SME profile: Dubai doctor who always wears many hats
Most people’s picture of a typical family doctor may not include millinery skills and a creative desire to design hats, however that is exactly what this British expatriate, Dr Njikela Nto, (affectionately known as Dr NJ in her practice on Dubai’s Arabian Ranches) became after she arrived in the UAE.
She landed in Dubai with her husband and two sons in 2009, from a tiny town in the West Midlands of the United Kingdom – Brown Hills – with a hat-making hobby to keep her busy when she wasn’t tending patients, being a mum or a wife.
“I didn’t want to start a business, hat making and sourcing hats for my friends was a hobby,” says Dr Nto. “However, supply and demand is the key to business and the demand just grew. I wear a lot of hats – not just metaphorically – literally, as many West African ladies do, and many of my friends would ask me to source exclusive hats from the UK – that demand grew exponentially, so much so that I have had to limit the growth of my company. I have manufactured, sourced and sold about 3,000 hats since I started trading in 2012.”
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Dr Nto says she has a very supportive and understanding husband, otherwise she would never be able to keep up with the pace. Running an international business that requires travel, creativity, design and accountancy in conjunction with a full time job as a general practitioner and being a mum of ten and thirteen year old boys requires an organisation beyond most.
“I find that if something changes in February, I find that it effects November, so I have to be very organised,” says Dr Nto. “My boys are in boarding school so I have yearly plans, not daily or weekly plans. I plan a minimum of six months in advance when the business needs me to travel. I have manufacturing facilities in the Philippines as well as other locations in Africa, Asia and Europe that need visiting. I use technology to sell a lot of my hats – WhatsApp has been invaluable – I am easily reachable and I can send images of my work immediately and when I’m on the move.”
Dr Nto has direct and indirect staff in the shop, the warehouse and different production facilities around the globe, which brings a much-needed flexibility to a seasonal and faddish business. “The thing that drives me is the wow factor,” says Dr Nto.
“I love hearing ‘Oh my God, my God, my God, thank you. I have 1,500 hats and fascinators in stock and I have sourced or designed every one.”
Dr Nto built on her hobby by taking a short course in millinery in the UK and using her Nigerian roots as a springboard into commercial life. West African women from Congo, Cameroon and Cote D’ Ivoire do not only wear hats for race meetings and weddings, says Dr Nto, but will wear an elaborate piece for church on a Sunday then will not wear it again. Recommendations and her website, heartie-hats.com, keep her business bubbling and she also has a raft of wholesalers that come to her for a wider set of millinery that will buy 200 to 300 pieces at one time.
“While my main business is done with Africa where the different seasons hats are very popular, I find that the western expats in the UAE prefer fascinators,” says Dr Nto. “My African clientele likes to follow western fashion so British pillbox hats are always in demand but now fascinators are making a bigger impact in Africa, which do not sell at the same price. Of course fascinators are not as expensive as hats.”
Dr Nto uses Debenhams, the British high street retailer, as a guide for pricing her products. She feels that most women’s headwear retails Dh280 to Dh380 and therefore prices her products at Dh150-Dh180 because, as she says, “prices count for many people and because I offer exclusive, unique designs my clients keep coming back.” She adds: “I have a balancing act between the growth of my business and the balance of my life. There is a bigger market out there but I prefer being a doctor and a family practitioner. Dubai offers me a wonderful crossroads of communities that I become involved in. I love the job, the involvement in the community, my personal boundaries are clearly defined. I know the hat I like to wear best. I am a doctor with a sideline in millinery.”
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