Gadabout’s Pam McNair has found that successful nail technicians balance ego and humility, and that they’ve learned to stand up for themselves.
Pam McNair’s fourth Gadabout Salon, like the others she owns in the desert city of Tucson, Ariz, is a one-of-a-kind design. This one, located on a busy city throughfare, looks and feels like a historical European museum.
The drone of city traffic melts away as visitors enter a soothing atmosphere created by high ceilings, antique-style furniture, and walls painted to look like they’ve been lovingly maintained over hundreds of years.
Inspecting the new salon, McNair’s heels click with authority on the hard, cherry-colored floor. She greets employees with the enthusiasm of a coach preparing her athletes for the big game, until she spies a corner that needs rearranging. She repositions a table and chair, then steps back to scrutinize the arrangement. Satisfied, she pauses briefly to fluff the spray of dark curls that frame her face and straighten the jacket of her stylish gray suit. With a radiant smile that pops out a set of dimples and turns her brown eyes a soft pastel, she greets another employee.
Watching her work, it’s easy to see how McNair built Gadabout into a multi-million dollar business, and why it is consistently rated as one of the top salons in the country. Seeing the warm, polite way her receptionists greet clients and the cool confidence exuded by her team of nail technicians, it’s also obvious why owners of the world-renowned Canyon Ranch Spa and Resort in Tucson asked McNair to open a Gadabout Salon to service their spa patrons.
McNair’s easygoing business style makes owning a string of salons look like a day at the beach. But this laid-back approach belies a 23-year career in the industry in which she has worked long hours to learn every aspect of the business, hired experts to help her in areas she is weak, and honed working relationships, some that have lasted more than 20 years.
STRUGGLING AND STARVING
Professional, enthusiastic, and extremely creative, it’s difficult to believe McNair didn’t always dream of owning a salon. “I wasn’t born to be a businesswoman,” she says.
But when McNair became a single mother with two children to care for and no vocational skills, she decided on a cosmetology career and enrolled in a school in Kansas. And when, a few years later, she moved to Illinois and the salon she worked in was sold to someone she couldn’t work for, McNair realized her only alternative was to open her own shop.
“The problem was I didn’t have any money,” she says. Then luck struck and someone ran into the back of her car. “They offered me $500, and I was able to put a down payment on a salon. True, the equipment was neglected and it needed a lot of work, but the woman sold me the shop for $5,000 and gave me five years to pay.”
The year was 1969 and McNair says she was lucky to make $50 a week. “I almost starved,” she admits. “But somehow I struggled along until I was able to hire a bookkeeper for $25 a week who taught me how to do the books and payroll. Once I started keeping track of every dollar, from the first to last one that came through the door, business started to pick up and profits started to grow.”
About four years later, McNair was ready to expand. To secure a loan, the bank asked her for a prospectus. “At the time, I didn’t even know how to spell the word,” she says. “They also made me do a lot of other detailed planning, which made me aware of what I needed to do to pay my bills.”
Her new location tripled the size of her salon from five to 15 chairs, with room for a reception area. The following year she designed a men’s salon within the women’s area and created one of the first unisex salons in the state. After studying with Sassoon and learning several new techniques, she also raised her prices. “our $2.50 shampoo and sets became $8 to $10 haircuts,” she says. “Sure, we lost some clients at first. But I figured if I lost half my clientele at $2.50 and picked up half my clientele at $8, I would make more money with fewer people.”
McNair says the mentality of many nail technicians and hairstylists is that they can’t make money, so they don’t even try. “When I told my father I was going into this business, his first reaction was, Why? But I began to realize that clients see you the way you see yourself. If you act like a qualified professional who has to charge more for services that require additional education, training, or expensive products, clients rarely object. I raise prices on most services every year, and my business continues to grow.”
THE SELF-ESTEEM CONNECTION
One reason McNair believes it’s difficult for nail technicians in particular to increase rates or sell retail products is because of the way they service clients. “Our business progresses at the same rate our self-esteem progresses,” she says. “And there is a fine line between ego and humility. When you sit across from a person and hold her hand, your level of intimacy is entirely different from when you stand behind and above someone the way hairstylists do. Sitting across from someone, holding their hands, looking into their eyes, you have to be thoroughly convinced that what you’re doing is right or you’ll have a difficult time asking a client to try a different technique, pay a higher price, or to tell her that her chronic lateness is causing problems. Nail technicians have to learn to project themselves. That’s especially important when they’re doing services like giving a pedicure---literally in the most subservient position there is. They really have to work on being confident and assertive.”
McNair opened several more salons in Illinois until 1979, when she decided to sell them all and move to Tucson. “My goal was to expand into a full-service salon,” she says. “I wanted to offer hair, nails massage, facials---the works.”
Her first shop in the growing desert city was 1,000 square feet and had six hairstylist chairs and one nail technician’s station. The following year, she added 600 more square feet, another nail technician, and a facial room. By the third year, she added another 600 square feet and a back room to accommodate the growing staff of three nail technicians and 11 hairstylists.
She opened a second salon when she ran out of floor space for technicians being trained by her staff. “I don’t open new salons just to put my name on them,” she says. “But when our trainees are ready to build a clientele of their own or one of my employees is ready to tackle management, I feel an obligation to give them the opportunity to fulfil their goals.”
LIGHTING THE BULB
McNair says she prefers working with recent school graduates rather than hiring technicians who are already established. “A lot of people in our industry settle into a rut after 10 or more years because of bad experiences or because they think they know it all,” she says. “It gets extremely difficult to keep them excited about what they’re doing, or to turn their light bulb on, as I call it.”
But McNair says it’s easy to turn the light bulb on for those who have been in the business only 18 months or less and to help them believe in themselves and their work.
“Most of my employees are doing as much volume as nail technicians who have been in the business for 10 to 15 years,” she says, “and the average employee stays with me seven years or more.”
McNair believes she has a high employee retention rate because she pays technicians a 50% to 60% commission, reimburses them for at least half of their continuing education expenses, offers them a good client base and visually exciting places to work in, and a service price structure that enables them to make a good living. “With benefits like that, why should they leave and work somewhere else?”
Of the 27 nail technicians employed in the Gadabout salons, one of the most successful earns $50,000 a year, and McNair says several others earn within the $30,000 and $40,000 ranges.
“All of my technicians are required to sell a certain amount of retail,” she says. “And my best nail technician won’t do repairs after two days without charging. She treats her job like a true business. She has a wonderful, positive, vivacious attitude about herself and what she does. She’s kick to work with and keeps the whole room happy. Clients never complain about her prices and they wouldn’t think of switching technicians because she charges a few dollars more.”
If there is a simple formula for getting ahead in the salon industry, McNair believes it’s summed up in one word she uses over and over again professionalism. “A lot of hair salons don’t want nail departments because their experience with nails is that the majority of nail technicians are negative, lazy, and unmotivated,” she says. “They don’t act like professionals. If a nail technician doesn’t see the value of what they’re doing, how can they convince others that it’s important? If they don’t think a lot about themselves, how can they convince me, as a salon owner, that they’re necessary to my business?”
McNair believes it’s up to the owner to set the level of professionalism in the salon.
“That doesn’t mean I tell employees what to wear or how they should act,” she says. “I”ve never had good luck with ultimatums or demands. Instead, you need to give people decisions and treat them the way you want to be treated---with dignity and pride.”
It’s also essential to make employees feel important. “I want everyone on my staff to do well,” she says. “When you treat people with respect and kindness, you can get almost anything accomplished. The woman who stands in the back of the salon at six in the morning and does the towels is just as important as one of my managers or technicians because you can’t work without towels. I also learned a long time ago that you can’t do everything yourself. You have to delegate and hire people who are smarter and more talented in areas you are weak in.”
CLIENTS WANT SERVICE
McNair says she’d like to see the entire nail industry provide additional education and training for technicians, with the emphasis on turning out professionals who really want to work in the field.
“There needs to be a whole change in the attitude of nail care workers,” she says. “Some manicurists hesitate to sell their clients a $12 bottle of lotion, even though the client’s cuticles are a mess. But they have to realize that this is a business. Their clients visit them for services, not because they like them.”
One story McNair likes to tell to emphasize this point dates back to when she first started working in a salon in Kansas City. “I was only in the business about eight months,” she says, “when one Saturday afternoon the man I worked with, who was a healthy guy, fainted while he was in the middle of combing out the hair of a woman he had serviced for 15 years. Someone ran to call the paramedics, but the woman he was working on stood over him while he was totally passed out on the floor and started screaming at the top of her lungs, with half her hair teased out, ‘Who’s going to finish my comb out?’
“And I looked at this woman and thought, this is what it’s really all about. I mean, she was supposed to be his friend, they went out to dinner together and everything. But when it came right down to it, her first thought was of her hair. That says a lot about the technician/client relationship and about what people really want and expect of us.
“When nail technicians realize there are a lot of clients out there looking for professionals they can rely on to perform consistent, quality work on their nails, and that they’re willing to pay for that service, the possibilities for their future and that of the entire industry burst wide open.”