Business Management

California Dreamin': New Salon Chain Opens

A new breed of nail salon is on the horizon and the first glimpse of the future is in Beverly Hills, Calif. The future nail salon "chain" is called Hands On and the owners say they have designed a nail business that opens up a whole new realm of service-oriented, quality spa manicures and pedicures at reasonable prices.

A new breed of nail salon is on the horizon and the first glimpse of the future is in Beverly Hills, Calif. The future nail salon "chain" is called Hands On and the owners say they have designed a nail business that opens up a whole new realm of service-oriented, quality spa manicures and pedicures at reasonable prices.

What are two guys with a background in entertainment and sports marketing doing in the nail business? Planning a revolution, they say. Michael Wolper, 36, and Tony Wootton, 30, have no previous experience in the nail, or even beauty, industry. But they've latched onto a concept that has eluded many of today's salon owners, and that is, how to run a profitable nail business that has high volume in a high-end atmosphere.

Of course, there have been successful nails-only chains before this one, and no, the concept isn't the first time it's been tried. But what is unique is the combination of factors that makes this operation stand apart. The owners, who have movie star good looks as well as movie star investor partners, have set their sights on no less than becoming the "Starbucks of nail salons," as omnipresent and as profitable. They believe that the branding of their services, salon atmosphere, and retail merchandise will do much to assuage consumers' media created fears that when walking into a nail salon you risk life and limb. They also are bucking the commonly held notion that nail salons can't retail... in fact their retail area is the first thing you see when you walk in the door.

"Imagine the possibilities of a branded nail salon that no matter where you put it, it will have the drawing power to attract customers simply by mentioning the name," says Wolper. "I want people to know that a Hands On salon in Boston offers the same high-quality service as the one in Beverly Hills. We want the name Hands On to become the brand people think of when they want their nails done."

"This is a branding opportunity," says Wootton. "With a strong brand name comes a lot of consumer trust. And wherever you go, that follows you."

The idea to start a nail salon, then a nail salon "series," as Wootton refers to it, started like so many others in this business ... as a client. Wootton's wife, who was his girlfriend at the time, was getting her nails done once a week. It made him realize that there was a booming demand for nail care services. The entrepreneurial pair was looking to start their own business, they said, and salon ownership intrigued them. Then they did their homework — they looked at the business plans of a variety of other start-up businesses and they researched beauty trends. They saw a gap in this $6.5 billion business that could be filled by a strongly identified, branded salon. "Usually with an industry of this size, there is someone who holds the market share," says Wootton. "In the nail industry, we did not see that." Although the success of Hands On has the potential to make these men and their investors wealthy, they are sincere in their desire to improve the standards of service in the industry and the reputation of the professionals in it.

"It was relatively easy to see what needed to be done," says Wolper, "and that was sanitation, environment, and individual service for clients."


In the year and half that they spent working toward their goal, they spent a lot of time visiting salons and talking to industry experts. "Once our research showed us that two of the hottest trends were spa-quality services and manicures and pedicures, we investigated what was around that combined these areas," he says. "We found only destination and day spas with high-priced services, nail salons that really specialized in enhancements and not natural nails, and undependable discount salons."  

They took this information to UCLA and enticed the business school to get its graduate students to do market research for them. Wootton attended business school at UCLA and through strong hook-ups with some professors there, they got students to look at branding, positioning, and communicating the position to the end-user. "We had already done a lot of the research," says Wootton, "but what the grad students really did was validate what we had already done regarding what consumers respond to, and that sort of thing. Two groups came up with two very different ideas of where we should advertise, how we should promote, and what we should highlight. Basically we wanted to see if they could think of anything that we hadn't already thought of."  

And they developed an advisory board of experts in the fields of finance, management, beauty, and marketing. Fortunately, Wolper and Wootton have influential friends, and they approached investors including the Henry Ford family, the Henry Mancini family, and producers Steven Bochco, Steve Tisch, and David L. Wolper (the producer of "Roots," who is Michael's father). They hired 3md International (Newport Beach, Calif.), a consultant group in the beauty industry. And they signed on with Gentile/Harvey architectural design firm, the team responsible for cutting-edge interiors such as Morton's, Ago, Lucky Seven, and Le Colonial restaurants in Southern California, and the Hard Rock Hotel & Spa in Las Vegas.

This is a powerhouse team and of course most salon owners and nail technicians don't have at their disposal a Rolodex that includes millionaires with money to invest. But despite the high-powered help, the duo still had plenty of starts and stops along the way to opening their first salon. So the team at Hands On is spending the summer learning what works and what doesn't — they are tinkering with the furnishings and design, and they are tweaking processes.

It's the Little Things...

Originally the salon was to be called The Works. Friends and colleagues questioned the choice of name, thinking it too industrial. "Well, 'The Works' was already registered by someone else, so we couldn't use it anyway. Ultimately I am glad that we changed the name," says Wolper. "Now I can't even imagine it as anything else but Hands On."

The name was not the only thing to change during the design stages. The site originally selected was in the funkier, trendy Melrose area of Los Angeles, not posh Beverly Hills. "We wanted the salon to be a destination, not just a walk-by place," says Wolper. "The fashionable, trendy area of Melrose was where we were looking for the first location, but we couldn't find something that we were happy with." Again, it was a fortuitous change of direction, since the new location has plenty of walk-by traffic, parking, and well, being in Beverly Hills certainly doesn't hurt.

The storefront posed another issue. "Beverly Hills is very specific about the look that is acceptable on the street," says Wootton, "because they don't want to compromise the look of Beverly Hills. We had to go in front of the Architectural Review Board with what we wanted to do for the front of the salon, and at first they were worried that it was going to create a compartment that stands out. But we went back a second time with a slightly altered look, and there were different people on the board who approved it." They changed the entrance of the salon from black, tinted-glass with an aluminum door, to clear glass with louvered panels and a white-washed wooden door so that you could see into the salon. "We wanted it to be inviting," says Wootton.

...That Make the Difference

The idea behind Hands On is to create a salon that no matter where you are — you know what to expect. Although the guys might not like the comparison, just as a Big Mac in Paris is the same as a Big Mac in Peoria, so too did they want product and service consistency in every locale. "Consistency is key," says Wootton.

Although at just 1,500 square feet, the flagship location is slightly smaller than originally planned, the subsequent salons will most likely be larger. All of the salons will have the same look and feel, which Wolper describes as a "California beach house" and offer the same services. They are making sure that they work out all of the kinks at this first salon.

"We wanted to create an environment that was relaxing and comfortable," says Wolper, who along with Wootton, is in the salon every day, doing everything from scheduling to putting implements in the autoclave for sterilization.

Working with Gentile/Harvey, Wolper and Wootton asked for "something different." "With Gentile/Harvey, we liked their sense of style," says Wolper. "We wanted something different and fresh."

The team came up with the beach house look using light woods and light colors, giving the salon a sun-bleached look and feel. They wanted clients to get into the same relaxed state you get when sitting on a deck chair by the beach. Even the client chairs are modeled on the Adirondack chairs popular at beach resorts. The dress code is informal, but in keeping with the atmosphere: Everyone wears khaki slacks, white shirts, silver aprons, and white shoes (sneakers acceptable!).

Keywords:   franchise     salon profiles  

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