Acrylic Nails

Training Grounds: How Trang Nguyen Became a Competitive Powerhouse

What does competition mean for the country’s top nail competitors and their salons?

Winning nail competitors had to start somewhere; of course they all went to nail school and now work in salons and are often manufacturers’ educators, but just how do they manage their competition schedule and their work life? NAILS checked out the “training grounds” (the salons) of seven of the nation’s top competitors to learn how they make it all come together for the big wins.

Practice Makes Perfect

When Claudine Morgan went to her first nail competition five years ago, she had been doing nails for only a year and a half. When she saw the winning nails, she couldn’t believe her eyes. Considering her own work that day, she says, “I had a lot to work on.” What she also re­members is how she couldn’t wait to get back to the next show — and the next one and the next one. Like all competitors, Morgan’s quest for perfection and her love of the challenge keep her going back for more competitions. Morgan now averages about two competitions per month, and she travels all over the country going to shows to compete.

Located in an indoor mini-mall in the mostly military town of Fayetteville, N.C., Morgan’s salon, At Your Fingertips, is always busy, whether it’s military women wanting their nails regulation pink and white or the myriad of other clients sitting in the pink, gray, and white salon.

How does Morgan’s heavy competition schedule affect her salon and her clients? As co-owner of the salon, Morgan understands the importance of taking care of her clients. She works hard before and after a show to accommodate her regulars, and if a problem comes up while she’s away, one of the four other nail technicians she employs in the salon is glad to help her out.

Maybe their willingness to help comes from the fact that Morgan is quick to show them a new tip or a new technique brought home from her latest competition. “Fayetteville is a conservative town, so when I’m at a show, I bring back the newest trends,” says Morgan. “I love to sit with [the other technicians] and help them.”

Morgan encourages her fellow technicians to compete; however, the expense of travelling is a hindrance for some. They must pay for it out of their own pocket as she does. Because of the expense, Morgan’s partner competes only in local shows. Luckily, some of Morgan’s expenses are covered by her sponsor, EZ Flow Nail Products; she pays for the rest. But the cost doesn’t bother her, and her experience benefits the salon.

Although Morgan has won her share of awards — at press time she was ranked second among the top national competitors — winning has never been her goal. “I’m always looking to better myself, to improve on something I had a problem with before.”

Morgan doesn’t advertise her successes much. She admits she could probably advertise more; however, since Fayetteville is a small town, word gets around quickly and everyone knows she’s a nationally ranked competitor.

Learning Experience

“If you go into competing as a learning experience, there’s only one person guaranteed to win,” says Brenda Bollard, owner of Bren’s Nails in Conroe, Texas, and that one person is you. Bollard should know. With 23 competition shows under her belt since 1989, Bollard has learned from the best. “You get to work with the top competitors,” says Bollard. “You can go to a nail show and take classes and you can get some great buys, but I think the best education at a show is in the competition arena.”

Bollard tries to convey the importance of competing to her other technicians, but as of yet she’s still the only competitor in the salon. “They don’t think they’re good enough,” explains Bollard. “They don’t think they’ll get anything out of it if they don’t win. I tell them it’s for the learning experience.”

Bollard herself goes to three shows per year and competes in as many categories as she can. Before she leaves for a show, she works longer hours to take care of all her regular clients; when she gets back, she works extra hard to catch up on the ones she missed. If an emergency comes up, the other technicians cover for her. Bollard believes competing has helped both her and the salon; she teaches the other technicians what she has learned at the competitions, and she uses the feet that she competes as a marketing tool. “When I get back from shows, I try to do a little newsletter for my clients so they know how I did,” says Bollard.

Since Bollard owns the salon, she pays for all her competing expenses and records it as a business write-off. She also helps pay for the models who travel with her to shows. “I’ve traveled with the same two models for the last two years and they’re both my clients,” says Bollard. “One of them is a single mom, so I try to help her with her plane fare.” Bollard pays for the hotel room, which they usually all share. “It’s like a big party,” Bollard says.

Dare to Compare

With all the stress and time it takes to attend a competition, why do technicians sacrifice so much to compete? For Michele Baker, an independent contractor at Euro Stylecutters, a hair and nail salon located in a small strip mall in Lutz, Fla., it’s the thrill of the competition. “Few careers allow you to compare what you do with other people and get accolades for it,” says Baker. “It’s a great way to compare yourself with your peers.”

<p>Nails are definitely "up front" at Euro Stylecutters. Michele Baker and a part-time nail technician have workstations just inside the front entrance, as seen on the left. Behind Baker are facial and pedicure rooms. Baker and one hairstylist service all the pedicure clients.</p>

Baker started doing nails in 1990 and, only two years later, started competing to improve her skills. A self-described born competitor, Baker also saw the shows as an opportunity to network with the best in the business. Besides, competing paid off right away for her. “I got very spoiled right off the bat,” remembers Baker, who took first place in the fantasy nail art competition in her first show. She was ranked seventh in the Top 25 Nail Competitors for 1995, and is currently ranked seventh for 1996.

Since she’s an independent contractor, Baker pays for all competition expenses herself. “But, it’s all tax deductible, and I figure even if I learn just one thing at each competition, it’s worth it,” she says. Baker hopes to find a sponsor soon to help defer the costs. Although Euro Stylecutters doesn’t give Baker financial support, she’s quick to add she gets plenty of moral support from the salon and from her clients. Located in Lutz, a suburb of Tampa, Euro Stylecutters gets its share of townspeople, be they housewives, lawyers, or surgeons, and since Lutz, a suburb of Tampa, is still a small, quaint town, the word that she’s a competitor gets around quickly. “My clients like to say I’m a nationally ranked competitor. It helps bolster my business.” The salon owner has advertised her standing as a competitor in the local papers, but word-of-mouth has been her best advertising.

<p>At the NAILS Show Ft. Lauderdale in 1995, Michele Baker (center) had a marathon weekend. The first day, she did the Mirror Image comepetition (with model Jaime Schaer, right) and the Flat Nail Art competition (with model Ericka Kircher, left). The next day, she took the acrylics off Schaer and did fiberglass. The monumental effort got her one second-place and two third-place trophies.&nbsp;</p>

Last year, Baker went to 10 shows and traveled all over the country. For most of the four years she’s rented space at Euro Stylecutters, she has been the only nail technician there, so when she leaves for a competition, she works extra hours before and after to take care of her clients.

Like all good competitors, Baker has accumulated a wealth of experience and new techniques. The salon she works in also fosters the feeling of keeping on the cutting edge. Baker has many nail technician friends in the area who call her for advice. “I try to help them whenever I can. I don’t think I need to keep all of my secrets to myself?’ says Baker. “Education is no good unless you share it with somebody”

Gone Competing

As the last brushes and extension cords are packed away, Tye Broughton takes a second to hang the Closed sign in the window of her Medford, Ore., nail salon before she joins the other nail technicians for another road trip to another nail competition. Does Broughton ever wonder if the stress of a nail show is worth it? No way. “We thrive on the stress,” she says.

In fact, competition time at Nail Designs, the nail salon Broughton has owned since 1993, is the most exciting time of year. Much of that excitement is because the shows are always a team effort. Broughton, who caught the competing fever in 1994, has quickly spread her passion for competition to the six other technicians in the salon. “Since I’ve gotten into competition and have enjoyed it, just about all the nail technicians are getting into competition with me.” It didn’t take too much convincing to get the others to try it: “They see my excitement for competition and it’s catching. It’s really motivating for all of us to go to competitions together. We feed off of each other.”

<p>Inside Nail Designs, the feeling is one of eclectic comfort. The waiting area cost a total of $100 to furnish, since Tye found most of her pieces at yard sales.</p>

Broughton, who has been doing nails since age 19 — she’s 26 now — read about competitions in NAILS, and it piqued her interest enough to give it a shot. “It looked like a lot of fun,” remembers Broughton. “And it got me out of the salon to do something different.” Since all of the salon’s nail technicians are independent contractors, everyone pays their own way to the shows, but they save money by sharing hotel rooms and travel expenses. In addition, they only do shows on the West Coast — about three per year.

Competing locally also makes it easier to service their regular clients. “We usually just go for one or two nights. Sometimes we drive all night to get there,” says Broughton. “But usually we only take off a Saturday and Sunday, and sometimes part of a Monday.” It also helps out that their clients completely support their competing efforts. “Clients know when a competition is coming up and they’ll wish us good luck and say, ‘Let’s see some trophies when you get back’,” says Broughton. “Our clients like that we are involved in our industry. It shows that we care about what we’re doing.”

When it comes to competition, Broughton sees only advantages. “Because judges in the competitions are looking for perfect, consistent nails, your salon nails become practice instead of work,” explains Broughton. “That’s why I encourage technicians to go to competitions because it makes their salon nails that much more perfect.”

<p>It's not clear whether Tye Broughton has more staff members or competition trophies. She and husband/partner Glenn (seated, front) are proud of the fact that almsot all their nail technicians compete (from left to right, Christina Olsen, Tonia Waldron, Kayte Mihaljevich, Denise Shirk, Karen Ehrmantraut, Jehne Allbritton, and Cindy Gilman).</p>

He’s Hooked

When Trang Nguyen started competing seven years ago, it hit him like a virus. “Once I started, I couldn’t stop,” he says. Nguyen has definitely caught the competition bug: Competing in as many shows as he can —15 to 17 per year — he sees competitions as the best way to improve his techniques and keep motivated “It keeps me on the edge,” he says.

<p>Trang Nguyen is a veteran competitor, as his array of throphies attest, and he now focuses on encouraging nail technicians who work for him to compete. They've got a tough act to follow.</p>

That’s why in the four years he has owned Longwood, Fla.-based Hollywood Nails, he has encouraged all of his nail technicians to compete. “I think everybody should compete because it makes them more confident in their work,” says Nguyen. To encourage his technicians to compete, Nguyen offers to help with the entry fees for local shows; if a nail technician is really serious about competing, he’ll even help pay expenses for shows farther away. “If they love to compete and they really want to improve their skills, I don’t mind paying for it,” says Nguyen.

Because Nguyen trains the technicians himself, he knows who has the abilities to compete. Nguyen is the owner of two nail salons and one beauty school, situated in and around Orlando, Fla. Since he knows which shows he will be attending far in advance, he tells his clients and rearranges schedules so everyone is taken care of. “The clients are very understanding and supportive," says Nguyen.

<p>This location of hollywood Nails may be in a sleepy Florida suburb, but owner Trang Nguyen says it's surprisingly busy. His conservative business clients enjoy the easy access and clean, uncluttered layout of Nguyen's salon. And they don't mind the fact that their nails are being done by a national champion, either.</p>

Nguyen advertised his wins from competitions in the beginning, but now relies on word-of-mouth marketing instead. In 1995, he added a nail school to his salon, and now he uses the fact that his technicians compete to draw students to the school. Students know they’re being taught by ranked competitors, explains Nguyen, and, “when students trust you, they learn faster and better.”

Road Trip

“Good luck! Do good! We want you to be number one this year,” Sonia Glover’s clients are sure to tell her before she leaves for a competition. Ranked number two in 1995, Glover isn’t likely to disappoint her clients this year. Ranked number one at press time, the owner of The Nail Boutique in Myrtle Beach, S.C., is one nail technician to keep your eye on.

Located in an upscale section of town, in a plaza just two blocks from the beach, The Nail Boutique gets a lot of walk-in traffic in addition to their mostly retired clientele who have moved here from the North. Because Myrtle Beach is the golf capital of the world, Glover has kept the recreational theme going by decorating her salon in subtle mauve and gray tones to create a restful atmosphere. The massage, facial, and waxing rooms also carry the mauve and gray theme, and a pond and fountain in front of the salon invite clients to complete their vacation like day by getting a professional manicure by veteran competitors.

It seems all seven nail technicians at The Nail Boutique have competition spirit in their blood. Although Glover definitely competes the most, everyone in the salon has won awards. (Lynn Caudle, another technician in the salon, is currently ranked twelfth.) The technicians get together once a week to go over new techniques and practice for the next show.

How did competition become a way of nail life at Glover’s salon? “I started competing to see where my weaknesses were,” recalls Glover. “I watched the competitions and took what I saw back to the salon to better myself’ — which, according to Glover, is the whole reason to compete. “It makes you a better nail technician,” she says simply.

Everyone at The Nail Boutique loves to travel, a factor that influences how many shows they attend and where they go to compete. “We pick our shows by what fun places we want to go,” says Glover. “We make it a mini-vacation.” If the whole salon goes to a show, Glover pays for the rooms and entry fees. Once in a while, she will take a couple of clients with her to use as models and Glover also pays for everything. If she wins any money at the show, she’ll even split the winnings with the clients.

What about the clients she leaves behind? “My clients are very flexible,” says Glover. Plus, Glover will work 14- to 16-hour days to service clients before a competition. Glover’s clients love that she competes, and. “It’s great advertising,” says Glover. The salon even runs a big Yellow Pages ad picturing a trophy and promoting their “award-winning nail technicians on staff with years of experience.”

Network News

“First and foremost, I compete because I learn,” proclaims Amy Cooper, 28, owner of Masterworks nail salon in Glendale, Wis. And because she believes competing is the best form of training, she makes it mandatory for anyone working in her salon to compete. For the moment, that’s just her and her sister, Gwen Bierman. “Competing keeps our skill level up,” says Cooper, and their talent shows in the amount of referrals they get — they’re booked solid all of the time.

Besides the actual competition, Cooper also finds she learns by networking with the other technicians at the shows. She finds out what’s working for them and likewise shares her secrets. “The competitors that impress me the most are those who share information,” says Cooper, who is also eager to share with her sister. “If I learn something new, I’ll teach her.” Because Cooper doesn’t work on weekends, it’s easier to get away for competitions without disrupting any of her clients’ appointments. And although in 1995 she competed heavily, the arrival of her second child has slowed down the amount of shows she now attends. Still she is sure to get in a national show each year to keep up with all the latest trends.

Cooper’s advice to nail technicians who aren’t competing? “Always compete! Because you’re in it to learn.” And what about how it affects the salon? The salon should back the competitor.

“We originally thought advertising our national award-winning nails would increase our business,” says Cooper. “But what increased our business was our skill level — being able to do nails that no one in the city could touch.

That’s what going to competitions is all about.”

Maria Valdez is a business writer based in Long Beach, Calif.

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