Tongan entrepreneurs – Paul Hala, Hala Hair

by Caitlin Sykes, the NZ Herald’s Your Business editor
Paul Hala is the founder and creative director of central Auckland salon Hala Hair.

Can you tell me a bit about your background?

I was born in Tonga, on the island of Vava’u – the youngest of eleven children, where my parents ran their own plantation. We moved to Auckland when I was eight because my parents wanted us to have as good an education and life as possible so saw that our future would be brighter in New Zealand.

In high school I discovered my ability in creative work and hairdressing was a natural choice for me. After school I was accepted to train at Cut Above Academy, which was at that time the top training school. I graduated in the upper part of my class and was offered employment with the Cut Above professional salon attached to the academy.

That was a fantastic first step, which helped me really develop my creative experience while working around and being inspired by some of the top hair stylists of that era.

After Cut Above I worked around Auckland for a few years to gain wider experience while I looked around for the opportunity to go it alone.

So how did you go about starting your own business?

In 2010 my partner and I found what we felt was the perfect location – an empty space on K Road in George Courts building. I felt I was ready for the next big challenge and had learned a lot about how I wanted it to look and work.

The timing was amazing – during the building phase I entered the L’Oreal Colour Trophy; it was a crazy time with the builders and electricians in one end of the new salon, and me working on the model for my entry in the competition in the back corner. I ended up with two great results: the salon really looked beautiful by the time it was finished and my trophy as the winner of the L’Oreal Colour Award looked great on the reception counter! Part of my prize was a media campaign run by a prominent PR company, which really helped us get started.

We had a Tongan blessing ceremony, which was a wonderful and proud evening for my parents and family, just before the grand opening party. The day after the party we were open for business.

Why did you want to go into business for yourself?

As I worked around the great mentors I had at Cut Above I realised I wanted to develop a unique brand and style that I could explore and build as my career progressed. There was also the personal challenge of going it alone and making a difference in my profession. I really wanted to control all aspects of the environment and the customer experience in a way that was unique to my culture and personality.

Taking on the risk and initiative of my own business would, I knew, make me grow a lot as a person. The people I have met who have done this have always been interesting and inspiring people who I admire for their determination, vision, and their preparedness to take one step at a time, to persevere and never lose sight of where they wanted to go.

What have been the challenges on the journey so far?

The biggest challenge has been attracting staff who are passionate about the quality of their work and who can understand my obsession with being the very best.

The most important aspect is to create really good working relationships with the right staff – great salons are only possible when run by great people who are enthusiastic, happy and highly competent.

Learning all of the details of business and financial management has been a big learning curve and so unlike the creative training I had been through. I realised the best thing was to leave that to someone who could do it better, so I leave the financial management to my partner and focus on what I do best.

Information systems are also critical. I have everything documented in a well-designed custom software package for salons. It seemed quite an expense initially but has been invaluable to our success.

What do you think could be done to encourage more Pacific people to set up their own businesses?

Carefully designed and culturally sensitive microfinance, with close relationship-based banking, is one important step for Pacific people setting up businesses. Many people with good ideas don’t succeed because of the financial hurdles and inexperience with money matters in business.

Pacific culture is about strong community, so I think structured support for groups of Pacific people setting up their individual small businesses is important. Business incubators are common in some industries now, but I see this idea working very well by setting up mentored communities of Pacific small business owners sharing knowledge and supporting each other with their experiences and successes.

What advice would you have for other Pacific people looking to start a business?

• Above all, believe in yourself and your capability. Be very proud of your unique style and culture.
• Look around for the people whose success you admire and get alongside those people to learn how they have achieved their results.
• Ask, learn and study all the aspects of business you will need so you know as much as possible before you take the big step. Search around for any help available from banks, educational and business organisations, written material and online learning.
• Have a clear vision and a plan along with clarity about the niche you see yourself occupying. Don’t try to do it too quickly or all at once.
• Don’t be discouraged by setbacks or when things go wrong. Learn from them, change whatever you need to change and above all don’t give up the dream.

NZ Herald

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