicated front of house person, a salon coordinator, who dramatically improved the whole running and vibe of the salon. The salon remains at this size today.
The next chapter and 15 years in business at Johnstone St.
The Haight ashbury brand has been around for over 20 years, it makes me proud that l have staff like Anne, Jani, Jason and Sonya who have supported me for many of those years.
Haight ashbury this time moved me into the accommodation industry, owning Aylstone in Martinborough for 6 years. I thought this was my absolute retirement option and loved running the place.
Unfortunately it was not for my partner. It was a dreadful time to sell as we were in recession.
After a few months l used another old profession (Real Estate sales) to sell . We traded this property for another.
This beautiful home and 12 acres gave me the opportunity to pursue another interest, breeding thoroughbred horses.
From a total novice staying on the other side of the fence, I can now: file feet, put needles in when required, dose through the mouth, care for the most disgusting wounds, wean and do early training.
My horses are a labour of love with very poor return. Thank God l have Haight ashbury.
I have experienced negotiating in the international arena, trying to selling a horse at Karaka. It's amazing to think you're working in the sixth largest commodity in the world.
It's come with injuries - broken ribs, broken eye socket, being laid out and many bruises.
You soon learn your lessons, like never turn your back at feed time. l had my ripe backside to the horse when l found myself off the ground in mouth of the horse. Wow, did that hurt! l lived in a standing position for several weeks afterwards.
Some days later l took a photo - no one knew it was my cheek. Penny my partner thought it so funny it went viral, even my mother in law joining in thinking she could see the face of Jesus in it! (No disrespect intended.)
After 5 years l am about to give it away, it's not the bruises, it's the pain of disappointment in results. Great experience though, in fact one of my character horses has gone from being about to be put down to now being at the track. Incredible story that l would love to put to an illustrated children's book, anyone out there that can help!
That could be the last chapter.
I look forward to next few years at Haight ashbury and the next generations of stylists coming through .
I have been privileged to have met some very talented people. Together, we’ve had longevity in the industry. Over 40 years, there are countless fond memories of wonderful times: competitions, demonstrations, shows, silly banter, and some wild parties!
We have had huge support from L'Oreal and our relationship continues to grow.
Thank you to my staff past and present and all my clients - some who have been with me so long that I'm not allowed to say! Your support has made Haight ashbury the successful brand it is today.