Maureen Houssein-Mustafa OAM

The girl from Redfern who turned $1,600 into $70m

Maureen Houssein-Mustafa OAM is the Founder and Chairman of The Australasian College Broadway.

Dynamic Business sat down with Houssein-Mustafa to reflect on her two decades of success in the cutthroat beauty industry.

DB: Your business has been valued at some $70 million and growing – how did the business all start, and did you ever envisage it would grow to the extent that it has?

M: Well we started in 1994, and previously I worked as a general manager for a full service beauty salon which had 70 staff, and was open for 12 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Through that experience I identified that there was a lack of quality international training, and I set out to fill the void for the industry. I wanted to train people so they could have the international flair needed to work in spas, on cruise liners, in resorts – or, have their own business and work in Australia. So I started in September ’94 with $1,600.

The commitment was always to offer quality education and at the time we used to guarantee job placement upon completion. So it wasn’t about just giving out a piece of paper, it was about giving people a job as well. And it proved to be extremely successful.

We started by offering training in applying acrylic nails, and we used to have nine educators and around 80 students a day. From there the students dictated the course forward – they said ‘hey do you teach waxing?’ And we said ‘well no we don’t yet, but we can!’ From that, it then came ‘hey do you do beauty?’ and we said again we don’t, but we can! And then makeup, and over the twenty years it’s been a wonderful journey for my staff, and myself because we all share the same vision, and that’s to make a difference.

As of 30th August 2013 we were approved to deliver our first degree as a higher education institution, and that’s a degree in health science and clinical aesthetics. So it’s very exciting times for us.

Your business has grown and evolved significantly over time to now offer the full suite of beauty – have you ever considered replicating the model at other locations around Australia?

Not really, I have to say. I started with no money, and grew it from the ground up. I’ve invested everything. Perhaps if I’d started with a larger amount of money then I would have considered it, yes.

We still have the one location, which happens to be 6,000 square metres.

While yes we do have lots of competitors in makeup and beauty, hairdressing – but other than TAFE, no one has taught everything under the one roof.

What are some of the key challenges you’ve faced over the years, and how have you overcome them?

Well it depends on whether I think about it in terms of five years into my business, ten years into my business, or fifteen years into my business, or now.

I suppose one of the largest things is when I corporatised my company and hired a CEO about four year ago. That was very difficult; it’s almost like handing your child over to someone else. But in order to grow and develop my company in the way I wanted to, I had to do that, but it was very challenging for me to step back and work on the business not in the business.

Currently the CEO who was in place though resigned at the beginning of 2013, so I’ve stepped back in for a short time. So I’m the founder and CEO at the moment.

Are there any mistakes that you made, that if you could go back in time, you’d do differently?

I’ve made every mistake in the book – even some that no ones thought of! I’d sit there sometimes and think ‘Why did I do that?? Or ‘how did I approve that??’ But I think you mature as a businessperson, and by making mistakes, you learn. So after twenty years in business, you sit back and you think ‘well I wouldn’t do this, and I wouldn’t do that’ – because you’ve already done it, and it’s failed before.

So for you it’s been about learning by doing?

Yes definitely, and I think that if you have a vision, and you also hire people that share your vision and are committed to it.

I left school at 16, and didn’t even have a business plan when I started. I didn’t know even know what one was, and to this day I still can’t properly read a profit and loss statement!

How have you managed you personal time, and the time you’ve needed to put into the business over the years?

As you get older, you learn how to work smarter. When you’re younger, you can just work 7 days a week and it doesn’t seem to matter. You just get up each day and go for it and you have so much energy.

As you get older, you think, I don’t want to do this forever! In the last four years I’d say I’ve had a great work-life balance, where the minute myself and my husband go home that’s it, and I don’t bring business home. I figured that if I’ve got 90 staff, and I still have to work 7 days a week – well there would be something wrong with my management style. So I don’t work weekends anymore, but for many years I did.

What role do you see business playing in the local community?

I was born and bred in Redfern before it was fashionable, so I’ve always had a very big social responsibility commitment, and have always worked with the community in different ways. We choose different entities to invest in, and last year for example ewe chose Dress for Success, this year we’ve chosen Sister to Sister.

What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs?

You’ve got to have a really solid vision of not only what you want to do, but why you want to do it. There are many ways of making money, but if you’re looking at a twenty-year plan, you have to be really committed and focused, because you’ll have good days and bad days, and it’s never easy.

Challenges range from cashflow problems, to legal battles because you’ve signed the wrong lease, or you’re not getting what you’re supposed to be getting.

Whatever the challenges are, you’ve got to be strong enough to stand up and survive, and so you really need to be very driven and very focused.

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