How Ammar Issa built $24 million hair product retailer AMR Hair from the age of 18

AMR Hair

When he was 14, Ammar Issa used to work for $5 an hour cutting boxes and sorting stock while he waited for his mother to finish work.

He says this early experience fostered an existing love for business and entrepreneurship. After turning 18 and immediately purchasing an Eftpos machine, Issa decided to put that passion to good use to take on the “massively” overpriced hairdressing supplies industry.

Those first years in business were not without their challenges, as Issa struggled to push through the prevalent age barrier of being an 18-year-old entrepreneur.

Today, AMR Hair boasts $24 million in annual revenue and is planning to list on the Australian Securities Exchange in the future. Issa, now 27 years old, spoke to SmartCompany about his journey, and how he had to pretend to be his father to get suppliers to talk to him.

In the early 2000s, my mother used to work at this restaurant called Maddies — there was a whole chain of them — and I would go and wait for her to finish work after school.

The restaurant’s owner had a brother who owned a hairdressing place, and he came in one day and asked me what I was doing. When I said “waiting for my Mum” he laughed and said he could get me something to do.

I worked for him cutting boxes and sorting stock for something like $5 an hour.

I used to listen to this guy talk to customers all the time. He was really tough but he was also a very friendly person; he’d always go out of his way for me and the customers.

He told me that if you concentrate on having the best price and service, the business will take care of itself.

I worked for him until I was 17 and his store got bought out by another salon. My wage at that time was too high for them so they couldn’t take me on.

I had sold things my whole life. I would sell marbles to all the competitive kids at school, and I’d go to motor shows and buy ten posters for $5, and sell them to kids for $10.

I wanted to drop out of school in year 10 and keep selling things. The only problem was they wouldn’t let me get an Eftpos machine until I turned 18.

The day I turned 18 there was an Eftpos machine already in the post.

Initially, selling hairdressing supplies wasn’t the intention, but the reality has gotten so much bigger than the initial dream.

In the beginning, thanks to my work at the salon, I knew there was a massive gap for pricing in the hairdressing supplies industry. Things were just so expensive.

I would land deals with suppliers but they’d cut me off and tell me I was selling their product too cheaply.

So I went overseas and found my own brands to sell and I didn’t land the one I wanted until I was 20.

My age was a huge barrier early on. I would go to trade shows and walk past every booth, and as soon as people saw me they’d just walk away, or just ignore me.

Some suppliers still think today AMR is my father’s business. I would take their cards and email them pretending to be my father, and then at the last minute say I was sending my son to the meeting instead.

It was the only way some of them would speak to me. Some of my Korean suppliers still ask me how my dad’s going.

I’m never going to be satisfied in my business and that has nothing to do with money. I just want to keep doing more and more, but I never look at my successes — they mean nothing to me.

The idea is to list the company and I’ve got guys calling me to invite me to their yachts and boats trying to impress me with different deals. I want to get it right, and some private equity companies have aggressive growth plans which bother me.

They want to roll out 12 stores every year and close down six. That doesn’t work for me as I want a more long-term approach, something more organic and sustainable.

Listing has nothing to do with an exit and losing control of the company actually scares me. I just want to see it expand and see the AMR logo everywhere.

Before I get to listing I have to get to the next level of the company, and that involves people who are smarter than me. I can’t read a profit/loss sheet or a financial statement, so I need to hire these next level people to build a corporate governance structure.

I’m more of the little things person.

We have 110 staff now and the first one I hired was in customer service and marketing. I was so scared — I asked her how much I needed to pay her and she said she was getting $55,000 at her last job, plus super

I remember thinking: “I have to pay super? How do I do that?” I wasn’t even paying myself super at the time.

That actually scared her away, but after a little while she came back, and now her whole family works for me.

The hardest part of the business was funding it, as I worked off what I made the day before early on. I used to think 10 cents in my pocket was better than my competitors and I was turnover-obsessed, but things were getting tough elsewhere in the business.

I have also struggled to manage growth in the business. I had six people just working on growth at one point, just constant setting up of new offices and phone lines and warehouses.

I have always tried to dream big. I remember my early website had a photo of the Repco warehouse in Fitzroy and I had just photoshopped an AMR logo on top.

It’s going to come if you work your ass off no matter what you do. It might not be straight away but anyone who puts time and love into something will get somewhere.

People who fail are the ones who leave halfway through. You’ve got to keep pushing forward and it will happen.

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4 years ago

Ammar Ahmad, keep going and learning for the mistakes of other.

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