Unlike countless women – yes, it’s mainly women – I’d never met Otto Ott before.
But on the way to our appointment I happened to follow him and his wife Barbara on High Street, Cosham. It wasn’t long before I’d guessed who they were.
Their progress was hindered by numerous people all wanting to chat with the couple and exchange a joke. The 62-year-old Otts are a bit of an institution in the Portsmouth area.
They were hand in hand and tanned because they were just back from a Caribbean trip to mark their ruby wedding – 40 years of married life.
And for 35 years of those four decades Otto has been cutting and styling the hair of tens of thousands of women in the area while Barbara has helped run the business from behind the scenes.
They laugh constantly. They have a great sense of fun. ‘We must have a sense of humour between us,’ says Barbara, ‘because we opened our first shop on Good Friday, 1976 – Friday the thirteenth it was. Wasn’t it Otto.’
‘Yes, dear,’ Otto agrees a little too enthusiastically. And as an aside: ‘Always agree with your wife. It’s the secret of a happy marriage.’
That salon is in Isambard Brunel Road in the heart of the city. When it opened five worked there. Today the Hair Ott empire comprises four large salons and employs 110 people.’ The others are at Cosham, North End and Waterlooville.
Otto was born in Munich, Germany. ‘What was I going to do in life? My father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all hairdressers. It’s in the genes.’
He left Germany, ended up in London via Guernsey, and worked for Toni & Guy before clinching a job with Sassoon’s in London.
‘All the while I wanted nothing more than to own my own business and when one came up in Portsmouth we took it.’
Bit of a gamble? ‘Not at all. I’m a passionate believer in hard work and 100 per cent commitment. I’m not interested in second-best.
‘I had the family. That’s the greatest incentive to make a success of things, but we worked hard, very hard.
‘When I came to Portsmouth I believe I was the only Sassoon-trained hairdresser in Portsmouth at the time.
‘I was ambitious and socially things were beginning to change. Women were moving away from the traditional shampoo and set and the age of the celebrity was beginning. It was a very exciting time to be a hairdresser.
‘Girls started to come in with pictures of styles they’d seen in magazines and wanted us to copy. The whole pop culture thing was beginning to take over,’ says Otto.
When he started dressing heads in Portsmouth 35 years ago the vast majority of Otto’s clientele were women. Today 20 per cent of the firm’s clients are men.
‘At the moment lads are coming in wanting their hair to look like Justin Bieber’s. That would never have happened in the mid-1970s.’
Otto is expansive and obviously hugely popular with his customers. As we walk through the Cosham salon he blows kisses to women bent backwards over sinks or under the drier. One woman of a certain age sidles up to me and says: ‘He’s an angel. The nicest man you could ever want to do your hair. And the best.’
The Otts daughter Laura helps run the business from the Cosham office while son Greg is a stylist downstairs.
Otto adds: ‘I never wanted to be a harsh businessman with a huge empire. All I wanted was a family business and that’s exactly what I’ve got.’
And he’s not just referring to Barbara, Laura and Greg. Of the 110 people he employs only three did not start with him as apprentices.
‘We are all one big family. We take on people in their teens and they stay with us.
‘Many girls have come to us straight from school, get trained then go away and have a family and come back again.’
At this point Emma Dalby walks into the office. She’s 26 and the manager of the Cosham salon, the busiest in the Ott chain. She started as a 15-year-old Saturday assistant. ‘I was a stroppy teenager with a bit of an attitude and absenteeism problem. But I got my act together and fell in love with learning.’
Otto grins: ‘You see. Job done.’
Rambling’s a passion
OTTO Ott is a passionate man. Not just for creating the right hairstyle to suit a woman or about his love of walking with the Meon Valley group of the Ramblers.
His other passion is training and in particular education standards in the Portsmouth area.
He and wife Barbara are immensely proud that last year Hair Ott won the British Hairdressing Business Awards Training Award. ‘It means we are the best in Britain – this relatively small business from unfashionable Portsmouth.’
But it comes at a price. ‘Do you know that 20 per cent of the kids who come to us as trainees cannot read or write?
‘For God’s sake, I’m a hairdresser not a teacher, but that’s what I have to do. What’s gone wrong with society?
‘You see a spark in a young person. They’re presentable and keen, but they have no communication skills and never read a newspaper let alone a book. Mainly because so many of them can’t read.’
Karen Moore has been with the Otts for 20 years. Her job title, a little unusual in a hairdressing business, is Head of Education.
Otto adds: ‘People moan about standards falling at A-level. That doesn’t bother me at all. What really upsets me are the dreadful levels of literacy and numeracy.
‘Sixteen-year-olds come to us and to get them to the standard required for an NVQ we need to teach them.
‘That’s why we organise a trip to the library early on for our key skills group. Shocking isn’t it?’