Northern Composure

From banking to beauty New England native turns nails salon into a sweet success story with a little help from her family

For Diane Cheever, work is a family affair. The owner of Fashionable Fingers, one day of the few nails-only salons in Manchester, N.H., drives into work every day with her dad, Rene Lemire, who owns the building. Her husband works in the training salon in the same building which also houses a hair salon where her sister-in-law works.

When Cheever enlarged her staff and needed new manicure tables, her brother-in-law, a carpenter by trade, made them. “We’re a very close family,” Cheever says of the family ties that bind her and her relatives to a singular building that looks like a little bit of Florida in the middle of New England.

Giant teal blue “waves,” crafted from paint and shiny half-round awnings undulate around the exterior of the two-story stucco building that is painted sky blue on the top and peachy-beige on the bottom. Is stands out like a neon sign next to its neighbors on Elm Street, which are mostly staid commercial buildings of glass and brick.


There are other hair and nail salons in some of these buildings, of course. But more and more women, and men too are bringing their nails to Fashionable Fingers. So much so that Cheever has added two new nail technicians – and two new manicure tables made by her brother-in-law.

Cheever’s father, who favors contemporary style, designed the outside of the building. Cheever, for whom interior design is a hobby, carried the contemporary feeling into her salon. She used white and brass as her basic color scheme and added peach and green accents for a soothing look. She’s big on sanitation and says her white color scheme conveys that image. Brass equipment adds elegant touch, as does carpeting. For practicality, she pieced together dozens of clear plastic office floor mats to cover the carpeting in the workstations.

Even the air is enhanced – Cheever uses aromatherapy diffusers with scented oils and to promote relaxation. The music is soothing – classical, soft rock, and jazz. There’s a TV and VCR available to show educational tapes to the staff or to amuse children who have tagged along with their mother. A well-stocked refrigerator offers free sodas. There are munchies, tea, hot cocoa, and four kinds of gourmet coffee, all gratis.

But it’s the service, Cheever believes, that’s key to the success of her three-year-old business. In all the other shops in town, nail files are used over and over on different clients, she says. At Fashionable Fingers, there’s an individual record-keeping system for each client that includes a new set of nail files. The nail technicians store the records and nail files in nearby filing cabinets and use them only on that client. Information on nail conditions, polish preferences, problems with lifting, or reactions to products is noted, along with occupations and even birthdays.

“You’ll never have a file that’s been used on 20 people ahead of you. I have clients who have had to go out of town and have their nails done somewhere else. They complained technicians used the same emery board on the person ahead of them,” Cheever says.

If a client is having a reaction to a product – itching cuticles, for example – Cheever will redo her nails, switching primer or entire nails systems, at no charge until the problem is worked out. “We want to keep the client. We’ll do whatever it takes,” she says.

She often sends clients home wearing new products to get their opinion before introducing them in the shop. For instance, a client who has a problem with brittle nails might be asked to test a new product to see if it helps. Client make appointment with specific technicians but because Cheever has trained all her nail technicians to use the same techniques, clients can feel comfortable visiting another technicians if they schedule an appointment for a time when their usual nail technician is busy. “I have clients who have come to me for 10 years and they have no problem at all if one of the other technicians works on them instead,” says Cheever, who has hired many of her technicians straight out of beauty school.

That’s because Cheever believes in the value of education, she holds private classes for the staff at the salon, and she and her staff attend workshops each year. She takes advantage of workshops offered by area distributor as well “My girls are like sponges. They want to learn everything. And education is something you can never get enough of,” Cheever says.

The classes are not just on nail techniques, either. Sessions have included the art of listening and methods for maximizing clients comfort. The entire staff once attended a seminar to discover how well they worked together. Cheever says she was pleased with the results. “The seminar leader asked us to draw a picture of how we each saw ourselves at the salon,” Cheever explains. “Every single one of us drew a big circle with four smaller circles inside. She said that represented teamwork, no one sees herself as the boss, everyone has common goals and works together. And that’s really the way it is.”

Cheever says it’s hard for those who don’t already know to tell who the boss is when they enter the salon. She works about 60 hours a week as a technicians and spends another 10 hours on paperwork and payroll for her four nail technicians, who are employees rather than both renters.

Because personalities are so important is a salon setting, Cheever make sure her nail technicians are involved in screening potential new technicians. Applicants do the nails of one of her technicians and the interview is always a two-part process so that all the technicians can be involved. “I value their opinions,” Cheever says. “I’m lucky to have such a wonderful staff. For the most part, they are young, but they are very professional.”

The staff is also involved in regular meetings to discuss strategies for the salon. The topics include way to introduce a new product, generate new business, or keep customer coming back. Out of one of those meetings can an idea to send birthday card to clients.

The salon already sends out cards offering discounts to clients who haven’t been in for a while as an enticement to get them to return. Cheever also offers punch cards good for a free fill or manicure each time six new clients are referred. The nail technicians use the client tracking system files to keep thing straight in both cases. The punch cards are popular, especially with college students, Cheever says.

Fashionable Fingers offers manicures and pedicures, wraps, and sculptured nails in acrylic, gel, or fiberglass. Prices here are about the going rate in the area - $45 for sculptured nails and $25 for fills.

Cheever sticks with products she likes but does try new products frequently. Several of her clients travel and have their nails done elsewhere in the country. They often come back from places like California and Florida and ask her to get a specific product. “This industry is growing and changing, and I want to keep up with it,” she says.

Cheever was a night baker at a supermarket when she decided to switch careers at age 27 and go to beauty school. A New Hampshire native, she grew up in nearby Pinardville, a town so small that, as Cheever says. “You blink and you’ve driven through it.” She started at the market (a brother and a sister are employed there, too) before she finished high school and had been there for 10 years when she decided to change careers. “It was just time for change,” she says.

She had always done her own nails and had enjoyed doing hair and nails since she was a young girl. The prospect of a new career was exciting, but Cheever admits it was a little scary giving up a guaranteed income. Luckily, her husband was making enough that she could afford to chance it.

After beauty school, Cheever worked as a nail technician first in Massachusetts for six months and then Manchester for about six years. Then, in March of 1992, she rented a room in a Manchester hairdressing shop where she operated her nail salon. When her father decided to switch careers himself) he was a nursing home administer) and bought a vacant sporting goods store, Cheever decided to move her business into the remodeled building. She added nail technicians as the business grew and last year grossed more than $100,000.

Business has increased steadily, and although there are times when it gets quite, Cheever says she has never worried about paying the bills. “I’ve been lucky and I do love to work. I guess if you work. I guess if you work 70 hours a week at something, you better love it.”

She works from 7 a.m. to about 9 p.m. A night person, Cheever says she would happily do nails all night if her clients would go for it, but she doubts that idea would fly in New England.

Starting her own business didn’t create problems in her marriage. It actually improved things because she was undergoing a lot of stress where she had been working as a nail technician. Her husband, Gordon, is very supportive of her business. He switched careers too, giving up a job to work in her father’s tanning salon. He does more at home than I do. He won’t let me hire a cleaning person and he does 99% of the housework,” says Cheever, adding that she considers herself very lucky. “I can’t tell you the last time I did a load of laundry,” she admits.

When she’s not working, Cheever likes to read and dance, and she enjoys caring for her infant grandson. Although her husband is an avid skier, Cheever’s ventures into the New England snow are limited to taking her two dogs to romp in it.

She might not do much cleaning at home, but Cheever does her own cleaning at the salon. She does the floors while the technicians help out with the daily cleaning and even dust and wax the artificial plants. Her cleaning fetish carries over into nail sanitation, an area in which the state cosmetology board is talking about stepping up requirements. Cheever isn’t worried, though. Everything the boards has discussed is already being done in her salon, she says.

She’s also not worried about increased competition in the nail business. “There are so many women working in professional areas who want their hands to look nice; I think there’s enough business out there for everybody,” she says. Being a nails-only salon has helped, she believes, because if that’s what you specialize in, clients feel you really know what you are doing.

Her own natural nails, Cheever says, are awful. Before beauty school, she tried everything from press-ons to sculptured kits to glue-on tips. Now she does her own sculptured acrylic nails, and she recently got what she considers to be a ringing endorsement.

She was stopped the other day by a woman police officer who thought she was speeding. “The first thing did was comment on my nails,” Cheever says, adding that while the nails probably didn’t have anything to do with it, she got off with just a warning.

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