Hands On owners Tony Wootton (left) and Michael Wolper in front of their Beverly Hills salon Hands On. (photo by Rick Szczechowski)

Hands On owners Tony Wootton (left) and Michael Wolper in front of their Beverly Hills salon Hands On. (photo by Rick Szczechowski)

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!).

The interior of Hands On features custom-designed furniture, including the client chairs, pedicure stools, individual taborets (the rolling storage carts), big comfy couches in the reception area, and a large retail area in the front of the shop. The atmosphere is clean, yet un-clinical, comfortable, and convenient. In a word — it's fresh.

Since the "soft opening" in late May, the salon already has gone through some interior changes. One addition is a separate manicure room, which will be used for private services, as well as for waxing and the application of self-tanning lotions. The salon has an esthetician on staff for these last two services.

Another section of the salon that will be up-and-running by press time is the nail bar. Designed so clients can come in for a "quick fix," the nail bar will allow clients to be in and out of the salon in 10-15 minutes. Managing partner of 3md, and salon consultant Maggie McCain-Davis has been working with Patti Blanusa from Creative Nail Design on the nail bar, which will include add-on services from paraffin dips, to nail repair, to polish changes.

Partners in Training

One of the best things about Hands On is the owners' attitude toward the staff. "We want the techs to understand that they are the most important element of the salon," says Wolper, who has put his money where his mouth is. The staff are all employees instead of booth renters, which is an anomaly in California. Employees receive a competitive pay schedule that includes a guaranteed salary, as well as commission on services and commission on retail. They also enjoy immediate enrollment in health, dental, vision, and life insurances, and will be offered profit sharing. Flextime scheduling is also a key component of employment at Hands On.

The nail technicians are all partners in the company. They have come aboard at ground level and they are all being cultivated to become managers and trainers, possibly at the openings to follow. "Each of them share profits," says Wolper. "We offer them benefits, flextime scheduling, continual training — Tony and I are not nail techs so they have taken the roles of creating die systems and processes. They play a very important role in the development of this salon, and die subsequent salons to come."

Wootton agrees, "Because of the package that we have put together, we have created a very strong team of people who work cohesively with one another. They feel a sense of ownership in the salon, and ultimately will all play a greater role in subsequent openings. They are the ones who will understand the culture best, having come in at the ground level."

The owners now face the same challenges every other salon owner today faces, and that is finding high-quality staff. Although they offer more benefits than is customary in the beauty business, and take to heart die suggestions of their staff (they actually had the custom-made furniture modified after staff feedback), good techs are hard to find.

"We are extremely selective," Wolper says. "We need about 20-25 nail technicians in the salon, right now we have a staff of 13." The staff shortage is not for lack of looking. Wolper and his partners went to the California Board of Cosmetology, local schools, and even got subscriber lists from NAILS to recruit for this team-oriented company. They sent out postcards, and they conducted more than 100 interviews to make sure that they were getting the cream of the crop. Wolper, who is 80 hours away from getting his own nail technician license, can speak to techs in their own language. Wootton also plans to go to school and get his license. "We don't plan to do nails," says Wootton, "but we think it's important to personally experience the same nail technician training. It's really helped the rapport with our staff."

And once they hired their pioneer group, led by CND educator Justine Hartel, they held an intensive weeklong training, that included (what else?) hands-on product training, employee benefits, service menu items, and procedures. Creative Nail Design handled technical training and now all of the techs at Hands On are Creative Master Technicians. "And we have set up a mentoring program, so that when we hire new techs, they will get trained in-house. And all of the nail technicians will go through quarterly training," says Wolper. "The first training session was really to educate the staff on what we envisioned as the salon culture. This way, the core group can pass it along to anyone else who comes on-board." The training wasn't all drudgery, though; a "team building" exercise was conducted at the self-painting pottery store next door where everyone hand-painted their own implement cups.

"Because we don't want to create an atmosphere where each nail technician has her own individual station, they each have their own 'virtual office' in the taborets, where they can keep all of their implements and products," says Wootton. "They can move these 'virtual offices' around with them to whichever station they are working at. It is liberating, and we wanted to make sure that everyone feels like individuals, so they all painted their own implement cups."

Hands On Around the World

The investment group has committed to opening 10 more salons this year in the Los Angeles area. In the next five months, some of those should be well on the way to being built.

"Within 18 months of opening the first shop, we want to open 10 more in the Los Angeles area," says Wolper. "And the plan is to open two salons every three months. And there is a possibility that we will open 10 additional salons in Southern California in the same time frame. Our long-term goal is to have between 220 and 250 salons across the United States in the next 5-8 years. But that only comes after we get everything ironed out in the Beverly Hills salon."

Adds Wootton, "Our idea is to penetrate the market in the Los Angeles area and then take the idea across the country. We want to hit major media markets. And then we want to expand in those markets as well."

"Eventually, we even want to go into Europe, where there is a definite lack of a market leader in the nail salon industry," says Wolper, who has spent many years living and working overseas. "We want to turn it into a truly global organization. This is a high priority of the company.

"People have had a tremendous response to our project," says Wolper, "both investors and clientele." And although the salon has yet to hold a grand opening, it has been packed since the doors opened. Sales have exceeded their expectations, even with only half the staff, and there has been progressive growth every Saturday since they opened. "We also have already experienced a very high return rate on repeat business," says Wolper (and in just four weeks, repeat business is a great thing). Although currently closed Sunday and Monday and open daily 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., they plan to open seven days a week, 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., as soon as they can hire enough staff. "At this time, all of the nail technicians are already so busy, and we already have so many clients, that we will not be able to open seven days a week, until we hire more staff," says Wootton. "We have three marketing pieces that we have not even used yet, because business has been so good just: from word of mouth and walk- by customers."

Setting the Standard

"I think that from the moment a customer walks in, she knows it is going to be different," says Wolper. "The atmosphere is different. The nail technician and the client wash their hands together, and during the service, the tech explains everything that she is doing. And our sanitation is paramount."

For each client who comes in, there is an individual "sushi roll" consisting of fresh towels wrapped like seaweed around all of the implements that will be used in the service. All of the stainless steel implements are sterilized in a hospital-grade autoclave and sealed in a pouch that is opened only in front of the client at the beginning of her service. The salon practices a one client/one file policy. Wolper hopes that by Hands On's focus on sanitation, it will create a demand for other salons to meet these same standards.

In addition, Hands On has selected top-of-the-line product lines for both service and retail, and they have structured their services from basic to deluxe, at varying price levels. They've found that most clients are opting for the higher-end service packages.

So with the dedication to their staff, the attention to the quality and service, and a "phenomenal group of high profile investors," this salon has the potential to reach new heights.

And that is good for the entire industry.


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