Hidden in a thick of grand old oaks and elms along a 15-mile stretch of Lake Michigan is one of the nation's best-kept secrets. Privacy and anonymity are sacrosanct in this close-knit community where the living legacies of some of the most prosperous entrepreneurs of the Industrial Revolution reside.
Situated almost equidistant from the old money on the East Coast and the new money on the West Coast is Chicago's prestigious North Shore. Hidden in a thick of grand old oaks and elms along a 15-mile stretch of Lake Michigan is one of the nation's best-kept secrets. Privacy and anonymity are sacrosanct in this close-knit community where the living legacies of some of the most prosperous entrepreneurs of the Industrial Revolution reside.
Helping the North Shore keep a low profile in high style is Markus Oliver and his staff at Salon Millennium. As polished as its patrons, the salon services three generations of the country's most well-coiffed men and women. Designed by Oliver, the salon and day spa encompasses all 4,500 square feet of a two-story, Tudor building on Elm Street in the village of Winnetka — the heart of the North Shore.
Both floors are tastefully laden with imported marble and granite, trimmed in Swiss pear wood, and outfitted with fine Italian furnishings. Splashes of industrial high tech and stainless steel are used to accent and modernize the feel of Old World Rome.
"The salon exemplifies service and total image," says Oliver. "My staff members combine artistry with integrity in every client service. It's not just about a manicure or a facial for our clients, but a way of life.
"We are in the hospitality business," Oliver continues. "When a client makes an appointment, we treat it like a room reservation. Clients are not rushed, yet there is no waiting. We don't compromise on service. I want clients to feel like guests in my home."
Oliver, who was born and raised in Chicago, became involved in the salon industry through some friends after a move to southern California in 1984. He got his formal education, salon training, and experience in Beverly Hills before moving back to the North Shore where he was determined to someday open the best salon in the area. Oliver worked as a stylist at several North Shore salons before opening Salon Millennium in May 1994.
"I always worked at the most exclusive locations. These salons were all considered 'the place to be' at the time, but I felt that each one lacked something significant. When I put my business plan together, I decided to take the best aspects of other salons and make those things even better," Oliver says.
First Things First
A major part of that business plan was the placement and development of the nail department. Special lighting was designed to coordinate six nail stations spread strategically throughout the salon. Separating the nail stations diffuses any strong odors and allows clients who sit in a different station at every appointment to see everything that is going on in the salon while enjoying new views of the lofty, open decor.
While designing the salon, Oliver searched for staff members who would represent his concepts in artistry and integrity. He found his nail department manager, Jacque Lyon, through a mutual friend. Lyon had been working at the Multiplex, a large health club and spa that was also the official training facility for the Chicago Bulls.
"I did mostly men's nails for seven years, and although I had developed a lot of strong relationships with my clients, which included players from the Bulls and the Bears, I felt stagnant. When I met with Markus for the first time, 1 knew we both shared the same views of service and quality. I jumped right in and took the job" says Lyon.
When the salon began Lyon had one nail technician to direct. Today, she oversees five full-time nail technicians. She began doing natural nails, then branched into fiberglass, silk, and acrylic services.
"After perfecting one technique I move on to another, and that is how I have introduced everything into our nail department. I attend shows, classes, demonstrations, and competitions, and I encourage my staff to join me," says Lyon, who plans to become a licensed educator in Illinois.
After an initial nail consultation, clients are asked to try different nail technicians in order to experience the nuances of each one's technique before choosing a permanent service provider. "This works out great because if someone's schedule changes, the client will be familiar with a replacement. No feelings are hurt when a particular technician is not chosen by a client. We are artists and realize the value of individual technique," says Lyon.
As Good As It Gets
Both salon owner and clientele prefer quality over quantity. Oliver, who reports a nearly 90% client retention factor, says he doesn't advertise with coupons or fliers. "You can't discount quality. My staff members each have four to seven years of experience and it shows. We don't 'nickel and dime' any service, but offer extras readily," says Oliver.
French manicures are done with an artist's paint brush, and the only pedicure available at Salon Millennium is the "Ultimate Pedicure," an hour and a half retreat into pure luxury. Whirlpool spas are used after an oatmeal scrub, mint mud pack, and warm oil massage up to the knees. "When a client leave the pedicure area, she is flawless from the knees down," says Oliver.
Those extra touches are what sets the salon in a league of its own. Fresh flowers are delivered daily, and a corporate car and driver are available. Staff members remember to ask a client about a re cent trip or an ailing friend, but never anything more personal. Perfect deco rum is mandatory.
Although Oliver doesn't believe in advertising, he certainly realizes the value of good will and name recognition. Four months after opening the salon, with a client list in hand, Oliver hosted the Salon Millennium Awards. The annual award event draws more than 200 North Shore guests and honors those individuals who personify humanity and compassion. Held each September, it has become a major event in the community.
"I didn't want to merely have a showy grand opening party, but an event that brought the community together in recognition of good works," Oliver contends.
Oliver and his staff have contributed to many worthwhile organizations. In 1995, the staff unanimously donated a sizable portion of their salaries to AmFar (the American Foundation For Aids Research). Oliver was flown to New York to receive top honors from Dr. Matilda Krim, co-founder of AmFar with Elizabeth 'Taylor, for helping in the fight against AIDS.
Knowing What's Hot
Retail sales are a big part of the overall package at Salon Millennium. As manager of the nail department, Lyon makes sure the latest and best products are available to her clients. "We don't skimp on anything here" she says. "If a client has just returned from New York or New Hampshire and she has seen a product there that we do not carry, it is embarrassing and affects our reputation as style forecasters and fashion consultants."
With patrons having the nation's highest concentration of disposable income, Oliver's retail sales are, shall we say, healthy. "When the new line of Nicole polishes came out last year, they went flying out the window — we couldn't order them fast enough. Last spring we sold 25 cases of Creative Nail Design's Summer Camp collection. The bottles were the graduation gift of choice for eighth graders," Lyon recalls.
A slow-starting, but sure-footed trend that Lyon feels personally responsible for in the North Shore is nail art. She introduced the concept to her conservative clients by saying, "Anything goes on the toes." Today, many of her 30- to 40-year-old clients are wearing some form of nail art.
"A lot of my regular clients go on trips with their husbands to sunny places like Canyon Ranch in Arizona and La Costa in California where they want to look their best and have some fun. A red rhinestone on a toenail can help them cut loose on their vacation," says Lyon.
Have Polish, Will Travel
Together, Oliver and Lyon developed another exclusive service — house calls. When a client, Jennifer Heck, was pregnant with triplets and advised to remain in bed weeks before delivery, her husband, Chicago Bears' Andy fleck, purchased a gift certificate for salon services at home.
"We're a full-service salon, and when you offer service, I think you need to take it all the way," says Lyon. "I usually make four to five house calls a week, more during the late winter months when it's plastic surgery season around here."
One of Lyon's clients is Juanita Jordan, the wife of superstar Michael. "One day while the Jordan’s new house was under construction, I did Juanita's nails in her laundry room on an ironing board. I never know where my mobile unit will take me," laughs Lyon. "Another day 1 made a house call at a home that looked familiar, but I knew I'd never been there before. As it turns out, it was the 'Home Alone' house."
The Utmost Privacy
When Oliver designed the salon, he included a separate VIP room, a scaled-down salon used for recovering cancer patients, bridal parties, and other clients whose services require extra privacy. Clients can come in through a separate entry in the back and relax in this private mini-salon.
"Recovering from cancer or any other serious illness is devastating," says Oliver. "I didn't want the room to look like a hospital recovery room, but a full-service salon. These women have a lot of dignity, and privacy is appreciated."
Women are not the only ones enjoying the special services at Salon Millennium. About 36% of Oliver's clientele are men. "Sports pedicures and hair coloring for men are very big services right now. Let's face it, women are looking younger all the time, and the men want to keep in step." And if the men need a model of a perfectly groomed and gracious gentleman, they need look no further than Oliver himself.