Salon Owner Turns Own Experience Into Consulting Stint

by JoLynn Vensel | April 1, 1995

Dixie Drake-Davis was bored with working for “corporate America” and she wanted to open her own nails-only salon. As a revenue analyst for Burlington Northern, a railroad company based in Texas, she had grown tired of number-crunching and longed to deal with people more directly.

“When I was living and working in Arlington, I would get my nails done at a salon called Elegante Nails. I was impressed by the salon’s relaxing atmosphere and superior customer service,” Drake-Davis recalls, describing why she was drawn to the nail business.

Armed with two business degrees and experience in working for a corporation, Drake-Davis felt she had the business background to run her own salon, but what she needed to learn about was the nail industry. She researched the numbers: The town of Bryan/College Station, where she intended to open her salon, had a population of 125,000 plus 40,000 students. There were only two nails-only salons in the area, so she knew there was a demand for a reputable nail salon.

To learn how to run a successful nail business, Drake-Davis called Esther Herman, co-owner of the Elegante Nails salon that had impressed her. Herman co-owns two salons, and Drake-Davis wanted to “pick her brain” about the nail business. They planned to meet at a local ice cream parlor, and before their cones had melted, Drake-Davis decided to hire Herman as a consultant for $250 an hour to teach her what she needed to know to run a successful nail business.  Since Herman’s salon is located three hours away from College Station, their businesses wouldn’t be competing.

After their first meeting, there were three more consultations, one at Drake-Davis’ house, another at Herman’s salon, and a final consultation at Drake-Davis’ new salon. By that time, the mood between the two was very casual, as Drake-Davis and Herman had become fast friends. Though Herman’s consulting work is over, Drake-Davis still calls her for advice and information and just to keep in touch.

For Herman, it was her first consulting job and she loved it. “One of the advantages we both had going into this,” says Herman, “is that we are both in the business in the same capacity – a salon owner who doesn’t do nails. But Dixie has a good eye and knows what looks good and what doesn’t. She was focused and had done her homework on her choice of business. She did not go into this underfunded, which is very important. Many prospective salon owners think they can open a top-notch salon for around $10,000, but you can’t,” Herman says.

Altogether, they spent nearly 10 hours just discussing the nail industry. “Because of my business background, I was very confident in knowing how to run a salon,” says Drake-Davis who praises Herman on the wealth of information she had to offer. Besides the consultation, Herman provided Drake-Davis with back issues of NAILS Magazines to read to learn more about the industry.

Herman also shared her failures and successes about first starting out so Drake-Davis would know beforehand what works and what doesn’t; for example, what to look for when hiring new nail technicians. And a trip with Herman to the NAILS Magazine Show in Dallas taught her even more about the industry.

During their consultations, one of the key issues Drake-Davis asked about, says Herman, was whether to pay employees a salary or have them on a sliding-scale commission, where the technician is paid a percentage of her weekly revenue. “At Elegante Nails, our technicians are paid on commission-only, because with a pay scale, they are operating on an incentive – the more they make, the higher percentage they receive,” she says. Drake-Davis also opted for a sliding-scale commission, says Herman.

To recruit employees, Herman suggested newspaper advertising. She advised Drake-Davis to test all applicants’ skills and timing, and she reinforced that in-salon training would still be required once the nail technician was hired. “Dixie hired our former receptionist, Shelby Eppes, who now lives in Dixie’s area and who knows a lot about nails, says Herman.

Drake-Davis has so much confidence in Eppes’ ability that she allowed her to be the sole judge of the technical portion of the application process. Drake-Davis also hired veteran nail technician Kathy Haller, Herman’s daughter and co-owner of both Elegante Nails, for a day to train her new technicians, who each has her own clientele.

Another concern for Drake-Davis was proper ventilation. She followed in the footsteps of Herman’s salons and installed an air-exchange system. Herman also instructed her on the importance of salon sanitation and sterilization. “We went over the state board regulations and what my salon does above and beyond that,” notes Herman.

As for her salon’s interior, Drake-Davis chose a similar décor to Elegante Nails, which is Victorian, because she likes the feeling it invokes of comfort and friendliness.

Feeling well-prepared to run a successful salon, Drake-Davis opened Exclusively Nails last September with five nail technicians and she hopes to expand to eight to 10 soon.

For Drake-Davis, hiring a consultant was the way to go because “it was less expensive than franchising. And with franchising, there is a set formula and everything is outlined. I knew what I wanted from the start and how I wanted the salon to look.” Though she still doesn’t do nails, Drake-Davis now knows a lot about nail applications and techniques as well as different products, she says.

As for her involvement, Herman says she didn’t realize how much she would enjoy working with another salon owner and how much she would enjoy working with another salon owner and how much she would relearn. “When you do consulting, you go back to square one and go through each step you originally took. It really refreshes your memory and all facets of the business,” she reflects.

Herman believes consulting is a viable and valuable option for smaller salon owners, and says, “The amount you pay for a consultant’s fee can save you thousands of dollars in mistakes. You will get there eventually, but you can get there faster with less expense by hiring a consultant.”

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