When Steve Toumbas established his hairdressing business on Adelaide’s Henley Beach Road, he says he could count the number of cars going into town every day.
Every person has the right to live, and if they’re honest people they deserve to be helped.
That was in 1965, during the biggest wave of Greek migration to Australia, when the fashion in men’s hair was thick and dark. Think the Beatles’ mop-tops, or the long locks of Jimi Hendrix.
He says setting up his own business wasn’t easy, but he had help from people in high places.
“When I started, the president of the Master Hairdressers’ Association gave me a job in his salon,” he says.
Now, 45 years later, the successful businessman is approaching retirement, and looking to help other migrants just like him set up businesses.
“Every person has the right to live, and if they’re honest people they deserve to be helped,” he says.
Mr Toumbas arrived in Adelaide from Rhodes Island at the age of 16, not speaking any English.
Over the past 18 months, Mr Toumbas has helped two recent migrants – Mohamed Beyan and Zalmia Ayubi – to establish their own businesses in the shops on either side of his salon.
“They came here as refugees,” he says.
“They wanted to rent the premises to start their own life here.”
So Mr Toumbas leased the two men the shops “for a very cheap price,” and encouraged his salon clients to try the two eateries.
Mohamed Beyan, who arrived recently from Ethiopia, has set up a shop called, “African Village,” which Mr Toumbas says is doing well.
Mr Ayubi’s restaurant, which serves traditional food from Afghanistan, is also proving quite successful.
“It’s one of the top restaurants in Adelaide – unless you book, you can’t get in,” he says.
While they’re both off to a good start, Mr Toumbas has plenty of advice for his new neighbours, on how to run a successful long-term business.
“I tell them, if people come in and it’s good food, good service and it’s clean, you will do well,” he says.
“The reason for my success is not only because I’m a good hairdresser, but I’m clean.”
But Mr Toumbas is undoubtedly a good hairdresser, having won a total of 21 hairdressing competitions between his apprenticeship and his last competition in 1974.
“I won the double that year – the cutting and the styling,” he says.
He went on to judge numerous contests and act as a director of the Hair and Facial Council of South Australia.
Not bad for a boy from Rhodes Island.
Mr Toumbas says he knew he wanted to be a hairdresser at the age of seven, when his father would take him to a barber where he grew up Rhodes Island.
In an experience many readers will relate to, Mr Toumbas says the barber always cut his hair too short.
“From a young age I was very fussy with my hair, and I didn’t want a zero,” he says.
One day he went to the barber without his father, and he explained to the barber he wanted a longer haircut. He told the barber to use a longer razor.
But when the barber held up the mirror, the young boy could see he was left with the same old close shave.
“When I stood up, I cried and I said, ‘One day I’ll be a hairdresser and I’ll show you how to cut hair!’”
Mr Toumbas has a startlingly good memory for dates; rattling off the years he won cutting and styling competitions without hesitation.
He also never forgets his clients, who have included former AFL CEO Wayne Jackson, stars of the TV show ‘Homicide,’ and the visiting English cricket team.
He says it’s important not to see people as money.
“Never see people as $10 or $20 haircuts, you give them the best of your ability,” he says.
He has developed strong relationships with many clients, over several generations.
“I’ve got heaps of three-generation families – grandfathers, fathers and sons,” he says.
“And I’ve got about five families with four generations.”
So he says it’s important to give back to the community that helped him when he was starting out, back in the time of the mop-top.
“I was a Greek lad and 90% of my clients are Australian,” he says.
“I’ve got a lot of good people who accepted me and helped me. So I feel an obligation to give back,” he says.
And, at a time when people feel increasingly cut off from their community, Mr Toumbas says he thinks people generally want to be involved.
“I believe there are good people around, but there are also people who mind their own business,” he says.
“But there are kind people around.”
Mr Toumbas has been running his own business for 45 years, and he says he still enjoys cutting men’s hair.
“I was born for it, it’s my nature, I love hair,” he says.
“But I’m at the stage where I want to sell the business and semi-retire, because I still enjoy it,” he says.
Many things have changed since 1965.
Mop-tops are out. Migrants come from different corners of the globe. The traffic into town along Henley Beach Road is now bumper to bumper, and Mr Toumbas says he can’t count the cars anymore.
And while he still washes his thick, healthy hair every day, his hair care regime has changed.
“Now I put colour in it too, because it’s grey,” he says.