After 42 years, Oamaru’s most well-known hairdresser has sold his business. Ali Brosnan formally handed over Ali Brosnan Family Hair Care to its new owner, Vivo, recently, and has no regrets. Oamaru Mail reporter Daniel Birchfield sits down with him to talk about his life and career.
Q: How did the life of Ali Brosnan begin?
I was born in Oamaru, up at the maternity annex back in 1953. We lived at Waitaki Bridge and Dad was working for the railway, working on the road-rail bridge opening and shutting gates and stuff. I went to Waitaki Bridge School until 1960, when we moved to Oamaru when Dad’s job went to the railway station in town. I went to St Joseph’s then moved on to St Kevin’s. They were most probably keen to see me go at the end of the fifth form. We were pretty humble sort of people . . . we didn’t miss out on anything. We were pretty lucky, really.
Q: How was your time at secondary school?
Well, they’re very much a sport-focused school I think, even in those days. I was a rugby man. I did pretty well at school – I most probably cruised, would be the word.
Q: You got into hairdressing as soon as you left school. How did that come about?
I was originally going to try and be an architect, but it was never going to happen at the end of the day. So I went home from having a haircut one day at Steenie Brown’s and Mum said, ‘What about being a hairdresser?’ And I thought, ‘Yeah. Yeah, OK.’ I worked for an uncle in Christchurch every holidays for years. He was a carpenter and I’d always had this desire to own my own business and it happened a lot earlier than I expected. I had my own business four and a-half years after I left school, and that was 42 years ago. I was pretty fortunate, really. Before that, I went into Steenie Brown’s, who was up the other end of town – that was a long established business – and ended up with an apprenticeship. Alan Brown (Steenie’s son) and I are still good friends even though I’ve been away from his establishment for 42 years.
Q: Do you recall giving your first haircut?
Yes, it was Ray Campbell’s dad, Laurie Campbell. He was a butcher. I was working with Alan Brown, but Steenie, his dad, would come and look after me at lunchtime when Alan went away for dinner. He was teaching me and I was doing a few bits and pieces. Laurie came in and said, ‘Come on, boy, I’ve got to get my hair cut.’ I said, ‘I’m not allowed to’ and he said, ‘What do you mean you can’t give me a haircut?’ I can’t repeat what he said in the paper. Anyway, Steenie said, ‘I’ll keep an eye on you’ so we went out the back. They were talking and you should have heard the language they were using – it was unbelievable. But he stuck around with me for a number of years, so it must have been all right, that haircut.
Q: When you aren’t cutting hair, what do you like to get up to?
We built a holiday home in Omarama about 15 years ago. That’s where we spend a lot of our spare time. It’s my big love, really, and even our grandkids, they love it. We’ve had a lot of good times up there. I play a lot of golf and we waterski when we can . . . I’m down to driving the boat now.
Q: What would you say you’ve enjoyed most about your time as a hairdresser?
What I enjoy most is the interaction with people – all sorts of people. A lot of people lead pretty narrow lives and, with a lot of people, their only contact is their hairdresser, or their doctor, or someone like that. We have some great conversations. People want to discuss things with you that you are pretty privileged to hear about, really. I treat it pretty sacrosanct – you have to respect what people tell you. Also, families like the Meikles and the Inkersells – we’ve had four generations through the chair. It’s pretty amazing, really. Every day, you get different issues and different people. There’s some great people out there.
Q: What are some of your fondest, or least fond, memories?
I’ve made a lot of good friends through the business – a lot of people we do business with, we’re good mates with. Another would be I’ve always enjoyed getting on with kids – wee fellows coming in for their first haircut. We have a lot of fun with the kids. You have the odd wee screamer, but generally they’re pretty good. The only down side would have been being tied to the chair from 7.30 in the morning to six at night every day. It was quite restrictive in that way, but with my new employer I’m looking forward to a few less hours and working on my golf handicap. Everything will be pretty much the same, though. We’ll just carry on. Probably the most influential thing in our lives was The Warehouse fire. That went up when it was next door there. I was actually one of the part-owners of the building down there. The property investment went up, our business was closed down and we’d sold the house and were moving out the same night. Everything I owned was in cardboard boxes. It took a wee while to get over it.
Q: Do you have any good stories to tell?
One really hilarious thing, that wasn’t hilarious for the client, was in the old days with the hearing aids where you used to have the thing in your ear and the cord would go down to a receiver in your pocket. Anyway, one day I was cutting away and then, oops, I chopped the cord and put him off the air. He was not happy. It turned out he was the grandfather of one of my hairdressers. He never came back to Ali Brosnan for a haircut!
Q: What’s been the biggest change in the business?
Things have changed big time. I used to be a tobacconist and sell pipes and lighters, that sort of stuff. It was quite huge. Just like that, things changed. People went away from smoking pipes – even smoking, to a degree – and I just got rid of it because it was a low-margin thing. So I decided to focus on salon retail and hairdressing. I was always worried about selling to under-age kids. I hated smoking myself. I had one lady come in and ask my view on selling to underage kids and I said, ‘I’m really anti it.’ She said, ‘Well, you’ve just sold some to my 14-year-old daughter.’ The lady had brought her daughter in and she looked like she was 23. It was no excuse, so I canned the smokes. That was about 17 years ago, I suppose. Also, a lot of the girls now get into men’s hairdressing, and with working for us, they’re learning the barbering side of it as well. It’s helped their skill base.
Q: Was it a difficult decision to sell?
It’s always been in the back of my mind . . . I’m pretty fortunate with these people. I had heard about them and contacted them after my Christmas holidays. I quite enjoyed my holidays and struggled a bit to get back into work. I tried these people and it fell into place real quick. They’re going to step our shop up big time. There’s a lot of positives out of it and I’m looking forward to their enthusiasm and set-up really – the way they operate. I’ve got a hell of a lot of loyal clients that have come to me for years – 40 years, some of them. When I do finish, a legacy will carry on, really.
Q: When do you think that’ll be?
It’s open-ended. So long as the health keeps going, I can’t see any reason I won’t be here for another two or three years.
Q: What can you tell me about your time with the Oamaru Licensing Trust?
I was a bit naive, really. I’d been in the club scene applying for funds and stuff, through the pokie machines. I thought I’d like to be part of that. Once I got in there, I found out there was a lot more to it than pokie machines and all the business we had. Over the years, the trust had slipped back a bit and there were some pretty tough times. In 2007 or 2008, we built the Northstar. That was a $4 million investment and then the world recession hit, so the timing wasn’t great. We really struggled to get it up and going and running it the way we envisioned it. In the last few years, though, the idea of doing what we did out there has really paid off and justifies the decision we made. The next stage now is being able to reinvest in the Brydone Hotel – we want to get it back to its former glory.