Angie Coey dreamed of a business that would reflect her eclectic tastes and high standards. Six years later, The Polished Image captures her vision of a first-class Canadian salon.
To be a business owner you need motivation and enthusiasm. To be the owner of a nail salon you need strength and a lot of energy. To be a pioneer in a burgeoning industry you need persistence and the willingness to shake things up a bit. Angie Coey, founder and owner of The Polished Image in Brampton, Ontario Canada, has all those qualities and more. While conservative Canadians are still getting used to the idea of doing nails as a viable and respected profession, Coey has moved full steam ahead in her endeavours to educate Brampton’s mostly residential community about quality nail care and that you don’t need to drive 30 miles into Toronto to find it. In Canada, where there are no licensing laws, Coey battles a seemingly endless invasion of new and inexperienced salons, a lack of product suppliers, and her own strong will, which keeps her striving for perfection. But she does it, all the while keeping her eternal positive outlook and boundless enthusiasm. Already a veteran of the industry despite her young age, 31, this 5-foot, 9-inch vivacious entrepreneur lets few obstacles stand her way and few opportunities pass her by.
Love at First Sight
Coey first discovered her passion for nails at age 19. “I was modelling and they wanted to use my hands for a photo shoot, so my best friend gave me a gift certificate for a set of nails,” recalls Coey. She loved the look of the nails so much she asked the nail technician---one of the few in Bramptonin 1984---if she would teach her how to apply them. The woman promptly told her no. Nor would she even tell Coey where she could buy the products. In fact, wherever Coey went in Brampton, other nail professionals wouldn’t help her. With little competition, it seemed the few local nail technicians wanted to keep the business to themselves.
Not one to take rejection lying down, Coey abandoned modeling to devote herself to learning the nail profession, which was no easy task. There were no schools and little literature available, but eventually, a nail technician in the nearby community of Oakville agreed to let Coey sit in and watch her work on clients for two weeks---at a price Coey paid the woman $500 just to watch and learn. With the two-week session over and her mind filled doing great nails, Coey bought a few products, but couldn’t duplicate what she had seen. “I just wasn’t ready,” says Coey.
So Coey talked a local salon into hiring her and teaching her the nail craft. It only took this highly motivated young woman a couple of years before she made the move to independence. “I got married in 1986, and the next year I was working out of my home,” says Coey With the help of her carpenter husband, James, Coey turned a spare bedroom into her first salon. James built a custom workstation and even put in a ventilation system. “He was so wonderful, he even entertained clients while they waited,” Coey remembers.
True to her “go-like-gangbusters” personality, Coey tried to attract her first clients by placing an expensive Yellow Pages ad. “My goals were too unrealistic back then. It took all the money I had to place that ad.”Nevertheless, something clicked. With a combination of that advertisement and a lot of referrals, Coey soon had about 200 regular clients. “It was phenomenal. I was working 10-13 hour days, six days a week.”
The Learning Years
Business was wonderful, but if she knew then what she knows now... well, things might have gone a bit more smoothly. “I didn’t have a lot of business sense, “ says Coey. “I did a lot of things wrong. At the time, there were still not a lot of people doing nails, so you weren’t picky about things. You didn’t even book in advance.”
Then, in 1991, still working out of her home, Coey became pregnant. Unsure at the time about the safety of working while pregnant, Coey took a departure from doing nails--- but she didn’t stray far. “I thought, “What can I do to still educate and better myself in the business?” recalls Coey. So, when she was offered a teaching position at Brampton’s first nail school, The Nail Academy, she grabbed it. Coey taught acrylics, and later fibreglass, for a year before her daughter Jordin was born, and she was able to re-establish her business at home. At the school Coey learned all she could about fibreglass and perfected her own technique before convincing all her clients to wear fibreglass instead of acrylics. Why the new love for fibreglass? “For one, we didn’t have the acrylics they have today,” explains Coey. She found that her clients prefer the lighter feeling of fiberglass to acrylics, and noticed that when their fiberglass nails do break, they tend to do less damage to the natural nail.
When the number of clients grew unmanageable, the Coeys bought a bigger house and hired the first employees. To find part-time help, Coey contacted two of her former students from The Nail Academy. She desperately needed the help. “You don’t do anyone any good when you’re tired, “Coey asserts. For a brief moment, Coey contemplated moving the business out of the house, but things were running so smoothly she decided to remain home-based. Besides, with a young daughter to take care of, working from home made life more convenient. “When Jordin was a baby, I could even breast-feed between clients,” remembers Coey.
When the time came to move the business out of the house, it wasn’t a matter of choice, but a matter of survival. The year was 1994 and the proliferation of discount salons in Canada was making it hard for Coey to compete. Seeing the signs early on, she knew “it was either get out there and grow, or slowly die in the house. And I had worked way too hard to just say good-bye.”And so, with a determined “Let’s do it!”Coey put her researching skills to work again and spent the next year looking for the perfect location. In the fall of 1995 Coey found her Shangri-La---located directly in the middle of Brampton in a busy strip mall. The Polished Image opened the first week of December with a grand ribbon-cutting ceremony by the city council. The salon’s neighbors in the mall are two large anchor stores--- one a grocery store and the other a Kmart. Across from the salon is a popular Chinese restaurant and a hotel. “Our market research showed the center gets 20,000 cars a week,” says Coey. Working from home allowed Coey to save enough money to lease the 1,500-square-foot space with James’help, a sculptor friend, and an interior decorator she traded services with, Coey got the look she wanted at a great price. “I remember we worked for two months to get the salon ready,” says Coey. “We were there from 7 a.m to 3 a.m painting every day.”
They’ve Got the Look
The look Coey wanted is a window to the personality of this restless salon owner. “If I were rich I’d probably be eccentric,” reveals Coey. With a mixture of Roman classical columns and medieval sculptures on the walls, the look is a bit shocking, Coey says, yet somehow relaxing.”Your eye will fall on one thing, and then you’ll turn your head and see a medieval sculpture that’s almost scary. It doesn’t feel like work when I walk in.” Coey opened the salon with just one other nail technician, Joanne Orland, who had heard of Coey and called her looking for a position before The Polished Image was even open. Orland worked out like a charm. “She came with a big following, and she’s a hard worker who takes pride in her work,”says Coey. Before the first month was over, Coey and Orland were working 13-hour days and both could see it was already time to make additions to their salon family. “I remember Joanne and I on Christmas Eve, locking the doors and just crying we were so tired.”She hired her next employee right after the new year. Today, nearly a year later, The Polished Image has six nail technicians---both full-time employees and independent contractors---and a nail coordinator, Paul Gottwald. Gottwald answers all the phone calls and books the client’s appointments. “When you have six women working all day together, it’s nice to have a male around,” says Coey. Gottwald also acts as day manager, does the banking, scheduling, and makes sure the staff has everything they need. Orland is now night manager. All the nail technicians get 25% commission on retail products they sell, in addition to their salary. Independent contractors pay 55% to the salon, and they but their products from the salon.
To ensure consistent, quality work, Coey won’t allow clients to become “regulars” to any one nail technician. She wants the client to be excited and comfortable with the salon, not a particular technician. If Coey finds a client has gone to one nail technician too many times, she makes a switch. From a business standpoint it also makes sense. “If someone builds up a regular clientele of 200 and then leaves or gets sick... I mean, I hope we have more going for us than that, but I like to cover all our angels.” Luckily, the clients don’t mind the arrangement. Having Gottwald book clients and switch them around also prevents technicians from avoiding certain clients. “I see some technicians who work for a couple years build up a clientele, and then pick and choose their clients,” says Coey. “That’s not going to work, It may work for a year and then your business dies. You never want to get too cocky in life. That’s when it hits you over the head.”
In addition to nail services, The Polished Image has three tanning beds, skin care (provided by an esthetician from Brazil), and new to the shop, an airbrush system, which hasn’t had any real requests yet. “You might not get really excited by these things in the U.S or in a big city like Toronto, but here in Brampton, this stuff is still relatively new,” explains Coey. Always on the cutting edge, Coey has also arranged for the salon to be a regional agent for a cosmetic surgery hospital. What that means, for the moment, is once a week a consultant works in the salon offering permanent make up, lip injections, varicose vein removal, and other plastic surgery consultations. “There was a time when I didn’t believe a salon should be a jack-of-all-trades,” says Coey. “But I think women’s lives have become so fast-paced, they don’t have time to go to specialty shops. I know that feeling myself. Your time is important.”
All Walks of Life
Brampton has the largest number of exotic dance establishments per capita in Canada---a fact that embarrasses some of its citizens, but not Coey, who sees it as a marketing opportunity. “In the beginning when I had a hard time building up clientele, I’d carry a tackle box into the change rooms and offer to do the dancer’s nails. The owners of the dance places were women, and they’re now my good friends and great clients and they send all their employees to my salon.” According to Gottwald, the salon’s clients range from high school girls getting ready for their proms to senior citizens indulging in a once-a-month treat. Coey says most of her client base is the older baby boomer set, around 50 years old, and includes city councilmen’s wives, real estate agents, and women business owners of restaurants, hair salons, and shops. “There are so many avenues to pursue for clientele if you’re open-minded. Be professional and be yourself, and you’ll go a lot further,” advises Coey.
During its six-day week, The Polished Image is a busy place, bringing in about 230 clients a week. Because of the amount of clients, Coey had to deal with one of the negatives of being a successful salon owner not knowing everyone who walks in the salon. “It was very hard in the beginning. I went from knowing all my clients to saying ‘Who are you? You’ve been getting your nails done for three months?’”To stay in touch with her customers, Coey comes in on her “days off” and introduces herself to people she doesn’t know. Coey doesn’t frequent the exotic dance places any more to get clients, but she does work hard at marketing The Polished Image on her days off. Although she still spends three days in the salon to do nails, the other days she’s hitting the pavement looking for new opportunities. One technique that works for her is cross-marketing nail services with local glamour photography businesses. Other promotions include discounts on full sets to attract new clients, newspaper ads, and Yellow Pages ads. She also put together a flyer with a price list and had it inserted into the local newspaper, which distributed 10,000 copies. When Coey’s not in the office, Orland and Gottwald keep things running smoothly. “If your salon runs well when you’re not there, that’s a good sign.”The Polished Nail charges $40 Canadian for a full set, $25 for a fill, $16 for a standard manicure, and $30 for a pedicure.
A Cut Above
Why does Coey work so hard to maintain high quality and education in her salon? “You don’t have to, but there are two kinds of salons here---the discount salons and our type of salon,” she explains. To keep current on new trends and techniques, Coey reads everything she can on the industry, including various trade magazines, takes classes on sanitation and new techniques, and checks up on what the salons are doing in the United States. “People aren’t stupid. (Regulation) is eventually going to happen ,” says Coey. “We’re just ahead of the game.”Still true today, Canada has no rules or regulations for the nail industry. “It’s really sad,” laments Coey. “Anyone can walk in, take a day course and the next day do nails. People don’t sterilize. I worked all this time to educate myself and what does it mean?” Which is why Coey is pushing for government regulations. Her first step is to start an association, which she says she’s planning for the near future.
When clients question Coey on the prices of her services, she explains they’re paying for the quality of their products and the benefits of the staff’s experience and education. “You can pay $25 for a full set and no one sterilizes. Or you come into a salon like mine,” says Coey. “Once you come into the salon, you’re hooked. Our nail technicians have been doing nails for 6 to 10 years which can be hard to find in Canada.
When Coey started in the nail profession in the 1980’s the number of nail salons in Canada was just a handful. Now, just as in the United States, there’s one on nearly every corner. And Coey can just see the trend just getting stronger. “As nail salons become more visible, they become more popular,” says Coey, which is why she’s looking to open a second salon around the first of the year. With the fast-spreading competition, she feels she really has no choice. It’s a huge commitment and a lot of responsibility, but it depends on your own personal desire of how you want to grow.”Also in her future plans is becoming a distributor, since there are still no nail product distributors in Brampton.
So, what do her clients think of this tall, auburn-haired dynamic salon owner strutting around wearing the latest clothing fashions and talking up the latest nail trends? “They probably have mixed vibes about me. The technicians are more reserved than I am,” says Coey. On the other hand, this is Angie Coey and the salon feeds off her high energy and “this-is-me” attitude. “I don’t mind artificial---nails are artificial--- but I can’t stand superficial. Superficial doesn’t fly with me. Be yourself.” Although Canada may be a little slow getting into the latest nail fashions (“We have a hard time getting them into the pastel pinks and blues,” says Coey), she does her best to bring her clients the benefits of her knowledge and her enthusiasm for nails. So, what keeps Coey’s passion for nails new and exciting? Says Coey, “Once in a while we’ll get a 50-year-old client who says, ‘I want that green.’ ”