Why Toni Mascolo quit law to follow his hobby

Cutting hair is more than a job to Toni Mascolo - it's a way of life. Jody Clarke profiles how he abandoned his plans to go into law to set up the famous salons.

Cutting hair is more than a job to Toni Mascolo. It is, he says, a way of life. From doing perms at his father's salon in Scafati, just south of Naples, to presiding over one of the world's most successful chains of hairdressing salons today, his hands have rarely been without a pair of scissors. "After I came home from school I used to do shampoos, perms" as an alternative to his homework. "I thought it was great," he says. Even so, he was a bright student, and always saw hairdressing as a hobby. He had his sights set on a legal career.

That all changed in 1957 when a family friend persuaded his father to come to London, where his salon and coffee bar in Knightsbridge was attracting clients such as Sophia Loren. "My father thought, the capital of Europe, the best place you could be', and he came over." At the age of 14, Mascolo found himself in a foreign country, unable to "speak a word of English". He abandoned his studies, leaving him with no option but to turn his hand to the only other thing he knew how to do well. "I started hairdressing."

From his father's salon in Victoria Street, he moved around London, cutting the hair of clients such as Barbara Castle, and regularly going to Downing Street to tend to the wife of then-prime minister Harold Macmillan's secretary. He can still remember Charles Forte, the famous hotelier, putting a pound in his hand then more than a week's wages for Mascolo and saying I hope this is the start of your career'.

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Mascolo had always thought of setting up on his own, so when he got the chance to buy a salon, he took it. His brother Gaetano (Guy) was working for a Jewish barber in Clapham. The barber told them: "I'm getting on, I'm too old. Why don't you take the shop I'll give you a lease for 21 years, you pay me £20 a week." It was probably one of the best business decisions he ever made, as Mascolo was still paying £20 a week for the original Toni & Guy premises years later. More salons followed in Streatham and Tooting and his aim of keeping one step ahead of the competition (Toni & Guy was the first hairdressing chain in Britain to introduce unisex salons) seemed to be paying off. But by 1988, there were still only four Toni & Guy salons and Mascolo realised that he was never going to get rich by running a couple of shops in London.

A trip to the US made Mascolo realise that the way to fast, strong growth was to franchise the business. As recession took hold and "people were dropping like flies... I remember very clearly going to the bank manager and saying, look, we're doing really well, everyone wants our brand, help us". The bank agreed to back them, and soon Toni & Guy was growing rapidly. Hairdressers are trained centrally in their academy before being sent out to one of more than 400 salons, mostly run as franchises. Just last week, he says, one manager went to Belarus, aiming to set up a salon there. "The business is quite solid, profitable, and is growing all the time." With annual revenues in excess of £175m, it seems that pursuing his hobby' rather than his legal ambitions has definitely paid off.