When her traditional barber shop hit a roadblock, resilient Scot, Ep Weatherhead, decided to change up a gear – report by Chris Gable.
Ep (yep, it’s an unusual name) Weatherhead has been involved in her fair share of close shaves over the years. Giving them, that is, not suffering them in traffic.
But skilfully wielding a cut-throat razor in the rear of her customised Renault Master mobile barbershop is just one of the canny Scot’s many talents.
You see, Ep’s also a talented hairdresser, open-water swimmer and single mum of three teenagers – two boys and a girl. Combined with her indomitable work ethic, hers is a skill set matched to a considerable force of nature.
Rather than simply a dial-a-barber service, Ep’s van is her mobile grooming salon and office on wheels. She believes it is unique in the southern hemisphere.
“I know of similar vans in the UK, but not here,” she says.
Yet The Barber Van sprung as much from necessity as inspiration.
When hugely frustrating complications arose around the shopfront she was leasing near Sydney’s Maroubra Beach – it’s a long and complicated story – Ep decided to hit the road. Literally.
“I had to get out,” she says. “I was also in the process of moving up to the NSW Central Coast, where I hoped to build a customer base. So I had to come up with a way of making my business transient while also servicing my existing loyal Maroubra customer base, who I absolutely love – they’re just the best customers on the planet.”
Ep bought her 2009 Renault Master at auction and a friend who customises VW campervans fitted it out to her specifications. An original reclining barbers’ chair was secured to the floor. Checker plate, mandatory good-sized mirror and a bench seat for waiting customers all added to the barbershop décor.
Having rebuilt her home base in Maroubra, Randwick Council gave her permission to carry on her mobile barbershop business so long as she parked The Barber Van in changing locations. And she hasn’t looked back.
Ep’s customer base has expanded in recent years with the addition of two defence force bases and a government-owned research facility to The Barber Van’s rounds. To accommodate her larger clientele, she’s taken on another female barber as a contractor, and the arrangement has worked out well.
“We go back a long way, she’s a great person, and she loves working in The Barber Van,” Ep says. “It’s a good vibe; we have fun.
“She’s one of those people who step up, too,” Ep says of her new offsider. “She didn’t drive before she started with me, but worked hard and got her licence in just 12 weeks. She passed her test first time. I was impressed.”
The original lay-back barber’s chair has gone into storage, making way for two smaller ones. “I didn’t want the guys at the defence base to think, ‘There’s only one chick and a van, and I’m going to have to wait three-quarters of an hour because there’s a queue.’ I wanted them to see that there were two hairdressers,” she said.
To further streamline the Barber Van service, Ep also has, um, cut out traditional shaves – although she still wields her trusty cut-throat razor and shaving brush to trim customers’ pesky neck hairs.
For the most part, the Barber Van itself has been reliable. “Because I’d bought it at auction, I didn’t know how it had been driven or what it was used for,” Ep says. “It didn’t have high mileage when I bought it, and it only has 112,000 Ks on it now.
Originally from Glasgow – “I’m a Weegie,” she says proudly – Ep is now looking at ways to expand her Barber Van business while still maintaining her single-mum beachside lifestyle. And, yes, she loves Australia.
“I was originally told that if I went into business I would have to work seven days a week,” she says. “With three teenagers to look after, the house would be even more of a bombsite than it already is, if I didn’t at least have Sunday to do my housework.”
Ep’s commonsense is as obvious as her hairdressing skills. “You create a business to get a bit of freedom financially and not be enslaved to a job or an employer,” she says. “What I’ve created so far really is a job, not a business as such.
“I don’t really have massive entrepreneurial skills, and I don’t claim to be a real business brain,” she says. “But I’ve been in business for over 15 years now, and I’ve managed to always land on my feet.”
So stand by for another chapter in Ep’s Barber Van business story, as, given her inherent determination, that’s inevitable.
“What I’ve learned is that if you want to grow, you’ve got to step out and, rather than working in your business, you’ve got to work on your business.”
Whatever happens next, her stalwart Maroubra Beach customers know they’ll still be able to take the shortcut to the Barber Van, wherever it’s parked, at times specified on Ep’s dedicated – and, not surprisingly, stylish – website.