by Stacey Soble

 Around the country, a growing number of passionate salon owners and other industry professionals are cultivating success from the ground up, envisioning the kind of cosmetology school that generates confident, prepared, respectful graduates eager to step into the salon and prove what they can do.

“Traditionally, cosmetology schools prepared students to pass their board exams, not necessarily to launch successful salon careers,” says Mario Tricoci, founder of Mario Tricoci Hair Salons & Day Spas and more recently of six Tricoci Universities of Salon Culture around the greater Chicago area. “I was finding we weren’t getting the quality of graduates we were searching for, so we decided to create a school that specifically prepared students to work in high-end salons.”

While most new school owners will tell you that creating their academies has been one of the most rewarding aspects of their careers, they’ll admit it’s also been the most challenging. “Before launching my academy I had many school owners tell me how hard it was, and I thought, ‘How hard could it really be?’” says Jill Kohler, former executive director of The Salon Association and president and founder of Kohler Academy in Scottsdale, Arizona. “I toured a number of schools, drafted and refined my business plan and got my financials together—I felt I was as prepared as I possibly could be. But it’s been overwhelming, and now I find myself telling others how hard it really is.”

Whether you’re contemplating opening a school one day or simply want a glimpse at the new world producing your next hire, tap into the wisdom of school owners who’ve journeyed back to the beginning. With an educational nod to the ABCs, they reveal the hiccups, pitfalls, surprises and rewards of launching their own centers of learning.

A is for Admissions Director

Hands down, this is one of the most important roles within a school. Not only is the admissions director responsible for attracting the quantity and caliber of students the school targets, but the resulting tuitions fund the school’s success.

“The people who sell your program are your rainmakers,” says Charles Riser, co-owner of New York New York Salon Inc., as well as the dean and operations leader of The Temple: A Paul Mitchell Partner School in Frederick, Maryland. “You really need a salesperson, someone who is friendly, outgoing and able to sell your school from a variety of perspectives.”

Riser is lucky. His admissions leader is someone who truly has a vested interest in his school’s success—his wife and co-owner, Sharon. “But like in our salon, we’re always training our replacements, so we have an entire admissions team, people who can step in and give a tour or talk about our program,” he says.

Kohler hired her admissions director a full five months before opening her doors. “She was my first and most important hire. Her first goal was making sure our brand was solid and that we had a cohesive message online, offline and on-site,” says Kohler. “We launched a website and created everything from cards to brochures that reflected the image and feel of our physical space.”

According to some advice Kohler received from Pivot Point, a strong admissions person should be able to pull 150 people into a program each year. “After several months, we’ve talked to 500 prospective students and signed up 25,” she reports. “We’re getting there, but we’ve got a long way to go.”

Intentionally setting a high tuition of $15,000 for her cosmetology program, Kohler views Arizona State University as her competition. “When students call and ask for a tour, we tell them we start with a career planning interview—you can hear them sit up straighter over the phone,” she says. “If we don’t think someone is ready for the program, we’ll tell her to go home and rethink her decision.”


B is for Benefits

Just as in a salon, today’s school is only as strong as its instructors. Attracting the caliber you want means offering a magnetic compensation package.

“One of the things I’m most proud of is our staff benefits,” says Riser. “Our teachers start at $31,000 a year, and we pay full medical and disability benefits and provide paid vacation and holidays. And we pay for all the expenses associated with sending them for advanced JPMS training. We expect a lot of our team, so we take very good care of them.”

C is for Curriculum

Curriculum requirements vary by state, since each state’s board mandates what must be taught and for how many hours. But there basically are two textbook companies—Milady and Pivot Point. “If you haven’t looked at a textbook since you took your own exam, you’d be surprised to see how far they’ve come,” says Christine Gordon, who co-founded the Graham Webb Academy in Washington, D.C. in 1999. “As a school owner, the textbook company is your biggest ally.”

Since state board exams routinely draw from a combination of the texts, you should ask your state board what percentage of the exam is from Milady versus from Pivot Point. “Then take a close look at both companies and see which has the most to offer your school,” adds Gordon.

Then, make sure your curriculum is outlined in detail. “We’ve put together such detailed lesson plans, someone could come in off the street and teach,” explains Riser.

For the owner of multiple schools, consistency is key. “We teach four basic hair cuts, very simply and very accurately. Then we teach how a compilation of those basic cuts creates the artistry in high fashion,” says Tricoci. “It’s vitally important that we’re consistently teaching the same thing on the same page in every classroom of every school.”


D is for Dress Code

For many students, adhering to a dress code is their first taste of the professional world. While the Gary Manuel Aveda Institute in Seattle, Washington, doesn’t mandate a formal dress code, students are asked to attend in professional attire, says Institute Leader Elizabeth Whiteford. “They are learning what it looks like and feels like to be successful in the industry,” she says. “We ask that their hair and make-up be done, even if they’re not working with clients that day, because they need to practice their roles as image consultants.”

At the Tricoci University of Beauty Culture, the dress code consists of a white professional jacket with black shirt or pants, black shoes and black or white top. “It’s black and white, with no gray in-between, literally,” says Tricoci. “There’s no compromising on professionalism.”

The Graham Webb Academy also subscribes to the black and white dress code. “Sounds easy, but it’s not,” says Gordon. “We’ll have students show up in off-white, gray or beige, or they’ll throw on an orange belt. If they’ve got it wrong, they’re sent home for the day. A school is not a democracy, and we’re trying to cultivate a respect for the salon owner and the salon’s policies.”


E is for Educational Director

Kohler wanted a director who was willing to keep educators motivated and curriculum fresh. Her educators rotate their teaching through the school’s different zones, so classes don’t become stagnant, and like many modern schools, she supplements traditional educational offerings with business, customer service and retail skills as well as conflict resolution and time management.           

“In today’s world it’s also important that your curriculum is inspired. We cut a head of hair the first day of class,” says Kohler. “While some would say that’s a waste of a mannequin, it gets the enthusiasm flowing.”

When it comes to finding great instructors, it pays to grow your own, says Whiteford, who maintains a successful instructor training program. “You want to identify people who have a lot of passion for the industry and the ability to bring real-life experience to students on the floor,” she says. “That’s a tough shift for some people who are successful behind the chair—you have to have a lot of patience and be very humble.”


F is for Furniture, Flooring and Flow

Even more than in a salon, a school’s furniture and flooring is bound to take a beating.

The Gary Manuel Aveda Institute purchased furniture from companies they felt offered the most support. “And, we use stainless steel on all possible services—it’s so forgiving,” says Whiteford.

For flooring, the school went with a poured cardecking composite that is used in hospitals and at Boeing. “It’s green with black and yellow specks so it’s not totally dark, but it’s so effective—you can spill anything on it and clean it up,” she adds.

The most critical design aspect in a school is flow. “Most architects have no idea how to lay out a salon, let alone a school—they just want to squeeze stuff in,” says Whiteford. “We made sure our floor plan was well laid out and then we kept going over and over it.”


G is for Going for Accreditation

Once an owner has launched a school, she should begin considering whether she wants to go for accreditation through the National Accrediting Commission of Cosmetology Arts and Sciences, says Gordon. While you have to be established for two years to obtain accreditation, you can apply for candidate status after your first year and begin working through the year-long process.

“There are many great schools that decided not to get accredited because it’s such a difficult and expensive process,” says Gordon. “But accreditation shows your school has met a number of standards on quality of almost
everything—the teachers, the curriculum, the lesson plans, the school’s library, the physical plan, the methodology of education, grading systems and recordkeeping. It forces you to do the things you should be doing anyway.”

One of the most important reasons to get your school accredited, says Gordon, is that it’s a requirement for schools to participate in Title IV funding by the U.S. Department of Education, which allows students to apply for governmental student loans to pay for tuition. “If we want to compete for the best and brightest students and bring up the standards in our schools, it’s the right thing to do,” she says.


H is for Humor

An absolute necessity, says Kohler, who spent the past year putting together her school concept. “It was especially important once we hired people and were responsible for making payroll,” she adds. “I relied on dear friends who’d opened their own schools to provide some enlightening humor during those stress-filled days.”

I is for Income Taxes

Take everything you learned about taxes, profitability and cash flow in your salon and set it aside—schools are a whole new ballgame.

“You figure you’ve got 100 new students paying you $10,000 tuition, that’s $1 million, right?” says Riser. “But that’s not the way it works. Very few students pay you everything up front, and if they secured a loan for school, you’re more than likely to get disbursements in thirds.”

When students enroll in the fall and do pay tuition in full, they are paying in part for education they will receive the following year. Your books must accurately reflect that. “That can be difficult, because you can have times when you have a large amount in the bank, but little to show for it on paper,” says Riser. “This is not a cash-based system like your salon—you have to hire a skilled accountant who reviews your books and financial statements.”

Through his accountant Riser also discovered the 1098T form, an information form that reports the amount spent on tuition, allowing parents and students to write off a portion of their tuition fees. “I never would have known about it, nor would most of my incoming students or their parents,” he says.


J is for Janitorial Services

Because schools are so large and, let’s face it, messy, excellent janitorial service is key.

“We’ve been through three companies. It’s such a big job and over time things slack and the place begins to look dirty,” says Whiteford. “We’ve learned to be very diligent about discussing what needs to be done every day.”


K is for Kits

Student kits include everything a student needs for class—an apron, shears, mannequin heads, razors, product and textbooks. Many schools maintain multiple kits, such as cosmetology kits, esthetics kits and instructor-in-training kits.

The bulk and the volume of kits lead to another school issue: storage. Even for Riser, who established his school in an old Masonic Temple that offered 30,000 square feet, “We used the entire third floor for storage and we’re still running low. In addition to the kits, you’ve got printed materials, letterhead and so much paperwork that you have to have multiple filing cabinets. Then you’ve got to think about lockers for the students and a place for them to hang their coats. And when we have product delivered, it comes on a tractor trailer—our distributor loves us.”


L is for Lawyers

There are so many rules and regulations that have to be dealt with in the school business, retaining one or more skilled lawyers is critical, says Riser. “We’ve hired three to deal with everything from reviewing our policies and procedures, to helping students deal with personal safety issues.”

For example, when a number of Riser’s students attended a hair show, they signed up as models. “While the manufacturers know better, they didn’t give the students model releases,” he says. “This industry is full of
photographers and you have to be aware of how images may be used and how to take control of it.”


M is for Mindset

Becoming a school owner requires a shift in your mindset. “You’re no longer in the beauty business; you’re in the education business,” stresses Gordon. “You must understand about different learning styles, learn what curriculum is outlined by your state, know what you need to do to be compliant in your state, and develop instructor lesson plans, as well as a full infrastructure of instructor training and support.”

You’ve also got to adapt to a diversity of students—from the 18-year-old with a GED to the college graduate to the mid-life career-changer. “We’re no different than other schools in that we’re also seeing a higher percentage of students who have attention deficit disorders, bipolar disorders or for whom English is a second language,” says Gordon. “And keep in mind, cosmetology schools tend to attract the creative mind—you’ll need a combination of learning strategies to reach them.”


N is for Networking

There’s strength in numbers. “Membership in the American Association of Cosmetology Schools is a great way to network,” points out Gordon. “Every fall, they hold a conference where an assortment of vendors specific to schools gather. There are also courses for owners, covering topics such as understanding your liability, how to get accredited and financial aid, as well as courses for admissions directors on topics from internet marketing and how to get the most from your marketing dollar.”

In addition, connecting with salon owners continues to be important, since they will be your students’ future employers. Riser hosts networking breakfasts, inviting salon owners in to meet with students. “I tell other salon owners that today’s new generation of schools is producing amazing graduates that will help salons change their culture, upgrade their systems and effect real change. They’d better be prepared to change along with them.”


O is for Office Supplies

One of the biggest surprises for Kohler was the number of times a week she runs to her office supply store.

“I drastically underestimated the amount of office supplies required to run a school, from the reams of paper to the paper cutters, the white boards, the laptops and LCD projectors,” she says. “We were easily $3,000 over budget in this area.”


P is for Parents

While a higher and higher ratio of cosmetology students have some college or work experience, there is still a strong percentage who are recent high school graduates. They bring another aspect to the school—the parent.

“For us, this comes into play during the admissions process,” says Whiteford. “Many parents will come tour the school with the student. We’ll take them around and introduce them to different team members, but we try to maintain the conversation with the students—they’re the ones who buy into the school.”

School owners must be cautious about how they communicate with parents. “If the student is 18 years or older, and all of ours are, then he or she is considered an adult and you aren’t allowed to communicate confidential information to the parent—even if the parent is paying the tuition,” says Gordon. “That can get sticky when a parent is inquiring about grades or calling in to talk with a child who hasn’t attended class in several weeks. Before discussing any information with parents, we require students to sign a form giving us permission.”


Q is for Quality

“Today’s schools are teaching more than just technical skills,” says Tricoci. “They’re teaching entrepreneurial skills, best business practices, and customer service skills that go hand-in-hand with retailing skills. They are not just preparing future professionals for a job; they’re preparing them for successful careers.”

A quality school requires quality instructors. “It used to be the operators who couldn’t cut it as stylists would become instructors. Those days are over,” says Whiteford. “I want instructors who’ve been really successful at what they do but who have an innate love for teaching, a quality of selflessness and the ability to facilitate someone else’s creative process.”

Today’s owners also are considering the quality of the prospective students. “You’ll see candidates up and down the spectrum of ability, but what you’ve really got to study is their intentions, goals and commitment,” says Kohler. “We’ll begin to look at that by scheduling three initial interviews and looking to see if they show up on time, with their forms completed, prepared for the interview. You wouldn’t believe the number of people who don’t show and call several days later wanting to come back in.”


R is for Retail

One of the biggest thrusts at today’s new breed of school is the integration of retail training. Since most schools are aligned with a manufacturer, students are expected to learn the ins and outs of the line’s offerings and how to talk about the products to their clients.

“Even the textbooks today include up to 20 pages of information on retailing, a real shift from the way it used to be,” says Gordon.

The Gary Manuel Aveda Institute employs industry consultant Susan Papageorgio, owner of Inspired Learning, to help with retailing. “Her program helps us reach students at different levels: how to have a conversation with guests, how to educate guests on maintaining their skin or hair based on the service you just provided, and how to take advantage of retailing to boost your paycheck,” says Whiteford. 

Whiteford measures students’ retailing success by studying their retail per client ticket percentage. “We encourage students to talk about their retail percentages and experiences when they are interviewing with salon owners,” she adds.


S is for State Boards

You need to make your state cosmetology board your new best friend. “Of course the key to school ownership is following all the state’s rules and regulations, which affects every aspect, including how many classrooms you have, how you build your student kit, your educator to student ratio, the number of hours a student needs to work on the clinic floor to graduate and how often you can start up a new class,” says Kohler. “I have four three-ring binders with Arizona’s state board regulations and I’ve read and reread them several times. We’ve also called to clarify points we don’t understand.”

Kohler took it a step further by calling the state board and asking if she could sit in on an exam. “I thought all they could do was say no, but they actually said yes,” she says. “We were able to get a feel for what students needed to be able to accomplish.”


T is for Truancy

Tardiness and absenteeism are big issues within schools, and each owner has to decide how strict he or she will be about it.

“When you have a job and you don’t show up, you aren’t paid. But students are paying you—essentially, they are our guests,” Riser says. “On the other hand, you have a limited number of students you can accept. If one routinely misses class and takes longer to complete the program, it costs the school money.”

Many schools establish overage fees for students who overstay their welcome, something that Riser is considering the next time he revises policy.

Whiteford maintains a tougher stand. “We view it as our job to make future professionals salon-ready. If an employer is expecting you to be there 98 percent of the time, is it okay to attend only 65-70 percent of the time? We don’t want them graduating and losing their first three jobs because they continually don’t show up.”


U is for Utilities

When building a school, it’s critical to accurately calculate its future use of electricity and heating and air conditioning. It’s almost a guarantee your contractor will way underestimate the usage, because they calculate usage based on square footage.

“But when you’ve got 100 students, you’ve potentially got 100 dryers blowing, irons plugged in and several backwash units operating simultaneously,” says Kohler. “I made the mistake of not having a dedicated circuit for each station. The first day we blew the electricity and I ended up spending an additional $9,000 the first week upgrading my electrical system.”

“When you’ve got that many dryers operating 20 hours a day, you also really have to have the air conditioning to compensate,” says Riser.

V is for Vending Machines

Sound inconsequential? According to Kohler, they’re not. Originally she shied away from putting vending machines into her school because they seemed contrary to the image she wished to project.

 “Our hours are 9 to 4:30 and we have only a half hour for lunch—after all, stylists eat on the fly, so we thought the students should get accustomed to that kind of schedule,” she says. “We had to have something available on the premises and while a café would be nice, I’m not biting off more than I can chew.”


W is for Washing Machines

Encourage a contractor to rethink the laundry plans, because you never can have enough washers and dryers.

“It all comes down to volume,” says Whiteford. “We have 80 chairs and 14 treatment rooms, as well as the laundry from in the classrooms.”

Since the amount of laundry correlates to the amount of hot water used in a facility, school owners also need to consider the amount and capacity of hot water heaters.


X is for eXams

Part of establishing a school is setting up a system for evaluating student performance, as well as determining which aspects you will evaluate. At the Gary Manuel Aveda Institute, students are evaluated in three areas: written lessons, special projects and the services they perform on clients.

The service evaluation alone would throw any salon stylist a curveball. “We have a checklist that grades whether they greeted the guest appropriately, conducted a thorough consultation and discussed the products they used,” says Whiteford. “In addition, the cut itself is evaluated three times during the process and the guest is asked if she feels the result is in line with what she wanted. At the end, the student is given a pass/fail grade for the service.”

While the Kohler Academy doesn’t grade students on client services, it provides a thorough self-evaluation checklist that guarantees students don’t miss any steps. “For example, it’ll ask them if they properly prepared their space when they opened or if they greeted the client cheerfully and made them feel safe and comfortable,” says Kohler.

Of course preparing your students to pass the board exam is one of your biggest goals. “At The Temple, we actually pay our students’ board exam fees and if they don’t pass, we bring them back and train them until they do,” says Riser. “It gives us great bragging rights—our students have a 100-percent pass rate.”


Y is for whY?

Think of the high school student who asks why algebra will be important in his real life.

“If you want students to follow you, you have to be able to answer the ‘Why?’ It goes back to our culture and why we do what you do,” says Whiteford. “For example, if a student asks why we have a strict attendance policy, we’ll tell them that this is exactly what salon owners will expect of you.”


Z is for ZZZZs

If you’re considering opening a school, it’s critical that you try and catch some Zs when you can. “It goes along with one of the things we try to teach here,” concludes Whiteford. “The first step in taking care of others is taking care of yourself. We start every morning with a wellness ritual, such as a stretch or a deep-breathing exercise. We want students to get in the habit of rebalancing themselves before they move on to the next guest.”

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