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Open for Business

Laurel Nelson | March 4, 2016 | 12:29 PM

Karie Bennett, owner of Atelier Salon and Atelier Studio near San Jose, California, is no stranger to opening salons. She has built out new locations three times as a salon owner.
But when it came to opening a third location, everything was different. This time, she was buying an existing salon rather than creating her own space. She was also purchasing it with a partner—something she had never done before. And, probably the biggest challenge she faced—her brand-new, built-in staff were all independent contractors.

On top of all those challenges, Bennett was also attempting to achieve the sale and opening of the salon in the last two weeks of December—a time when the whole country goes on vacation.
“We opened on January 2,” Bennett says. “The salon never missed a day. We went into the building on New Year’s Day and took things down off the wall, fixed electrical issues and deep-cleaned everything.”

She also had to do a database integration to get the old salon’s software converted to the salon management software that Atelier uses.  

“But the clients were happy and accepting because their stylists and color formulas were here,” Bennett says. “Our main goal was to not disrupt business for the client or the stylist. We even had sparkling wine and cider the day we opened and gave away little gifts.”

CHANGE IS GOOD
But before any of this happened, Bennett made the decision to partner with the manager of her two other locations, Rob Willis, in buying the salon. While she had never taken on a business partner before, it felt right with Willis.

“I have never had a partner and never thought I would have one,” Bennett says. But Rob has been manager here for about four and a half years and he picks up where I leave off and vice versa,” she says.

“His strengths are places where I’m not strong and I handle things he doesn’t. We communicate well and he has really cared about my business as general manager in a way I never thought I would see—he has some emotional ownership of it.”

When Bennett asked Willis point blank if he had ever thought of opening his own salon, he told her, “Not by myself. But I’d consider doing it with you.” With mutual trust and the ability to agree to disagree, the two make perfect partners. Once they agreed on that, it was time to find the perfect location.

“Over the past three years, we probably looked at six businesses,” she says. “Some required a new buildout, others were existing locations, which was attractive to us. I’ve built out three times before and it’s really expensive. You have to create everything yourself and it’s a long process.”

So Bennett and Willis decided if something came up that was in great shape already and could just be improved upon, that would be their preference.

“As a hairdresser, I do that all day,” Bennett says. “I take hair and refine it—that’s where my creativity lives.”

So in October, when an opportunity became available, Bennett and Willis jumped on it and by December the process picked up speed. “The seller really wanted to make it happen before the new year,” Bennett says. “So we were kind of pushed into getting it done sooner rather than later.”

The problem with this plan was in the details. To purchase a business, a lot of people are involved—lawyer, landlord, city employees, etc.

But the main issue was getting the computers and credit card system up and running. With the help of Salon Biz, they were able to do it in two short weeks. “There were people in their office helping us when they should have been off for the holidays,” Bennett says. “They made it as easy as possible.”

Getting ahold of other important people wasn’t as easy. “I was talking to my new landlord while he was literally on the ski slopes,” Bennett recalls.

Karie Bennett and Rob Willis partner up for a third location of Atelier Salon in Willow Glen, California.

CONVERTING COMPENSATION
All of these hurdles of a new physical location were nothing though compared to Bennett’s biggest concern—her new staff. The previous salon’s employees were all independent contractors. For Bennett’s new business to work, she needed them to stay on board and convert to a commission-based pay system.

“We went to meet them and give a presentation,” she says. “The old owner told them it was going to happen, but I was really nervous. I really wanted them to like us and see the value of working for Atelier.”
Before the meeting, Bennett and Willis did their homework, by visiting the Professional Beauty Association’s site (probeauty.org) to research rental salons versus commissioned ones.

Using the calculator on the site, they ran some scenarios, and each time they did, the employees benefited by working for Atelier rather than being an independent contractor.

“They came out ahead because we pay taxes, credit card fees, take care of benefits, overhead, etc.,” Bennett says. “They also came out ahead because of the reputation Atelier has already established. We felt like we had something really special to offer and invited them to come interview with us at our other location.”

Bennett also was prepared to address flexibility issues that motivate many independent contractors. “We have our culture and our core values which are non-negotiable, but I’ve adapted over time to learn to be more flexible,” Bennett says. “We ask all of our employees to suggest schedules that work best for their personal lives, but then we ask them to commit to them.”

Once the employees toured Atelier, met current staff and saw how busy and friendly everyone was, they really didn’t need too much persuading. “When we did one-on-one interviews they told us they knew our reputation and they were already thinking of applying with us. Many were missing the team aspect of working in a salon.”

Bennett now has 56 employees. She dropped from three days a week behind the chair to two. On the days she’s not doing hair, she’s at the new salon.

THINKING ON THEIR FEET
Without the luxury of time to plan, Bennett and Willis are perfecting the art of thinking on their managerial feet. For example, it was important to brand the new salon as their own, so they took the old sign down, but they didn’t have a replacement for it right away.

“So we made glorified election-style signs with our branding and Aveda’s on it,” Bennett says. “Our landlord had just put drought-tolerant succulents in front of the salon. We put those signs in amongst the plants and within 15 minutes we had a new client walk in off the street and buy product.”

The new salon is located in Willow Glen, a community about 15 minutes from the Santana Row shopping center where both the other salons are located. To get to know the community, Bennett and Willis approached the Willow Glen Business Association. They quickly learned that because their new salon is in a special improvement zone, they would get a free association membership as well as a profile on the community’s website, and they were invited to partake in a business expo event.

They recently held their first staff meeting with staff from all three salons, which was the first opportunity for all the Atelier employees to meet one another.
“We’ve started rotating our reception team through each location so they all get to know each stylist—with our software they can book at each location from wherever they are—and we’re going to rotate the assistants through each location, too.”

Bennett and Willis are also looking toward their new location to launch their new barbering department. They both are going through a barbering immersion program for owners to help them plan out the concept and one of their team members recently enrolled in a barbering program.

Bennett doesn’t know how she got so lucky, but is thankful it all worked out and is happy she didn’t pass up the opportunity because of the obstacles. But for any other owner considering opening a new location, she offers this advice: “Try not to do it at the end of the year!”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story first appeared on the site, AvedaMeansBusiness.com. Check it out for more salon management strategies and valuable business-building advice.

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