A gleaming white Rolls-Royce cruises down Bengaluru’s posh Brigade Road before coming to a smooth halt in front of Inner Circle Salon, a men’s hairdressing centre.
The rear door opens and Ramesh Babu, a 40-something man dressed in a crisp white shirt and a pair of smart grey trousers, steps out of the car. He waves a quick hello to a passer-by, then enters the salon, which is just opening for business.
A staff member who is dusting the chairs stops and reverentially welcomes the visitor with the traditional greeting, namaste.
Nodding and acknowledging the greeting, Ramesh ducks into the anteroom of the salon, emerging in a black apron, with a pair of scissors and a comb in his hands.
A moment later, the day’s first customer enters and Ramesh seats him in the chair. The man asks to get his hair trimmed, and Ramesh gets to work.
‘This gentleman,’ says Ramesh, ‘was my very first customer – the man whose hair I trimmed when I first picked up my scissors and comb way back in 1990.’
Way back then, Ramesh, just a teenager, was struggling to run the business that had belonged to his late father. Untrained in hairdressing, Ramesh depended on his staff, not all of whom were professional.
‘I remember the day like it was yesterday,’ says Ramesh. ‘Both my staff failed to turn up in the morning and this gentleman, Yogappa, was waiting for a haircut.
‘As time was ticking, he grew impatient, then turned to me and asked “Why don’t YOU cut my hair?”
‘I don’t know what came over me but I took the scissors and comb and started snipping away. Yogappa has been my regular customer ever since,’ says Ramesh.
The word spread fast about Inner Circle Salon and soon Ramesh started getting more clients.
Today the hairstylist is so successful that he not only runs the salon, he also owns a fleet of 200 saloons – 60 of them luxury ones, including BMWs, Mercs and Jaguars. He employs 18 staff and 137 drivers in his car rental company, Ramesh Tours & Travels.
Ramesh’s rise to success has been anything but easy.
‘I still wonder how I managed to give the perfect haircut to my first customer. I guess it’s in my genes. I might have inherited it from my late father, who was said to be a top-class barber,’ he says.
Ramesh was just seven when his father died. ‘I was in grade 2 and one night a neighbour came inform my mother that Dad had died of a cardiac arrest,’ recalls Ramesh.
The onus of running the family fell on his mother, who was forced to work as a domestic help to bring up Ramesh and his two younger siblings.
‘The four of us used to survive on whatever my mother brought from the places she worked at. Many days we wouldn’t have breakfast and my mother would return at around 2pm with some food she received from her benevolent employers,’ he says.
‘She would sometimes survive on just water, sharing her portion of food with us so we could have more.’
Some days they went to sleep hungry. ‘I still remember how we used to stand by the front door of our small two-room house, waiting for mother to return from work so we could eat something.
‘Some days she came home empty-handed and with tears in her eyes would tell us that she was sorry she could not get us any food. We’d then drink water and try to sleep to forget our hunger.
‘We survived on a single meal a day for seven long years,’ says Babu. When he turned 13, Ramesh started to help his family by distributing milk in the neighbourhood and newspapers in the nearby apartments. ‘I earned Rs125 (about Dh7) a month,’ he says.
But through it all, Ramesh refused to stop studying. And after his schooling, he enrolled in an evening college to earn a degree while working during the day as an office boy for a monthly salary of Rs300.
But things changed soon. Following his father’s death, his uncle had been running the salon and paying his mother a monthly rent of Rs150. ‘Clearly it was too less, and one evening when I returned from college, I found my mother and uncle engaged in a verbal duel,’ Ramesh says. ‘My mother wanted him to increase the rent, but he wasn’t willing to. On the spur of the moment, I told my mother that I would run the place.’
Although she didn’t take him seriously at the time, he insisted, and she gave in. And Ramesh picked up a pair of scissors for the very first time.
He’d finish distributing milk and newspapers by 6am and rush to open the shop at 6.30am. In the evening, he would go to college and open the shop again around 8.30pm and continue working until 2am.
‘On an average, I worked for 16 hours in day. I remember my mum coming to the salon at 1am once.
‘Her voice choked with emotions and her eyes welled up. She held me by the ear and chided me: “Have you gone crazy? You’re still working. Let’s go home, have some food and take rest.’’’
But the hard work began to pay off, and over the next two years his clientele grew fast. ‘Some film and political personalities started frequenting my salon too, and my place became hugely popular.’
It was in 1993 that Ramesh took another big step towards his new life. His uncle had bought a car, and to prove to him that he was doing better, Ramesh too bought a small car – a Maruti Omni. ‘I took a loan to buy it. But I soon realised it was turning into a white elephant for me as I was finding it difficult to pay the EMI [equated monthly instalment] of Rs6,800,’ he says.
It was then that Nalini Nair, the daughter of one of his mother’s employers, suggested that Ramesh could consider renting out his car to IT companies. The IT industry was beginning to flourish in Bangalore and there was a dire need of cars to pick and drop employees.
‘Nalini helped me to complete all the formalities required to register with a carpool service. And that’s how I was introduced to the car rental business.’ It was a game changer, and Ramesh soon began earning around Rs18,000 per month.
In 1994 he had one car. Ten years later Ramesh was the proud owner of seven cars.
Seeing how his rental car business was growing, Nalini suggested that he venture into the luxury car rental segment. The entrepreneur-in-making lapped up the idea, aware of the fact that there was a shortfall of luxury cars in the market.
‘I again followed my instincts as I knew it would never fail me,’ says Ramesh. ‘I knew you couldn’t succeed in business if you didn’t have the courage to take risks. So I purchased a BMW for Rs3.8 million and introduced it to my fleet.
Year on year, Babu kept adding cars to the fleet. In 2011, he bought a Rolls-Royce for a whopping Rs40 million, brushing aside the warnings of wary family members and friends. At that time he had 60 cars, of which 36 were luxury vehicles.
‘Some top Bollywood celebrities have hired my luxury cars while they are in the city,’ he says.
‘From Aishwarya Rai Bachchan to Amitabh Bachchan to Shah Rukh Khan, almost everyone has been driven around in my cars.’
At present, he has a fleet of 250 cars, of which 100 are luxury vehicles.
Earlier this year he bought an Audi and a Jaguar. He plans to buy a limousine worth a staggering Rs100 million by the end of this year.
Ramesh’s rags-to-riches story has inspired film-makers too. He was recently approached by a movie director who wants to do a film on his life. ‘Talks are in progress but it is too early to say more,’ he says.
All the success, however, has not made a major change to his lifestyle.
He still gets up at 5am and starts his day at 6am. At 6.45am, he can be seen inspecting his fleet of 250 cars at his company’s parking hub. At 8.30am he turns up at his salon.
Around 10.30am, Ramesh reaches his office in Victoria Layout where he has 18 staff members and 137 drivers. After completing his work at around 5pm, Ramesh returns to the salon, where he personally trims the hair of his clients (for Rs100 each) until 9.30pm.
‘Then I go back to the parking hub, to check that all the cars that come in are in perfect condition,’ says Babu.
Once the inspection is over, Babu heads back home, around 11.30pm. ‘I take no days off, unless it’s for a family trip.’
Keen to pass on his skills to his children – two daughters and a son – Ramesh takes them along to his shop on some days. ‘But they are too young to take on anything now.’
Ramesh might have become a millionaire businessman, but he never forgets his humble roots. ‘I want to pass on the traditional business of hairdressing to my children because I think whatever I am today, it is because of that shop I inherited from my father. Tomorrow, if everything is gone, I will still be a barber – that is what my identity is and I’m proud of it,’ he says.