Success Stories

Small business style with Tommy J

Adam Turner
Technology Journalist

Adam Turner is a Sydney Morning Herald senior technology columnist who has been writing about the challenges facing Australian business for more than a decade

Adam Turner
Technology Journalist

Adam Turner is a Sydney Morning Herald senior technology columnist who has been writing about the challenges facing Australian business for more than a decade

Highlights
  • Seeking a city lifestyle, Tommy moved from Ballina to Sydney in 2005 and set up his unisex barber shop in 2009, when he was 24.
  • In 2015, Tommy became one of the faces of Budweiser’s Australian campaign.

“It seemed like everyone I knew was getting into bricklaying or trade jobs. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to do something with my hands, but not something that was so taxing on my body.”

Tommy J Heath started barbering at the age of 14. His mate’s mum took him under her wing and began teaching him how to cut hair. He wanted a profession where he could use his hands, but not a back-breaking tradie job.

hairdresser in a barbers

Tommy J:

“I started hairdressing when I was 14 years old. Growing up in Ballina (a small town on the Far North Coast of New South Wales) it seemed like everyone I knew was getting into bricklaying or trade jobs. I wanted to do something different with my life. I wanted to do something with my hands, but not necessarily something that was taxing on my body. 

“My mate Corey’s mum, Lorraine, asked me if I wanted to come in and do some Saturday work. That eventually turned into an apprenticeship. She was an excellent personal and life coach, which is something I will always be thankful for. 

“The most important thing I took away from her and my first job was business ethics: how to run a good team and what a functioning salon/barber shop should look like.”

Finding a niche

“When I was 20, I moved from Ballina [30 minutes south of Byron Bay] to Sydney and realised there were other aspects of barbering and hairdressing that I could explore. I learned a lot more about the profession and picked up new skills. Then I eventually opened this shop. That was seven years ago and, at the time, it was a hair salon.

“It wasn’t until our third year, that I felt something shift within me. I was no longer interested in doing colour or cutting long hair. It wasn’t the clients; I just felt like, if I am supposed to be doing a trade, I should be doing something I love.

“I realised that Sydney’s Inner West scene was where I felt most at home. All the guys walked around with shaved heads or short back and sides, and girls were doing the same thing. That is where the inspiration for a unisex barber shop came from. We won’t turn women away [like some other barbers do]; it all depends on how short they want to go!”

Growth - not just the hair kind

“I have myself and four other staff working here. On the outside of the business though, I have my brother and his wife, who have provided me with further coaching on how to effectively run my business.

“I am not a numbers person. Previously, if a bill came in, I would just think:  ‘OK, I need to do another haircut to pay for this’.  They’ve taught me so much about accounting, bookwork and spreadsheets. They’ve been amazing. 

“We run a lot of things in the Cloud now. I didn’t even know how to use a spreadsheet before, so they’ve had to teach me from scratch.

“The success we have had over the past year, compared to the last five years, is astounding. This has all added to my growth as a business owner. I have been barbering and hairdressing for close to 17 years now and, without a doubt, it is taxing on the body. Now it’s more about working smarter, not harder.”

Push harder

“The best thing about owning your own business is having the freedom and creativity to do what I want to do. It’s an amazing feeling to wake up with the thought that I’m not actually going to work, but going to do something I love. I also love having the option to work harder. You’ll be astounded at how far you can take yourself if you are willing to push the boundaries.”

Beards for a cause

“I will never forget the first time I met Jimmy Niggles. He’s the man behind the Beard Season charity.

“Jimmy gave me a call one day and said: ‘You’ve got a beard!’ I said, ‘… yes.’ He replied, ‘I’ll see you soon’ and hung up. That was my first contact with him. I had no idea who this guy was.

“Soon after that call, a guy comes running into the shop – he’s wearing a bright pink muscle singlet, carrying a surfboard under his arm and he has this massive beard. He exclaims, like he did on the phone: ‘You’ve got a beard!’ and I said, ‘Yes, yes I do’. He tells me: ‘I need to get a photo with you right now’. He comes over to me, grabs a quick selfie then runs out the shop. I didn’t hear from him until a year later.

“He popped back into the shop again to tell me that he’s started Beard Season, a charity to raise awareness about melanomas, skin cancers and skincare, not one to raise money. 

“Jimmy is on a drive to make skincare something that’s accessible for free in Australia and that
GPs should have a skin specialist on their staff. 

“The reason behind the beard came from attending the funeral of a close friend of his, who sadly lost his life to melanoma. It was heartbreaking for Jimmy. Also at the funeral that day was a group of farmers, who were all bearded. They had beards to protect their faces from the sun as they were out in the bush all day.

“So Jimmy thought: ‘I am growing a beard and I am not shaving it until I can get everyone in Australia to become more aware about skin cancer.’

“We started helping him out by holding launch parties in the shop. It made sense to us to become involved, because in our line of work we see the back of people’s necks and behind their ears, and we are always asking clients if they have had their moles checked out and talking to them about the importance of skin care. Being involved with Beard Season has been one of the most fulfilling things I have taken on.”

Look Mum, I’ve made it!

“We’ve worked with Monster Children, a cool street magazine, in the past. Budweiser saw us in that and contacted me saying that we had the look they wanted and that they were trying to get more exposure in Australia. We went in to do a photo shoot and it was so much fun. I was featured on billboards and they were scattered all over Australia. It was so surreal. For the three months that the campaign was running I was like, ‘Look Mum!  I’m famous!  I’m on a billboard and I’ve made it in life!’.”

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