Profiles

Industry Pioneer Mona Hamlin has Retired, But Her Legend Lives On

When she opened her first salon in 1971, nails were still a noveltry. Since then, Hamlin has sold mroe than 50 salons, and nail care has become a billion-dollar industry.

The nail industry has done a 180° turn from its infancy in the early ’70s. In those days, manicurists, as they were called then, relied on rudimentary nail repair kits and dental supply products to make beautiful nails for their clients. Now the nail industry boasts hundreds of manufacturers and suppliers and more than $4 billion in service sales.

During the development of the nail industry, the Mona Nail line and its developer, Mona Hamlin, helped pave the way for today’s sculptured nails. A movie star in Egypt and Miss Egypt by age 16, Hamlin learned about beauty techniques and how to patch broken nails with acrylic from other actresses and models.

The Early Days Of Sculptured Nails

Says Hamlin, “I liked PattiNails, but that product was used mostly for repairs, and it was pink. I wanted to elongate all 10 nails and have a natural color. I went to a dental factory and tried different materials, and I practiced applying the product on my daughters and her friends’ nails until I found something that worked.”

Once Hamlin developed her product and her technique, she looked for a salon where she could do her work. Her husband, Chuck Hamlin, advised opening a salon in Dallas, Texas, because, he told her. “Dallas has the most beautiful and best-dressed women.” As part of the couple’s research, they got hundreds of phone books from all over the U.S. and looked through the yellow pages trying to find other salons that offered sculptured nails, let alone a nails-only salon. They found neither. Their nail salon idea seemed a sure bet. The couple opened the first nails-only salon ever in Dallas in 1971.

In the early ’70s, Barbra Streisand, Cher, and the Pointer Sisters were giving long nails a good image. Mona knew that although long, dramatic, painted nails were becoming popular, most women didn’t know how or where they could get their nails done that way. Because of the scarcity of high-quality nail care, Mona figured her clients would be the type of women with the time and money for the service — society women, singers, entertainers — but most of her customers turned out to be average working women, who are the bread and butter of most nail salons today.

Making Nails Sell

When the salon first opened, Mona had to work hard to bring in clients. “I wondered how I could get customers, let alone find manicurists to work for me,” says Mona. She went to cosmetics counters and anywhere women worked who needed to look good to the public, and offered them free sets. But people were afraid of the concept, and Mona says they thought of her as the “crazy European.”

She even went to a local news station to offer a free set of nails to the fashion news editor. But Mona was disappointed to find that the reporter’s nails were already beautiful. However, her idea paid off, because the reporter decided to do a story on “the first nails-only salon.” When the story broke, Mona had clients coming in from Ohio, California, and Oklahoma. Even doctors sent in patients for reconstructing damaged nails.

Mona and her husband felt they had a saleable product, so they began to put together kits for other nail technicians and the general public (this was well before the debate over public access to nail products). They found an art brush supply company for the acrylic sculpturing brush, a sandpaper maker to design emery boards, and Mona invented the nail form to add length to the nail. High-end department stores sold the kits, including Bloomingdales and Saks Fifth Avenue.

The kits sold because Mona showed that they worked. She went to department stores to demonstrate the system. “The line of people to see the nail demonstration was two blocks long,” says Mona. At the Midwest Beauty-Show in Chicago, Ill., Mona opened a booth — the only nail booth at the show.

Says Mona, “The success was phenomenal. I could barely breathe, the crowd was so thick.” Because training in those days was virtually nonexistent, manicurists came from all over the United States to learn product application from Mona. “The only way to buy the kit was with a week of training. A lot of people came for the lessons only,” she says. Mona trained manicurists to work in the salon, and traveled all over the states to teach as well — sometimes to groups as large as 1,500 students.

The kits grew in popularity and the Hamlins realized they would have to expand their production. They worked with a chemist and refined the formulation, which was eventually sold to Revlon in the mid-’80s. (Since then, Revlon has not done anything with the Mona Nail line.)

During the 1970s and 1980s, the Hamlins’ son, Joe, and their daughter, Jacqueline O’Neal, and her husband, Tom, learned the business. The family opened franchises. The second Mona Nail opened in Houston in 1973. By 1979, the family sold 56 Mona Nail salon franchises, all with staff trained by the Hamlins.

Today, Jacqueline, Tom, and their son, Chris, keep busy running the Houston salon and getting salons started for other people. The original Mona Nail salon in Dallas was sold in 1990, and most of the Mona franchises spawned in the ’70s have been either resold or renamed. Mona and Chuck Hamlin, happily retired, are occasionally asked to speak at industry events.

Only the second salon, which opened in Houston, is still “in the family.” (The salon recently moved a block away from its original location.) Mona Salon has been a full-service salon since 1978. The salon is large and has three receptionists, four estheticians, 10 hairstylists, and 15 nail technicians.

Jacqueline says that today’s clients are different. “They want to take care of their nails now. It used to be 10% of clients wanted manicures; now the ratio is about half manicures, half artificial nails.”

Students still conic from faraway to be trained in the famed salon. “Even technicians who have done nails for years come. I walk around, see problem nails, make recommendations. The Mona name still means a lot,” says Jacqueline. “The salon training takes about two to three weeks. Some of the students come from schools after they graduate and get their licenses. We actually are a school for many of them. We train them in all aspects of the business, from product application to keeping clients to hiring employees.”

Turn-Key Consulting Is Bulk Of Business

Though Mona Salon is a big responsibility in itself, Jacqueline and Tom also travel around the world teaching in salons and beauty schools and opening salons for other people. They provide “turnkey salon consulting.” If someone wants to open a salon, Jacqueline and Tom will find a location, take care of the business lease and building renovation, hire and train employees, build a client base, advertise, set up a computer system, and be on-call for troubleshooting.

The O’Neals keep an eye out for good salon locations. Says Jacqueline, “I watch small towns that are growing. When the town is still small, the residents are accustomed to driving some distance to go to a salon, but as the town grows, they would appreciate a salon there.” One salon they are planning for a growing area near Houston will include tanning beds and a children’s play area.

Once the O’Neals open a salon for a new owner, they stick around, depending on the agreement, to make sure everyone is trained and the salon is on its feet. Sometimes this takes a week, sometimes a month. Thereafter, Jacqueline and Tom remain on call for business consulting for as long as two years. The family has opened salons all over the United States and in Paris, Australia, and London. Because the salons are sold outright, the new owners may name their salon Mona or any other name they wish.

One unfortunate side effect of selling outright, says Jacqueline, is that the family has no control over what happens to the salon once it’s out of their hands. Says Jacqueline, “The original Mona Salon was sold after being open for 22 years, and in less than a year and a half it closed down.”

What makes a salon work, says Jacqueline, isn’t necessarily talent or beauty skills, it’s business knowledge. “Look at successful salons, and see who’s in charge. It’s probably not the stylist. It’s someone who’s had a background in some area of business.”

Client appreciation is also a crucial key to salon success, says Jacqueline. “Clients like a place whore they feel comfortable. They want a place where they can walk in, be recognized, get good service, and then go. The client in the salon is so much more important than a potential client outside the salon. You make much more; profit and lose loss expenses in advertising. And clients should be treated the same. They deserve good service, a clean environment, constant thank-you cards, and letters saying happy birthday with gift certificates enclosed. I make calls to see how clients are doing if they haven’t come in for awhile, I ask how their nails are, and send them coupons for $10 off a service if I haven’t seen them often.”

One client was so impressed by her treatment at Mona Salon that she persuaded her husband to buy a salon for her from the O’Neals. The salon is in the planning stages now. The client, a former model, felt so comfortable at the salon that one day, says Jacqueline, she came in just to have the staff help her wrap some gifts for a party she was going to. It was that special treatment that led her to seek Jacqueline’s services when she wanted to own her own business.

Employee appreciation is important, too. Says Jacqueline, “I recently was training a nail technician, and a group of clients showed up for their ‘pedicure party’. This is something we provide where we service eight or more clients at a time and serve refreshments. Two of my technicians were off giving each other a pedicure, and the trainee commented that they should stop what they were doing immediately to service the clients. But I went over, saw that they had checked out on their time cards, and that their pedicures we’re’ almost done. So I got my clients refreshments and talked to them until the technicians were ready to get back to work. The trainee didn’t realize that if I reprimanded my employees, I might save my clients a few minutes, but I might lose two quality employees. My clients didn’t notice the small wait, but my employees noticed that I respected them. Artists make decisions based on their emotions, not on their business sense. You shouldn’t lose an employee over a little thing, and you should cater to them. Even if you think they don’t deserve it, they should be treated with respect.”

The O’Neals have learned from the original — Mona Hamlin — that the nail business is the business of good service. Good service involves treating clients like movie stars and fixating employees with the same respect. As more and more new salon owners and new technicians learn this, thanks to the hard work of Jacqueline and Tom, it can only mean that the image of the nail salon is bound to improve with age.

Keywords:   history of nail care  

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