Interview: Maria Dowling

The founder of mariadowling Salon talks about staying successful in a volatile market


Dowling was born in the UK to Irish parents.
ITP Media Group

Born in the UK to Irish parents, hairdressing wasn’t the original plan for Maria Dowling: “I wanted to be a policewoman. I never wanted to be a hairdresser but I was always good at it. My neighbours would have me blow dry their hair when I was 12 or 13 and they’d give me a pound.”

At the urging of her mother, Dowling found herself at a local hairdressers for a summer placement: “I went in and I hated it because they made you do all the horrible jobs like sweeping floors and making tea and coffee. So when I finished in the summertime I thought I’m going to study really hard because I don’t want to be a hairdresser, it’s too hard.”

Dowling still had ambitions of going into the police force but was too young and had to wait a year, so she went back to hairdressing: “I went to Dublin and I did a two month finishing course. Normally the training in Ireland is three or four years but I did the finishing course and I came back and told my boss ‘Either I’m a hairdresser or I’m leaving’. So he said ‘Ok, but if you mess up your back on the backwashes.’”

It wasn’t long before she moved on to bigger things: “I had only done two years of hairdressing and I went to London where you are meant to have done four years to be a hairdresser, so I had to slightly lie for many years. I arrived and the next day, I went to a salon to see if I could have an interview. They agreed to see me on the spot.”

In London, things progressed quickly: “I started working there and after a year, I became the manager. I had 25 staff and I was 22. I still shouldn’t have finished my hairdressing qualification and now I was managing the staff.”

Along with being thrown into the deep end, working for a large salon group meant that she could take advantage of the resources that were available to her: “I knew how to apply a colour but I didn’t understand colour. I was working for a big company that had 32 salons at that stage and they had a school in Hammersmith, so they just put me on all the colouring training. That’s when I became more interested in colour, it’s the transformation. And now I’ve got a junior colourist at the salon who is just starting to do clients and I’m explaining to her what I didn’t know for years. Things that no one taught me and that I had to figure out myself.”

Dowling was introduced to the idea of coming to Dubai through a friend of a friend. She came out for a visit and soon landed a job: “Someone told me that there were two Kuwaiti men opening up a salon. There was a very small colouring area and they were going to be doing hair treatments and things like that but when I got involved it became more known for hair colour.”

It wasn’t long before Dowling decided to venture out on her own: “We’ve turned 17 years old. It’s on my birthday, which is the 14th of January. My main thing was to be different. What I saw as being different and what was needed in Dubai at that time was hair colour.”

She had her reasons for not wanting to open a one stop shop: “I had worked in salons before in London where I had beauticians and people doing nails and I often found that one area just drained the other areas. I know hair colouring and I know cutting. What I found was that, if something goes wrong, I know how to fix it. I can speak to the client. If something happens with a facial and someone’s in another room, I’m not in control of them in that room. Call me a control freak.”

Maria Dowling Salon

For Dowling, specialisation was and is key to providing the best service possible: “I know hair colouring so let’s just do that. If I was going to do nails, I would have a proper nail place. My whole thing here is giving good service and to have something where someone comes because they look forward to their trip to the hair salon. That’s the most important thing. I try to explain this to my staff. People wait to come and have their hair done. Whether they save up or whether they’ve got a lot of money, it’s all the same to me.”

Hiring the right staff was also an important factor and something Dowling didn’t rush into: “I started the salon and I worked on my own for about three months with one assistant and a receptionist. I didn’t open up with a big bang. There’s me and 10 hairdressers. I brought the hairdressers in one by one. And I wanted to do that because when you bring them one at a time, you get them into your idea of thinking. I knew exactly what they were doing and I could train them.”

The salon is located in what used to be the centre of the city. It’s now on the periphery, but Dowling never lost her clientele: “We specialised in one thing, which meant people did come back. Some of my clients have been coming to me for 20 years. Now they bring their daughters and the family keeps coming back.”

Her staff is also responsible for this repeat custom: “It’s my hairdressers and my team that make the salon. If you haven’t got the right team, nothing else really matters. It’s about the people and the relationships they build.”

Dowling is cognisant of the fact that the transformative nature of the service she provides isn’t merely superficial: “A lot of the time they can’t change anything else in their life. The only thing that can change right now is their hair colour. Also, when someone’s just had a baby and they’re feeling fat, they tend to come in. You need to really talk to someone in this situation because they usually wake up the next day and think ‘Ok, where has my hair gone? What have I done? I’m fat and now I don’t like my hair.’”

You have to really figure out the psyche of why someone is doing their hair. For example, Christina Aguilera. There was a time when she went really dark and afterwards she said in an interview that that time was a really low point in her life. We’re not psychologists. But we do have to have a lot of psychology in us because every time you’re speaking to someone you’re dealing with their emotions, their personality. Years ago, people thought of hairdressers as people who were people who couldn’t finish school or didn’t have much going on. Now, when you think of hairdressers, we can make or break your life for the next six months.”

We’re seeing calls for more transparency from brands when it comes to what they’re putting in our products but, according to Dowling, clients in this region are still mainly driven by results, with minimal interest in ingredients: “People don’t care how they get to it, at the end they just want the results, which is funny because when you look at all these pastel colours you have to bleach your hair completely to achieve them. For the blues, if you don’t bleach it, you’re going to end up with green. As a colourist it went against my whole ethos of hair colouring because I’m all about keeping the condition but to get that result you have to bleach up someone’s hair to the point where it’s about to break off.”

Speaking about how things have changed, Dowling says: “You didn’t have PR people you didn’t have social media and things like that but you had word of mouth and Dubai was smaller.

On the topic of social media, Dowling believes that the messaging needs to be more honest: “On my Instagram I say to get this, you have to have this first. You have to bleach all of your hair before you get to pink or blue. I see some people on social media and they’re not saying it all. They’re not being real.”

Still, she believes the platform can’t be ignored: “You have to use social media. It’s a great business tool. The clients like to see the before and after transformations. From a PR point of view, sometimes we don’t put up the before shot if they’re looking at bit too rugged, but it’s nice to give people a bit of inspiration.”

Talking about who inspires her, she says: “The people I work with. There are things that they’ll do and I’m like ‘that’s fabulous’ or I’m inspired by different things on social media. I can’t say that there’s one businessperson. I would have said Richard Branson because of where he came from but there are many people now who have made it big. It’s the small moments and the sparks of creativity.”

Dowling has been behind some big launches, including a hair and scalp clay and a styling tool: “For something like the wand, I thought you know, this is a really good thing to do. And then everybody came out with wands. When you look at Dyson, I often thought that to have a tool that had different brushes on the top had been done before but not done recently and not done in a modern way. I often felt it was a good idea. Now, Dyson is doing something similar, but that tool is for the mass market. My market was always hairdressers first.”

Maria Dowling Product

It’s no secret that salons are closing. Last year, Dowling’s financial advisor told her that if a business has only made a 25% loss, it’s doing well. Maridaowling Salon is not only surviving in this volatile market, it’s thriving. The company made a small profit last year. Having a single venue and being able to personally oversee operations has without a doubt led her success: “I like my systems. From the minute you walk through the door, there’s a system in place.

Still, there have also been sacrifices along the way: “As an entrepreneur you have to just stay focused on what you’re doing.  Put in your heart and soul into that one area and it’ll be a success. But if you’re going to open up a business, you have to realise you’re going to have to eat, sleep and drink it.”

Almost two decades is by all accounts an admirable achievement and though there isn’t a magic formula, Dowling is adamant that the vision must be clear: “Know what you want to do. Be experienced in what you want to do or pay good money for someone who is. And don’t take your eye off the ball. The minute you take your eye off the ball, the ball goes rolling,” she smiles. 

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