Ramy Gafni in his Ramy Beauty Therapy store.

Ramy Gafni is a perennial crowd favorite, an entrepreneur who made the leap from plucking eyebrows to developing a comprehensive cosmetics line and opening his own spa in just a few years.

NEW YORK — Ramy Gafni is a perennial crowd favorite, an entrepreneur who made the leap from plucking eyebrows to developing a comprehensive cosmetics line and opening his own spa in just a few years.

Beauty editors and clients alike are familiar with his law-school dropout-cum-makeup artist past. As many times as one hears his story, it’s still hard to resist the charm of a man who went to beauty school on the fly, survived cancer and got fired from a hoity-toity salon while finishing chemotherapy because he was “no longer the pretty boy they hired.”

He sought the ultimate revenge by taking his eyebrow clients with him and throwing his life’s savings — a grand total of $15,000 — into a makeup line of products like Chutzpah lipstick and Triumph Over Adversity mascaras.

But his charm, ironically, is perhaps Gafni’s biggest obstacle to growth.

“I’m a very hands-on person, and I love working with clients,” he said recently while perched on a stool in his Midtown Manhattan salon. “But people get very attached. In stores or at the salon, they want me to do their makeup and me to do their brows. I’m the one that goes to all of the appearances. And it’s great. But if you want to have a successful business and expand it, people need to want my service even if it’s not me that does it. Clients need to know that they can get a perfect brow from my staff, not just me.”

This cult of personality is the boon and bane of many entrepreneurs and small-business owners. In the beauty business, in particular, business owners are literally hands-on with their customers, and at the beginning of their careers, entrepreneurs like Gafni rely on personal rapport to keep customers coming back. Clients may not understand why their longtime stylist is suddenly no longer available to give them personal attention.

As a result, many charismatic and wildly popular small-business owners tend to stay in small businesses.

At J Sisters International salon, a pioneer of the Brazilian bikini wax in the U.S. that quickly achieved celebrity status in the industry, the Brazilian sisters — Jocely, Jonice, Joyce, Janea, Juracy and Judseia Padilha — who opened the salon still take clients every day.

This story first appeared in the June 9, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

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For Ji Baek, founder of Rescue Nail Spa and Rescue Beauty Lounge in New York, working on clients’ feet was never an objective when she opened her first salon in 1998. Management was. As managers, she and her husband are still regular fixtures in their seven-day-a-week businesses.

Though these entrepreneurs may choose to stay small for the sake of prestige, they use similar methods to grow their businesses without losing that personal touch. “You have to hire very talented people and train them in exactly your methodology,” said Gafni. “They need to have the eye, and you can train their hand.”

Gafni’s three technicians are all well trained in his style, as will be the three technicians he’s looking to hire soon. He also offers all his customers chatty, explanatory pamphlets on how to use his beauty products, which gives clients the feeling that he is giving them personal attention even when his hand isn’t applying the makeup.

And the products, of course, are all Ramy. His personality is stamped on everything, from the fall line of quirky Bath-a-Rama products to cheeky, conversational color cosmetics like Too Good for Him Berry lipstick and I’m Over You face gloss. Similarly, the J sisters sell their own brand of waxing solutions, and Baek offers her own nail polish line.

Such exposure helps entrepreneurs like Gafni, who still owns 100 percent of his business, extend their personalities with products and keep customers who may never get to sit down to a session with the boss. Ultimately, it may be what ushers a leap into big-time business. Gafni’s goals include possibly selling distribution rights to his makeup line and opening more salons in New York City and in small markets with a dearth of high-end beauty options.

“I look at brands like Benefit, or Nars, small brands that were really able to keep their niche and their personality and quality, but make it huge,” said Gafni, “and I know I can do that.”

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