STARTING a business in the midst of a brewing financial crisis might cause even the bravest of entrepreneurs to baulk.

Not Ms Leonica Kei, who started her haircare business during one of the region's worst economic meltdowns.

The Asian financial crisis, about 15 years ago, proved no match for the intrepid entrepreneur who persisted in pursuing her passion after returning from the Institute of Trichologists in London, even as local and regional economies tanked. Trichology is the study of the health of the hair and scalp.

Ms Kei and her husband set aside $200,000 - proceeds of an earlier property sale - as operating funds for bringing the upmarket Philip Kingsley Trichological Centre to Ngee Ann City in 1997.

The centre, the brand's only international franchise, treats both hair and scalp problems. Its original centres are in London and New York.

'People were asking me if I was sure, wasn't it a bad time to start a business... But there are pros and cons; in any kind of crisis, you get better rentals and you get a choice of locations,' said the 49-year-old Ms Kei.

'We decided to set aside some capital and thought if we make it, we make it. If we can't, then that's it, we'll start all over again.'

And that risk has since paid off, with the firm pulling in revenue of just under $1 million last year at its current location at Palais Renaissance in the Orchard area. This is about 10 to 15 per cent more than 2010's turnover.

It also opened The Trichology Centre at The Wellness Lounge at Paragon Medical Centre this year - a collaboration with the Pacific Healthcare group - to house its research arm aimed at developing new products and treatments.

Armed with a degree in business from a university in London, Ms Kei took a left turn into the world of hairdressing by doing a nine-month course after graduation.

It was 'hip and cool back in the 1980s' with icons like Vidal Sassoon making their mark. Ms Kei was drawn into that world of fashion even as she pondered her next career move.

She enjoyed the creative aspect and went on to spend four years working in related fields.

For instance, she worked for cosmetics and beauty firms L'Oreal and Wella in Singapore before chancing on trichology and deciding to make a career of it.

The rigorous curriculum provided her with a holistic knowledge in other medical-related fields - such as biology, radiology and chemistry - allowing her to offer clients an alternative approach to hair health.

This involves taking vitamin supplements or requiring clients to go for blood tests to determine if, for example, the person is deficient in iron.

But it was not always smooth sailing as the field of trichology was relatively new and unknown when Ms Kei started out.

Customers were few and far between and the first three months of business were quiet. Ms Kei was also putting in long hours, initially running the business singlehandedly and training staff with no prior experience.

Business picked up only after she took out advertisements in the newspapers. Within a year, the firm began to make profits.

Some say that being a woman in the male-dominated world of business might be a challenge.

Ms Kei begs to differ, saying that being a female has been an asset in her line of work, especially since about 70 per cent of her clients are women.

The mother of two is now also working with pharmacists to develop her own brand of products to treat conditions like oily scalp or thinning hair - her latest plans to grow the business and be less dependent on her suppliers.

'But I want to wait till I'm happy with the basic range of products we develop before we can say it's time to expand,' Ms Kei said.

'I'm very fussy... I don't care how long it is going to take but I want to make sure that they are the right products.'

Still, she hopes to have one or two products ready for use by the end of the year.

However, Ms Kei emphasises that there is always a learning curve when it comes to running a business. Her latest challenge is figuring out how social media works and how it might be tapped to boost sales.

'You need a lot of passion and hard work when it comes to running a business. You can never know. You've got to just do it sometimes,' she said.

esthert@sph.com.sg

How the business has grown

HAIR specialist Leonica Kei, 49, is the founder and senior trichologist of The Trichology Centre at Paragon Medical Centre.

She first embarked on her hair and scalp care business in the midst of the Asian financial crisis in 1997 when she brought the only international franchise of London-based Philip Kingsley Trichological Centre to Singapore.

Using an initial start-up capital of $200,000 to set up shop in Ngee Ann City, her business has taken off - it is now raking in just under $1 million in sales a year.

The centre sees an average of about 10 clients a day and more during weekends.

Expansion plans are largely focused on working with pharmacists to develop her own line of treatments and products so as to be less dependent on her overseas suppliers. These will be marketed under the brand Leonica Kei.

Ms Kei graduated in London, with a business degree, and went on to enrol in the Institute of Trichologists in 1992 after a stint as a technical adviser with an international hair care company.