This old loss-making beauty parlour in Safdarjung is now a Rs.10 billion chain

The story of VLCC. How Vandana Luthra pulled it off

It all began 26 years ago. In 1989, 30-year-old Vandana Luthra, mother of two daughters, decided to finally step out. She wanted to bring alive her passion and dream of transforming lives through beauty and wellness, which was still an alien concept in India back then. With a loan of #3 lakh, Luthra bought an old, loss-making beauty parlour in Safdarjung, south Delhi, to set up her first beauty and wellness centre, which she christened Vandana Luthra Curls and Curves (VLCC). In the early 1990s, beauty and wellness were unnecessarily attached to meaningless social taboos, although for Luthra, what people will think of her profession was the least of her worries. She started her entrepreneurial journey amid bigger odds, the toughest among them, the decision to leave her three-year-old daughter at home while she worked. While she knew what she was doing, she had to convince her husband and relatively conservative parents-in-law. Armed with conviction, knowledge and sure-footedness, Luthra aligned everyone on her side in no time. From three employees when Luthra rolled out her first wellness centre, VLCC today has 6,000 employees spread across 123 company-owned centres and 60 franchises, with about 60% of the work force comprising women.

VLCC was not a spur-of-the-moment decision but a well-nurtured dream shaped over a decade, which is what helped Luthra bring it to life. At 21, nine years before she took the plunge to become an entrepreneur, Luthra got married to Mukesh Luthra, a love marriage that in her own words was the coming together of two families that were poles apart from each other. Luthra was raised in a service background in Greater Kailash, a well-known south Delhi locality, while her husband was raised in a conservative, religious set-up and had a business background. However, the disparity worked in Luthra’s favour. She says she adjusted to her new surroundings and learnt from the best of both worlds. Meanwhile, her dream was still lurking in the background. “My father worked in a German multinational and we barely got to see him as he was constantly traveling. I always used to think that if I had to work so hard to be gainfully employed, then why not create a business rather than working for someone? I wanted to do something where I could make money,” says Luthra.

Starting out
After her graduation in psychology from Lady Shri Ram College, Luthra received initial training in nutrition science and cosmetology in India and then later travelled to London, Paris and Munich for a series of further courses. “I took a decision on my own when it came to getting married and while my parents were not too happy with it, they let me do what I wanted. They were worried that our marriage wouldn’t last more than a year,” Luthra says. “I moved from an independent family to a conservative one. It was my decision and I was prepared for it. I fell in love with my in-laws. They had their own business of blankets. It was a house where everyone woke up at 5 am.” Luthra adapted to the new ways. She was a housewife for several years and says that she cooked for the family, washed clothes and even scrubbed the floors. “For at least nine years, I wore a sari every day at home. From being someone who could not cook, I was suddenly able to cook for more than 100 people in less than two hours,” she adds. Luthra believes that this transformative journey taught her how to manage budgets and multi-task.

In time, she steeled herself for the launch of her own business. “I started in 1989, nine years after we got married, and I had planned it that way. We had our first kid a year after we got married and the second baby came three years later,” she says. “All this while, I kept going back to complete my training in Germany; I wanted to start when I was fully ready. All this would not have been possible without the support of my husband and in-laws. I owe my success to my in-laws, who raised my kids when I was not there.” Luthra’s in-laws were initially taken aback with the idea of her starting a wellness centre, although they were eventually convinced. With support from her in-laws and her husband­ — who she till date discusses business matters with before taking decisions — Luthra started her entrepreneurial journey. After VLCC’s debut, the next centre emerged within a year-and-a-half, and by the time the 10th centre started in 1993, Luthra had convinced her husband to join the business. Meanwhile, she repaid the loan she had taken within eight months of starting out on her own. “Everything was ready, although I would not have taken the business forward if it was not for my husband,” she says. “Indian women are great at managing many roles simultaneously. There’s great learning at home, where they are trained for this balancing act,” she adds.

Well begun, half done
While Luthra’s business has made her a household name, success did not come by easy. Some of the biggest challenges she faced were the taboos associated with the wellness industry back then. “The wellness industry was new and people used to look at me with a ‘beauty parlour-waali’ kind of mindset. I am glad I was able to change that. Back then, customers had to go to different places for different services — instead, we introduced a concept where everything was under an umbrella,” she says. “The entire transformative journey cannot take place if one limits themselves, so we not just helped our customers lose weight but made them start believing in themselves as well. We brought in skincare, nutrition and weight-loss in one go,” she adds. VLCC’s packages for weight loss and other offers were sold out within a month of its debut in Safdarjung. Luthra and her small team worked overtime to manage the rush. But there were more challenges in store — not just the general public but even the medical fraternity was skeptical of the brand’s services in the initial years.

“One of the biggest challenges I faced was working with the medical fraternity or doctors. They did not see wellness and nutrition as something that they had to work with. It took me many years to convince them. I was coming from a place of logical reasoning but the response from the medical fraternity was negative. Now, 60% of our clients are referred by doctors,” says Luthra. She remembers the days when she would micro-manage everything, from laundry right down to accounts; she took all this in her stride. “Money always brings empowerment. When one is economically independent, one feels confident about things. It was the same for me,” she says. Even otherwise, Luthra says she has never been scared of anything in her life. “If my business had not done well, it wouldn’t have come to me as a jolt. I’d have taken it as a part of my learning,” she says.

VLCC has spread its wings outside of India, too, with a presence in 16 countries including Sri Lanka, Nepal, UAE, Oman and Qatar. VLCC centres provide several health solutions, from beauty treatments and care to health management programmes. It also runs the largest vocational academy network in Asia in the fields of beauty and nutrition.

And Luthra has other ambitions — she wants VLCC to be a professionally-run organisation. The company recently announced plans to go public and has filed its red herring prospectus with Sebi to raise #400 crore to fund expansion. While Luthra’s daughters are not involved in the business, she says she’s not worried about succession. “I am a very hard taskmaster; my kids will have to learn from scratch, which alone will take them at least four to five years. I think this will be tough for them and unfair for other colleagues here,” Luthra avers.

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