ENTERPRISING JOURNEYS

From Personal Hardship To Phenomenal Success

Sandy Chong

Suki Hairdressing

The Business
Suki Hairdressing
The Boss
Sandy Chong
The Concept
From little things big things grow. Sandy founded the salon almost four decades ago in Newcastle, opening a second store in Sydney’s Paddington
What’s Next
After 39 years Sandy has sold the business to Toni & Guy to focus on her role as CEO of the Australian Hairdressing Council
If I could I’d change people’s attitude towards..
Acceptance.I got into hairdressing because I was bullied all the time at school. When you’re in a school where there are no Asians at all, not even part-Asian, you get bullied. But it led to my career.

Sandy Chong

As a small business owner Sandy Chong’s story is one of extraordinary success, but it emerged from challenging beginnings. Today Chong is known as the owner of popular Newcastle hairdressing salon Suki which she opened 39 years ago; while she has been CEO of the Australian Hairdressing Council (AHC) since 2013.

Growing up in Campbelltown and later Sydney, however, she was known as the only Australian-born Chinese in her school, and bullied mercilessly as a result.

“I was subjected to, ‘Chinese, Japanese, Pekingese, money please’ on a daily basis, and in high school there was this girl Louise who used to throw orange peel at me while chanting, ‘Ching Chong’. When you’re in a school where there are no Asians at all, not even part-Asian, you got bullied,” Chong says. “But it led to my career.”

Taking Control

When she was a teen her attention was caught by her aunt and cousin, both of them hairdressers who not only looked a million dollars with their pageboy haircuts, short go-go dresses and knee-high boots, but seemed to be having endless good fun at work.

Chong sought out and was offered an apprenticeship with a Sydney salon, recognising early on hairdressing was an industry that offered acceptance and embraced inclusivity and creativity.

“It was the tribe, the vibe, the culture, the music, the fashion, the make-up,” Chong says. “But more than anything it was totally inclusive and when you’ve grown up being bullied then go into an environment where not everyone’s the same and having fun … I’d joined a team of people who didn’t care about my background, I was just there.”

The Business Rollercoaster

After completing her apprenticeship Chong moved to Newcastle and in 1984 took the bold step of starting her own salon, Suki. It would go on to enjoy undisputed success, earning multiple awards, while Chong added a second Suki to her stable, in Sydney’s Paddington, at one point managing 45 staff. But Chong is the first to point out running a small business comes with immense challenges and requires plenty of resourcefulness.

“I’ve been through the Newcastle earthquake [1989], two floods, one where the entire ceiling collapsed, the GFC then of course the pandemic,” she says.

Opening the Paddington salon in 2007 was a lesson in modesty and resilience. While Suki Newcastle had grown into a business success story, turning over $1.8 million a year, there were days in Paddington where not a single customer walked through the door and the staff simply sat around.

“I certainly understand what it’s like not to have cashflow, that was a real reality check.”

Chong swallowed her pride and visited shop after shop introducing herself, door knocked local homes, put up flyers on university toilet doors and met with designers and fashion houses offering free consults and styling for photoshoots and parades.

 

Gradually she turned the business around and for the next decade she worked six days a week, four nights a week, travelling to Paddington from Newcastle at 1am before putting in a 12-hour day.

 

In 2010 Chong became a founding member of the AHC, and a member of COSBOA. The AHC speaks on behalf of the hairdressing industry to the Government and media on small business matters and education and training. In 2013 she was appointed CEO, the same year she was entered in the Hall of Fame; in 2021 she was given a Special Recognition Award for her services to the industry and this year awarded COSBOA’s Small Business Champion Award. She is also a regular guest speaker in Australia and abroad addressing common industry concerns including how to better manage staff.

A Tough Decision

So successful is Chong’s salon and so busy is her advocacy work and role as AHC CEO she has made the tough decision to sell Suki Hairdressing to respected global hairdressing superbrand Toni & Guy.

“Because of the amount of work I’m doing with the AHC I can’t commit to doing my best for my own salon,” says Chong, who will soon tour Townsville, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart on the AHC’s behalf. “I’ve also got three grandchildren and my daughter always hopes I’ll be able to mind them. And it’s time, it’s time.”

Chong says she will miss the long-standing clients who have become firm friends, often extending to their own children and grandchildren.

“I’ll also miss being able to say, ‘Can I get my hair cut now? Can you put my colour on?’” Chong quips.

Advice For Small Business Owners:

Do it for love, not money or you’ll never be happy: “Hairdressers don’t become hairdressers because they want to make a lot of money, they’re a particular breed of people who like to make others feel beautiful.”

Never stop learning: “Having said that, hairdressers can earn big money and I believe the more you learn the more you earn. How much you earn is down to how much you want to invest of yourself.”

Put your staff first: “My staff have been here 20 years, 30 years and up to 40 years.” They’re clearly loyal and happy, which says a lot about Chong’s business.

Outsource: if there’s something you can’t do well or aren’t interested in, outsource. “Don’t think doing it yourself is the best way, but do your homework. I always have a trusted book keeper.”

Think before you speak or act: “The one mistake business people do is say or do something they’ll regret later. Check in with how you’re feeling and clear your head before you respond.”

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