All around Gayle Fulbright, California salons were closing. Taking a risk that the next salon to succumb to the pandemic wouldn’t be her own Headlines The Salon in Encinitas, Fulbright started hiring the displaced stylists, even offering a signing bonus coming out of the shutdown.
Soon the 18-chair, 2,600-square-foot salon Fulbright owns with David Linde had 20 new stylists, along with the prospective influx of new clients who would follow them with their former salons’ blessing. While Fulbright calculated that the space at Headlines could absorb the additions, she knew that the culture could not. After all, the culture hadn’t been working for the existing team; she couldn’t expect new energy—even times 20—to fix that.
Failure Gets a Timeout
The pandemic came on the heels of a 2019 walkout at Headlines, when Fulbright lost ten stylists and, with them, a major chunk of business. In the month prior to COVID, to meet payroll Fulbright had borrowed from her retirement savings. The salon needed to take a long pause just at the time that the lockdown forced one.
“It was tragic that so many salons were permanently closing their doors,” Fulbright recalls. “But for us this was an opportunity to stop and reflect—and to recover.”
Clearly, the stylists who had left weren’t happy working at Headlines. Fulbright tried looking at the glass as half full: many stylists had stayed. Fulbright sent these loyalists a survey with just one question: Why would you want to continue to work here? Of the ten choices she offered, three factors rose to the top of their lists.
1. Support and Culture
Mentioned most often, stylists appreciated the support of a team and the leaders: a culture of being in this together.
“My stylists knew that booth rental, which accounts for most salons in California, would not provide a culture of support,” Fulbright says. “They’d really be on their own.” That helped her to prioritize support for her team above everything. Now each team member receives monthly one-on-one life-coaching with either Fulbright or Linde.
“We really listen to them,” Fulbright reports. “We hear about their personal situation, and we tell them that we care. We support them.”
Group huddles take place monthly on Zoom, and the team is paid for their time. This is when Fulbright and Linde share team members’ good news, such as hitting their goals.
On one Saturday a month, the salon orders in pizza. “They’re working their butts off, and they get to have a pizza lunch outside,” Fulbright says. “Our group enjoys being together. My partner David is an artist, and sometimes we bring in art supplies and wine so the staff can come in and paint pictures.” Or being together can mean attending a hair show or other industry event as a team.
The owners’ first focus of business after lockdown lasered in on prebooking. Fulbright wanted her stylists to be able to plan, and only a high prebooking percentage could generate numbers to calculate income for future weeks and months.
“Our prebooking is now at 78%,” Fulbright says proudly. “Prebooking is more important than retail or styling numbers, because once you have a full book you can raise your prices.” Retail will follow, she adds, because prebooking builds trust, and trust motivates guests to purchase suggested products.
Theme days occur throughout the year. On Thanksgiving, the theme is obvious but still important—expressing gratitude to the staff can be powerful, Fulbright says. In July 2021, an all-day family beach party celebrated the salon’s anniversary, and in summer 2022 everyone who has ever worked at Headlines will be invited to the 35th anniversary.
Mirroring what has happened post-pandemic in companies both in and outside the salon industry, the Headlines stylists asked for more control over their work schedule and working conditions.
“I had to stop being the leader who told the stylists that they had to wear black and work a certain shift,” Fulbright says. “I turned it around and thought, ‘Would I want to work for me?’” Together, owners and stylists crafted a four-day workweek with split shifts. Now the stylists have three consecutive days off and choose whether to come in early or stay late.
Income is always a consideration. Everyone wants to be able to pay bills and put something aside. Benefits count as part of the bigger picture.
“They know that if they become independent contractors, they can touch a lot more money,” concedes Fulbright, who filled some of that gap by implementing a 401K plan that the salon matches up to 3.5%. This is helping her team to save. She also gives them their birthdays off, and they can choose any extra day of the year for a paid day off.
Little Things Add Up to a Happy Team
By 2022, the salon was humming in a way it hadn’t in a long time. When March 2022 hit $300K, breaking the salon's 35-year earnings record, Fulbright couldn’t point to any single big reason.
“It didn’t hurt that March has 31 days,” Fulbright jokes. “But what changed is that we changed. Our stylists are producing more because they’re happy. They love that David and I sit down with them and say, ‘This is what you’ll earn this month and how much you’ll take home this year.’ They’re excited that we’re coaching them and helping them set goals and save. They know they have input into their schedule. It’s not any one thing, but it’s all of those little things.”
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