Dialogue, forecast, brainstorm, share, network. It wasn’t too long ago that salon owners wouldn’t dream of doing any one of these activities with a group of other owners. Skeptically viewing each other as competition, they worried that sharing ideas and best practices would only lead to the stealing of market share, clients and even staff.
How far those attitudes have come. With more and more conferences and educational seminars geared toward the business of running a salon, owners are starting to realize that sharing success strategies won’t weaken their own individual businesses, but rather strengthen the whole industry.
This evolutionary process of sharing is reaching a new stage. Instead of simply attending structured business seminars, owners are forming their own groups and shaping the educational experience to meet their own needs. Throughout the country, salons of similar interests, sizes or even markets are choosing their own forums and sharing everything from marketing plans and P&L statements to education and staff issues. In fly-on-the-wall style, SALON TODAY takes a closer look at these new groups.
The List Goes Live
A light-hearted posting on The List, The Salon’s Association’s salon owner list-serve, led to a casual gathering last summer of 16 salon owners and managers from around the country in Bonita Springs, Florida.
“There was a group of us that were having such great e-chats on The List,” says Jeanne Lennon, owner of Lennonheads Salon and Spa in Worthington, Ohio. “We were planning to meet at the next Symposium, but that was still 10 months off. I suggested we should have a summer summit where we all could have a cocktail and work on our marketing plans together.”
When Lennon first suggested the idea, she didn’t dream it’d become reality “But before I knew it, Melanie Loboda (owner of Shear Artistry in New Holland, Pennsylvania) leveraged a contact to get a great room rate at a Hyatt and Matthew Fairfax (co-owner of the James Alan Salon in Shoreline, Washington) booked a flight from Seattle and threatened, ‘I’ve got my plane ticket, you all better get on those planes,’” laughs Lennon.
While the group had kicked around the idea of a cruise, Bonita Springs in the off-season made the trip affordable for owners of different-sized salons. For several weeks, the group bantered back and forth about fun in the sun and last-minute plans before the trip. “While we all were looking forward to having fun together, a few weeks before the trip, I started to panic that we were in danger of going there and not coming back with anything concrete,” says Loboda.
Fairfax agreed to give a modified version of the communications seminar he conducts through his consulting business, and the attendees agreed to bring along a list of their salon benefits, copies of their policy manuals and any successful marketing promotions. For the three-day meeting, the group decided on loosely structured mornings, networking time in the afternoon and optional dinners together.
When the group convened, participants included Lennon, Loboda, and Fairfax, as well as Rowena Yeager, owner of Studio Wish Salon and Colour Café in Streetsboro, Ohio; Lisa Cochran, owner of The Studio of Hair Designers in Laurel, Mississippi; Suzan Watson, owner, Premier Salon Concept in Dublin, Ohio; Tina Anzivino, owner, Ciao Bella Salon in Gainesville, Florida; Roberto, owner of Roberto of Italy in Naples, Florida; Sarah McGee, owner of Visual Changes Salon in Ellicott City, Maryland; Leif Christensen, owner of Leif’s Hair Studio in Houston, Texas; Pat Helmandollar, owner of Savvy Salon and Day Spa in Cornelius, North Carolina; Josie Vitale, owner, and Becky Seward, manager, of Salon Bellissimo in Southgate, Michigan; Tracy Townsend, owner, and Rebecca Alexander, marketing director, from True Salon and Color Café and J. Winter salon in Westborough, Massachusetts; and Tracy Ferrell, owner, For Men Only in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
“We all came armed with a great idea to share,” says Loboda. “For example, on the first day I shared a referral program that worked well in our salon, Pat Helmandollar shared marketing materials and Leif Christensen talked about setting up photo shoots and producing salon newsletters.”
Throughout the three days, each owner also shared with the group a challenge his or her salon was experiencing. Then in the afternoons, other participants who had information that would help resolve the challenge would seek out the owner who’d shared the problem and offer any advice.
“For example, I wanted information about setting up my own training program,” says Loboda. “I came home with three complete programs, down to the letter.”
“The biggest thing I took away from my business came after I shared my financial statements,” says Lennon. “I thought my payroll expenses were at 45 percent, but Roberto thought my payroll costs were closer to 75 percent. I learned that I was calculating them wrong, and although they weren’t quite that high, they were higher than I thought they were. I came home with a new plan for reducing those costs.”
“It was one of the most incredibly powerful, as well as one of the most fun, experiences I’ve ever had,” says Fairfax. “While we had a few hours specified for learning, we ended up with several hours of learning and sharing.”
While the participants are planning to gather at TSA’s Symposium in San Antonio this January, they’re also making plans for a summit next summer and several have traveled to visit other participants’ salons.
“It was so powerful and comforting to be in a situation where we were all in the same boat,” agrees Loboda. “We all have a tendency to talk to our spouses or friends until they just shut off, but here we could talk business until we were blue in the face and we all understood each other’s unique perspective.”
The Super Six
About five years ago, John Ryan, who with wife Melissa owns Festoon Salons in San Francisco and Berkeley, California, was invited to be on a panel with about 13 other owners to help organize a Learning Lounge, one of TSA’s regional education seminars. “There was a core group of us who became very active in planning this meeting and we had four or five great phone conversations and got along really well,” says Ryan. “After the meeting I called them up asked if they would be interested in getting together for dinner sometime.”
Over the years, that casual invitation transformed into a strong and mutually beneficial bond among the owners of a handful of leading salons in the Bay area. The group, once dubbed the Super Six by a distributor hoping to capture their collective business, now includes John and Melissa Ryan; Cinta Gibbons, owner of Cinta Salon in San Francisco; Gina Khan and Vijai Manilal, co-owners of Gina Khan Salon/Yosh for Hair in San Francisco; Bonnie Waters, owner of Changes Salon and Day Spa in Walnut Creek, California; and Joseph Aghassi, general manager, and Elizabeth Stenstrom,artistic director of L Salon and Color Group in San Mateo, California.
Initially the group would try to get together once a quarter for dinner. “But soon we found that meeting in a restaurant didn’t allow us enough time or the ability to have a candid conversation, so then we started taking turns hosting catered dinners in each of our salons,” says Ryan. “We still wanted more time so we started organizing weekend getaways, first to Calistoga in the California wine country, then to Carmel. Over the years, we’ve probably gotten together about 20 times.”
Many outsiders would view the salons in the group as direct competitors—each is a high-end salon counting annual sales in the millions and employs between 30-55 employees. But Ryan says the Bay area offers enough business for everyone and the alliance has made each of the salons stronger.
When the group first started getting together, each owner would share what they were doing really well. “But as the trust grew, we began using each other as a sounding board, taking our more serious challenges or untried ideas to the group.”
For example, when the group started meeting, Ryan says Gibbons and Khan both were proud of their more than $100,000 in annual retail sales. But after the Ryans coached them in their retail strategies, both salons raised
annual retail sales to more than $500,000.
“In turn, Gina shared an amazing cancellation policy that we now use, Cinta has shared great techniques for communicating with difficult staff members, and Joe and Elizabeth have done really well in real estate investment and once drove us all around showing us investment property. That’s when I bought my first four-flat,” says Ryan.
At the last gathering, the group elected to bring in an outside speaker. Larry Kopsa, CPA, one of the founders of Kopsa Otte CPA, an accounting firm that specializes in the professional beauty industry, talked to the group about different exit strategies.
Since the salon members are so close in proximity, the sharing goes beyond the meetings. “If we’re overflowing, we’ll send business to each others’ salons and we’ve sent staff members to conduct education at the other
salons,” says Ryan. “And when Vijai was trying to raise money to help build boats in the tidal wave-damaged Sri Lanka, I organized a party with 50 of my top clients and invited him in—that takes a lot of trust.”
The experience, says Ryan, is unmatched. “We have grown together so much,” he says. “On every level—in business, emotionally and spiritually. Without a doubt, this is the most important networking group I’ve ever been a part of.”
Market Leaders’ Summit
If you can’t find a salon owner group to join, form your own. That’s exactly what go-getter John DiJulius, who with wife Stacy owns a series of John Robert’s Studios and Spas surrounding Cleveland, Ohio, did five years ago. “The industry’s business meetings and shows are great, but for the most part they speak to the middle of the road,” he explains. “I’d grown to the point that I was doing 85 percent of
everything I should be doing—I was after that last 15 percent. And it’s hard to get that last 15 percent of knowledge at a large show.”
Instead, DiJulius began calling the owners of salon businesses he admired, inviting them to a Market Leaders’ Summit and intriguing them by dropping names of other owners he intended to invite. “It worked; no one wanted to be left out,” he says. “In that first meeting, collectively we had businesses worth more than $140 million. Today it’s grown to a collective sum of more than $635 million.”
While the group initially elected to keep the names of its members confidential, DiJulius was able to share a few of the industry visionaries that have joined in, including Charles Penzone, founder of the Columbus, Ohio-based Charles Penzone Family of Salons; Van Council, owner of Van Michael Concept Salons, based in Atlanta; Gene Juarez, founder of the Seattle-based Gene Juarez Salons and Spas; and representatives from Chicago-based Mario Tricoci Hair Salons & Day Spas; and Ratner Companies, which include more than 1,000 Hair Cuttery salons across the country.
At the first get-togethers, the owners gathered and shared success stories, as well as some of the challenges and landmines their businesses had faced. “But we soon learned that many of these principals weren’t able to discuss the details of their marketing plans or education systems—they’d simply grown to the point where they weren’t working at that level of their businesses,” explains DiJulius.
So the group responded by changing the scope of the summit, inviting top-level managers of different departments along to form their own educational subgroups. “For example, now the people who run the education programs will meet and the people who lead the marketing efforts will meet—it’s one of the best things we ever did,” says DiJulius. “These managers will come back so fired up with new ideas, and there really isn’t a forum that addresses their unique needs.”
Last year, the group pooled its resources and hired its own keynote speaker, Verne Harnish, author of Mastering the Rockefeller Habits. “Harnish, who’s worked with companies like Dell, shared strategies for maintaining and managing fast growth,” says DiJulius.
But the real learning comes through interaction with some of the industry’s most brilliant minds. “One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was from Gene Juarez,” says DiJulius. “He warned that as you grow, you always have to remember that there are two huge sides of the business—the business side and the artistic side, and that you can’t let the pendulum swing too far into business. The voice of the hairdresser needs to be heard in everything you do, from your marketing to your vision to your operating systems.”
That revelation sets the tone for the future direction of the group. Tom Kuhn, who was a member of the group as the former co-owner of JUUT Salonspas, now takes over direction and organization of the newly renamed TKO Market Leaders as the president of TKO Services Inc., a consulting group based in Minneapolis. The duality of business and creativity is clearly visible in the group’s one-page plan that lays out its vision, mission, purpose and goals. On the back of the written plan is a visual representation of the plan.
“If you look at who is attending this year’s conference, it’s a unique blend of the people who are running the business side of the salons and the artistic directors who dictate the creative side,” says Kuhn. “They don’t typically participate in the planning process together, but in this very stimulating two and a half days, they’ll work together in teams designing their strategic plans for 2007.”
“As this group was formed, it was about best practices and critical issues,” continues Kuhn. “Now we have a forward focus on next practices.”