How to Groom Your A-Team
Ryan Cortello and Courtney Costello developed a solid system for fueling salon growth by focusing on their team at Cortello Salon in Jacksonville, Florida.
Whether you’ve only been in business a few years or are an industry veteran, it’s tempting to spend revenue on updating your space, investing in new technology or financing new client incentives. Although these are all worthy investments, successful owners agree the best return occurs when you spend on your biggest asset—your employees.
Three salons give SALON TODAY an inside look at how building an A-team has yielded profit and growth year after year. The owners agree it takes patience and perseverance, but in the end, a salon full of high-producing stylists who are loyal to their culture and committed to their clients will pay off more than any other investment.
Ryan Fitzgerald, co-owner and director of marketing of Cortello Salon in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, has only been in business for five years. But in years two through four, Cortello had 636-percent growth. Fitzgerald and his wife, co-owner and CEO Courtney Costello attribute their astronomical numbers to one area: their people.
“We invest the most money, time and resources into our staff,” Fitzgerald says. “When we set up our business model, we realized the only way we were going to achieve true success would be to develop and grow through our team.”
As the salon’s leaders, Fitzgerald and Costello see it as their roles to come up with ways they can grow their people and then implement it.
“And they are making money,” he says. “This is not just a job—it’s a career.”
All in white--Frank and Belinda Gambuzza and their team at Salon Visage in Knoxville, Tennessee.
A great training program, strong lines of communication and a well-defined culture are the hallmarks of creating a team of successful, motivated stylists. But first, you have to hire the right people.
As any seasoned owner knows, a job-seeking stylist who walks into your salon armed with years of experience and a book full of clients isn’t an automatic perfect hire. A young stylist fresh out of beauty school won’t necessarily adapt to your culture, either.
At Salon Visage in Knoxville, Tennessee, owners Frank and Belinda Gambuzza have been hiring and running a successful business (they also own Spa Visage, Studio Visage and Frank’s Barbershop) since 1985.
With years of experience under their belts, they know their desired culture starts at the hire.
“We follow two principles on hiring,” Frank Gambuzza says. “First, hire good people when you find them, not necessarily when you need them.”
Secondly, Gambuzza looks for a great attitude and then provides exceptional training.
“We don’t look for individuals with a book,” he says. “Usually they also have bad habits that are difficult to break. The majority of our staff was hired straight from cosmetology school and raised in
our culture. This ensures the right belief is instilled early.”
During the interview process at Cortello Salon, Costello has the final say after her husband and team have vetted a candidate. Like Gambuzza, she’s looking for a stylist who will be right for the salon’s environment.
“Our number-one characteristic we look for is culture fit,” she says. “It’s okay if you’re not skilled yet—I can teach you that.”
When she meets with the potential hire, she looks for one of Cortello’s core cultural values—work ethic.
“If someone doesn’t have a strong work ethic, you can tell in an interview,” she says. “I will say, ‘So you’re going to be here like six days a week and work 10-hour days, and it may take a couple years to get where you want to be.’ If they answer with, ‘Well, will I have to work every Saturday?’ That’s a red flag.”
Costello is interested in interviewees who answer, “I’m willing to do whatever it takes.”
“We want them hungry, humble and smart,” Costello says. “Are they starting off that way? Maybe not. Are they willing to do what it takes? That’s what matters.”
Non-superstars, says Costello, want exceptions made for them all the time. Whether it’s not adhering to the dress code or coming in late, there is no room for them on the Cortello dream team.
Noggins salon in Ridgeland, Mississippi, has a reputation of being the place to work if you want to be a six-figure hairdresser. That’s because co-owner Kez Broad (with husband Gareth) tells potential employees in the interview that’s what she expects if they want to work at Noggins.
When they first opened in 2010, hiring wasn’t so easy for the Broads. They were essentially going into schools and telling students they would have to do a lot more training once they came to Noggins before they could go behind the chair.
Kez, who still works behind the chair, was a stylist for 10 years when she decided to drop everything and go to London to study at Toni&Guy for intensive training. She knew she could be better and wasn’t satisfied with her skills. Now, all Noggins stylists are trained by Kez on precision cutting. They’re also heavily trained in retailing the Aveda products the salon carries. They even work with a holistic doctor on diagnosing common hair problems and prescribing the correct products to correct the issues.
Between the all-organic product line, prescriptions and precision hair cutting, the Broads have set their salon apart from the competition in their area, which makes Noggins a highly sought-after salon by both clients and potential stylists. But Kez says Noggins is not for everyone.
“We tell them right away we expect them to be a six-figure hairdresser,” she says. “We have a real conversation with them about what it takes to run a business and make it. Then we ask them to do a shadow day.”
During this day, Kez directs candidates to allow themselves to react to Noggins. “They either have the reaction of, ‘It’s so amazing,’ or they want to run out crying because they are so intimidated.”
Right at the start, Kez knows if someone isn’t a fit. “We don’t have to fire people,” she says. “They fire themselves.”
With a team of just seven stylists and Kez on the floor overseeing everything, the intimate environment at Noggins is conducive to this type of interviewing.
At Cortello, the salon grew from four to 50 employees in four years. Fitzgerald is not a stylist, and Costello recently decided to step out from behind the chair. Because of this, interviewing has become more streamlined. A candidate has to go through a three-step interviewing process where they first meet with Fitzgerald before heading to the appropriate department for the second interview and then finally meet with Costello.
“As soon as they’re hired, the first three days is about learning our culture, structure and guest experience—we spend a whole day on the customer,” Fitzgerald says. “After that is a 90-day working interview. After the first 15 days, one evaluation happens by the interviewee’s trainer. Then there’s a 30-, 60- and 90-day evaluation.”
What Fitzgerald is really looking for in a candidate is pretty simple—he wants a nice, genuine, happy person.
The small but might team at Noggins in Ridgeland, Mississippi.
Like Gambuzza, Fitzgerald prefers new stylists fresh out of school to seasoned veterans, and the salon requires any stylist with less than three years’ experience to go through the Cortello Academy, which is a 12-month commitment.
“We teach key performance indicators (KPIs) based on service, retail, pre-booking and more, so when they get behind the chair, they are not giving an average performance,” he says. “They’re growing because they know how to grow.”
Stylists who come to Cortello with more than three years’ experience must do a technical test out and are also held accountable with KPIs.
Fitzgerald and Costello admit that in the beginning, their path to growth wasn’t always smooth. But they always knew continued growth was a core value and worked together to make it happen. After realizing he and Costello had complementary work styles—she’s a natural leader who excels at getting things done efficiently and he is more creative and a problem-solver—the duo began asking tough questions.
“We asked ourselves, ‘Where do we want to be? How will we get there? How many stylists do we need? At what dollar value?’” Fitzgerald says. “We just kept backing into the root of the problem and coming up with a system for it.”
Fitzgerald knew KPIs were widely used in big companies and wanted to create the same for the salon with every position having its own KPIs—even the call center.
As long as you’re tracking a number, you’ll know what to focus on,” he says.
Each position on the organizational chart at Cortello has four KPIs with software to support tracking. This is particularly important to make the numbers easy to pull, because Cortello stylists are required to check them every day. “They run two reports,” Fitzgerald says. “One shows how they did the day before and the other shows what their day is like that day.”
On this paper, stylists list what their goal is and a level system shows the expectations for KPIs depending on where they are. From there, they look at their day to see how it compares with their goal, which is to get to the next level. When they meet these goals for a minimum of three months, they go on to the next level. Every week, stylists turn their trackers into the accounting department, who inputs them into a spreadsheet.
But all of this is not a solo endeavor for employees. Bi-weekly coaching sessions (or weekly or daily if someone needs special attention) help keep everyone on track and focused.
“It’s in my best interest to help them achieve goals,” Costello says. “Their growth is our growth.”
But Costello isn’t just interested in the salon’s growth, she’s also rooting for her individual stylists to reach personal goals.
“They know they are in control of their own destiny,” she says. “But we can do it together. They can reach their goals, and I trust they will help me reach mine.”
In addition to the coaching sessions, the salon also does quarterly reviews where goals are identified and worked toward with an individual coach.
“It could be anything from learning how to cut hair faster to paying for a vacation to buying a house,” Costello says. “The coach talks to them about when they want the goal to happen and how they will track/measure to achieve it. Then we talk about the actions necessary to reach the goal.”
As a stylist herself, Costello is sensitive to the fact that creative people can find numbers tedious.
“Some people love them and some don’t,” she says. “They feel like there is all this pressure on numbers, and they just want to be creative. I tell them they are still creative and there’s really no pressure. It’s just so they are aware. Nobody is going to come up to them in the middle of a haircut and tell them their numbers are bad.”
A career path based on performance is high priority and the key to growth at Salon Visage as well.
“We offer a career path where the stylist is in charge of how much he or she makes,” says Gambuzza. “Based on performance in client count, pre-booking, service and products, they know from day one of their career exactly what it takes to be successful.”
In the early days of salon ownership, the Gambuzzas lost a lot of well-trained stylists because they felt there was an opportunity to grow more elsewhere. To ensure that no longer happens, career paths are clearly identified and goals set—not just for stylists, but also for every employee in the salon.
“We conduct regular reviews with front desk and call center staff giving them the opportunity to continually grow their pay in addition to performance incentives for things like pre-booking, retailing and add-on sales,” Gambuzza says.
There’s also opportunity for those who want to grow into roles with additional responsibilities in the company. “For instance, all six of our current location directors started out as front desk coordinators,” he says.
With multiple locations, the Gambuzzas have found consistency is key as the owners simply cannot be in every space every day.
Salon Visage believes in strong communication and individual attention to achieve growth.“We hold quarterly meetings at all levels from department to location to companywide to share information and celebrate accomplishments,” Gambuzza says. “On an individual basis, there is always routine feedback and quarterly coaching sessions as well.”
Another area Salon Visage excels in growing their stylists is continuing education. Although the staff enjoys an array of benefits like group health care, life insurance, supplemental insurance, vision and dental—securities the Gambuzzas know help ensure they take care of their personal lives—it’s the continuing education that launches careers.
“After their first year of foundation training, which includes weekly classes, stylists participate in monthly classes for the next year and quarterly classes—at a minimum—for the rest of their career,” Gambuzza says. “And all training is furnished by the company and conducted in-house—so the learning truly never stops.”
At Noggins, education isn’t just a requirement for stylists—it’s a passion. Broad describes herself and her staff as hair nerds who are always hungry for more knowledge whether it’s technical, marketing or retail.
The six-month training program at Noggins includes marketability, psychology, business sense and the medical side of hairdressing (identifying common hair problems and offering solutions).
“Marketability includes how you talk, facial expressions, what you’re wearing, etc.,” Kez Broad says.
Wrapped up in business and psychology are the client consultation and the art of conversation as well as teaching stylists how to use their money—where to buy insurance and how to invest.
With this intense education comes expectation. Every quarter, the Broads sit down and talk numbers with graphs they use to chart progress.
“If someone is backsliding, we have so many graphs we can pinpoint why,” Kez Broad says.
Accountability happens daily with both Kez and Gareth working the same hours as the staff.
“There is no possible excuse anyone can come up with—you can’t hide from us,” Kez Broad says. “If you have a large ego and are not willing to be accountable, you will hate our environment.”
The Broads formula for creating six-figure hairdressers works. Currently, four of the seven stylists have achieved six-figure salaries, and the others are on their way.
“We have two residents under supervision and one stylist who is more than halfway (two years) there,” Kez Broad says. “In the first year, our stylists will make about $37,000, the second year $68,000 and they can expect to hit $100,000 in year three.”
Going from an assistant who cleans and observes to a six-figure stylist in three years might seem like a big jump, but the Broads have a checklist a Noggins stylist must complete before entering the salon’s education program.
“They have to learn 14 basic precision cuts they can mix and match; they learn on a mannequin and test out,” Kez Broad says. Once completed, the stylists go through a residency, where they see clients under supervision of a senior stylist.
While three years may seem fast to some stylists, Broad has found many of the Millennials she has interviewed expect to immediately pull in the numbers of a senior stylist with years of experience.
During their education and residency, Noggins stylists also learn about hair restoration and hormone balancing from a holistic doctor Kez Broad works with. The result? Amazing retail numbers.
“They can’t wait to tell people, which is why they sell so much retail,” Kez Broad says. “Our rep says $16.50 is the average on a ticket. Last week mine was $67.”
But maxing out on retail and becoming a six-figure stylist are just a couple of the ways Noggins stylists contribute to the salon’s overall growth.
The Broads also diversify their management so once a stylist has gotten through their residency, the tables turn.
“Instead of listening to me, I want to know about them,” Kez Broad says. “I want to see what they can bring to the team.”
Kez Broad acts as the technical director (cuts, colors, retail, medical education); Gareth is the back-house manager (fiscal, scheduling, numbers); and her other stylists also have roles. One who has advanced color knowledge is in charge of formulations, another manages cleaning and someone else oversees the front of house.
She finds getting everyone involved and having a high level of communication results in the most satisfactory version of her staff.
“No stylist who has ever gotten through my program has left me,” Kez Broad says. “We create a very unique environment.”
It’s not all numbers and technical skills at Noggins. Although the salon’s culture is driven by systems, Broad knows a big part of being in the beauty business is, well, beauty.
To get new Noggins stylists on board with their own personal vision of beauty and trends, Broad has them complete a celebrity challenge.
“They choose a celebrity and then come to work emulating that person with hair, makeup, wardrobe and accessories,” she says.
The rest of the staff holds the person accountable asking questions like, “Is that something J-Lo would wear?” or “Does this represent your celebrity?”
The point of the exercise is for the stylist to design themselves around who they want in their chair. And each Noggins stylist attracts a different type of person—do they want wealthy women as clients? What are they buying? What are they wearing?
The whole salon gets involved in the process and excited to help their team member—and the stylist is thrilled to have the team’s support. This type of exercise also helps Broad and her staff identify trends and implement them to grow business.
“A few years ago, we all came to work with Kim Kardashian-style contouring done to our faces every day,” she says. “Clients loved it and bought more makeup as a result.”
Salon Visage also finds encouraging creativity and staying on top of trends equates to happier stylists and strengthens the team as a whole.
“We compete in the North American Hairstyling Awards almost every year,” Gambuzza says. “But as a team—not as individuals. While we applaud individual creativity and accomplishment, we do so from the operational level so it’s something others can achieve at any time and doesn’t encourage divas.”
The salon also does two to three photo shoots per year of work that ends up in magazines, social media and company-marketing materials.“People love to see their work in print,” Gambuzza says.
Cortello encouraged a few of its stylists to enter NAHA and Goldwell’s Color Zoom this year and ended up having finalists in both competitions. Fitzgerald and Costello also have an academy connected to the salon where stylists can go “play in the creative playground.” A photo studio with consistent backdrops and lighting is set up, and the salon recently shot its first collection.
In addition to their creative work being recognized, the owners and stylists at Cortello were excited to see their salon in print this year for another reason—the company was named to Inc. magazine’s 5,000 fastest-growing privately owned companies list.
Fitzgerald attributes it to the salon’s formula for growth and his staff’s ability to achieve it.
“Some of our stylists are the breadwinners of their families,” he says. “One came right out of school, trusted our system and in three years was doing $80,000 and in four years $100,000.”
He says the salon’s team-oriented culture also contributes to their success. “Everybody teaches everybody,” Fitzgerald says. “We’ve learned 90 percent of retention comes from teaching others. If a stylist has a great average retail ticket, we want them to share the story of how they’re doing it with someone else.”
Costello is continuing to build up this culture of teaching by pairing up senior/master stylists with new hires in a mentor program.
“Whether someone is an apprentice or level-one stylist, sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know, so it’s always good to have someone to go to help with prebooking, a haircut, etc.,” Costello says.
Mentoring is key at Salon Visage, too. The salon’s orientation process pairs new hires with a mentor from the same department in order to keep consistency in service and continued salon growth.
“The mentor is responsible for demonstrating the steps to world-class service for that position, showing where to find the things they need to do their job as well as introducing them to others in the department,” Gambuzza says.
The new hire works closely with the mentor and observes the first full week, and then it’s the mentor’s responsibility to keep an eye out for the new hire thereafter.
“The mentor is their lifeline,” Gambuzza says. “Just like a new client’s first impression of the salon is crucial, so is the employee’s.”
A team culture is what has rocketed Cortello’s growth and contributed to its employees’ overall happiness.
“We’re a team, and that’s our number-one core value,” Costello says. “Stylists in between clients aren’t sitting around. When you’re here, you’re working—helping a teammate with a shampoo, folding towels or handing someone foils.”
Because of this mentality, there’s no resentment between employees and very little drama at Cortello, allowing them to focus on creating a repeatable, consistent service from how they book appointments to what they say to guests when they walk in the salon.
When Cortello opened in 2010, it was with 10 chairs and four stylists. Now with a staff of 50 including executive positions, managers, coaches and educators, multiple locations are on the horizon. Fitzgerald and Costello will continue their growth through coaching and the guest experience.
“Our average service ticket is $110. In order to be able to charge that, we need to make sure we deliver on the experience from start to finish,” she says.
In the past few years of growing their business, Kez and Gareth Broad have done a lot of reinvesting in their staff with education and in their location with a remodel. The result?
“Sometimes we end up with more clients than stylists,” Kez Broad says. “But the more we can invest in our people, the better.”
Again, the team culture is the key to growth for Noggins. “We’re constantly helping each other,” Kez Broad says. “And we’re totally transparent. Anybody can look at their own or the salon’s numbers anytime.”
Gambuzza sums it up: “Communication creates trust, and trust is a key ingredient to a positive culture.”