Fresh out of cosmetology school in 1967, Kay Urban took a job working at a salon in Monroe, Wisconsin, owned by her then-husband’s grandmother. It was called Top of the Stairs, because of its location at the top of a seemingly endless flight of steps, and in 1971 Urban bought the salon. At the age of 23, she became a salon owner, in charge of six employees. Today, she still owns the salon in the same town—although it has a different name and location—and it has become the place to go in Monroe.
Your mother gave you helpful advice when you started out. What was that?
When I first started, a person who did hair in her home hurt her arm, and asked me if I would come take care of her customers for six weeks while it healed. At the time, I wanted to do high-fashion bouffants, but her customers were little old ladies who wanted fingerwaves and pin curls. So after a week, I came home unhappy, telling my mother that I didn’t want to do that. She suggested that I change my attitude and try to become better at the styles they wanted. So I did. Later on, working in the salon, I couldn’t stand the smooth bouffants, so I would do pin curls at the back of the head for a little bit of flair. And that was the beginning of my fame in Monroe!
Tell me about your mentors.
In 1976, we moved the salon downstairs and changed the name. Around that same time, my mom said to me, “Shouldn’t you get extra education?” So I signed up for the Redken Challenge for Success class. Doug Cox was the speaker, and he changed my life. I couldn’t get enough education after that. It made me excited about being a hairdresser, and taught me how to run the salon.
What lessons have you learned in the business?
In the beginning, I was not good about handling people. I like change, and the staff couldn’t always handle that. I’d come back from a show or class, and say, “We’re going to raise prices,” and they would freak out. I started to realize you have to take it slowly. Also, you shouldn’t change things for the sake of change. A few years ago, I went through the Seven Habits of Highly Effective people online. That was life changing. I learned that you don’t need to react all the time; you need to listen to people. So now I do one-on-ones with each member of the staff every month. I’ve found that if you have issues, you should try and confront it right away. Go talk to the person, because it is often a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of what’s been said.
How do you recruit employees?
Twenty years ago, I started an apprenticeship program. In Wisconsin, you can train people in the salon, and then they go to the technical school for 280 hours of bookwork. Three quarters of the staff apprenticed here. I’ve hired three new employees in the last year. Ten of my employees have been here eight to 30 years. My sister has been here 30 years. I’ve been blessed with a wonderful team of women, who take wonderful care of our guests.
Salon setup: 12 styling chairs, 6 color chairs, 2 spa treatment rooms, 1 waxing room, 1 pedicure room with 3 chairs
Square feet: 3,500
Prices: cut and style $25-$41; full highlights $60-$200; updo $50-$75; chemical $55-$200
Salon software: Mikal
Equipment/furnishings: Belvedere, custom
Primary hair care lines: Redken, Rusk
Primary chemical line: Redken