When Cheryl Robinson went to work as a bookkeeper at a Southern California Supercuts salon in 1980, she knew nothing about franchising.
Worse than that, she had "the world's worst hair. My idea of a good 'do' was a bikini scarf and hair tape on my bangs," she jokes. "I had curly, unruly hair and was using terrible products. I quickly learned that Prell--since it could hold up a pearl--was drying the holy hell out of my hair."
Not only did Robinson, a Northern California native who met her husband and now-partner Joey in high school, immediately have "better" hair, she also began to learn a lot about salons and franchising from Supercuts franchisee Candi Overman.
"There were only 23 Supercuts nationwide at that time, and new salons were opening quickly," she recalls. "It was a new and evolving business and there were so many processes to set up and so many things growing and changing and so much room for input into the system. I got to sit there and have key time with the founders of Supercuts and the attorney who wrote the franchise agreement and hear their visions."
Soon, Robinson was not only handling the bookkeeping (with backup from CPA husband Joey) and other personnel-related tasks, she was helping to set up new locations.
"I was opening stores for some of the first franchisees as well as some corporate stores. Candi said, 'If you can handle more, we're delighted.' And I got into purchasing as we began to have more outlets and therefore more leverage," says Robinson, who spent only a brief, unsatisfying time in the hospital administration field she'd prepared for in college.
In time, Overman made the Robinsons a partner in one of her early stores, gifting them with equity. "After that, in every new store we opened, we became partners," says Robinson. "About 10 or 15 years ago, when Candi started to pull out of the business, we took over management of her stores and others. With a new partner, we bought out most of the other partners and leveraged ourselves further up in the business."
Thirty years from her first day at Supercuts, Robinson and her high school coach-husband are Regis Corp. franchisees with 31 successful Supercuts salons and about 300 employees in Southern California. Robinson happily describes her title as "Queen" at her company, Sapphire Ventures, Inc. "I don't like to be called 'owner.' I don't 'own' anyone," she says, tongue-in-cheek.
Since the beginning, Robinson has focused first on people--her employees and customers. "Our philosophy is to be the best place to work and the best place to get a haircut. If we all stay true to that principle, we make good, fair decisions that are right for the staff, for the customers and, ultimately, for the business," she says.
"I'm concerned if I get a bad vibe in a salon. That means we have work to do. And of course, I want every guest to feel special. This only happens if the staff feels good about themselves and each other."
In addition to offering healthcare, paid vacation and holidays, and a retirement plan (with matching funds), the Robinsons have been known to pay for employees to take ESL classes, and even to fly employee's family members from abroad into California. They show appreciation in myriad other ways, from designing special bracelets for 20-year employees to hosting all store managers for a weekend at a ranch and spa.
Thanks to the flexibility her life in franchising provides, Robinson says the couple's three children--two daughters and a son--have never taken a back seat to their parents' careers. "We have always been there for them, and Joey coached all their teams throughout high school," she says. At the same time, all three children (now grown) also "swept a lot of hair" and have an appreciation for hard work and good customer service.
Hard work and customer service are more important than ever in these tough economic times, she says. "People think of salons as being 'recession-proof.' But what happens is the time between services is lengthening. Regis has it down to a science as to how much the average customer has stretched out haircuts and services, so that is changing the business," she says. "On the plus side, we have customers coming to us now who used to pay $50 for a haircut and want to try us out."
Remaining optimistic about the future, Robinson jokes about the fact that she's still with her first love and her first real job. "I don't know how to date or interview for a job--I hope I never have to learn!"
Name: Cheryl Robinson
Company: Sapphire Ventures, Inc.
No. of units: 31 Supercuts
Family: My husband Joey and I have three adult children, and you know where they get their haircuts.
Years in current position: 15
Years in franchising: 30
Key accomplishments: Forming our own company to own and manage salons, and developing a management team of incredible bright, passionate senior managers.
Biggest mistake: Nothing we're interested in sharing.
Smartest mistake: We really wanted a location for a new shop, but the landlord chose a competitor who offered up some key money. We were crushed. But we ended up building on a dirt lot and it is now one of our largest salons and a great center.
How do you spend a typical day? I come into the office early each day and review the previous day's sales in detail. I read my email and usually talk to one or two of our senior managers. I like to be on the road by midday to visit our salons. My husband and I work together for much of each day. We talk about business all during the day and into the evening.
Work week: One of the great things about being a franchisee is setting your own schedule. We work when we need to work and when we choose to. When Joey, who is my business partner, is coaching during high school basketball season, our schedule is very different.
Favorite fun activities: I most enjoy spending time with our kids and supporting my husband in his second career as a high school basketball coach. I am also a devoted San Francisco Giants baseball fan and I really love all sports, especially NASCAR. Exercise/workout: Not much and certainly not enough!
Favorite stuff/tech toys: My new Droid phone is wonderful and my son is even better for helping me with it.
What are you reading? Reading is an escape for me and I mostly read mysteries. I just finished Robert Crais's new book, The First Rule.
Do you have a favorite quote or advice you give? Our staff has heard me say this a hundred times: Work hard to be the best place to work and the best place to get a haircut. Best advice you ever got: Do the right thing and the right things happen.
Formative influences/events: When I started with Supercuts in1980, there were only 23 shops nationwide. I was lucky that I was mentored by great people who took the time to help me grow in the business and as a businessperson. I worked for Candi Overman, first as her bookkeeper, and then as a general manager, and I learned a tremendous amount from her. Today I continue to learn from the people I work with every day, especially my fellow franchisees
How do you balance life and work? I enjoy my work and I am connected and working much of the day and into the evening. It doesn't feel like work most of the time.
Business philosophy: I put people first, and Joey helps me stay grounded on the financial side… I try to link everything we do on the shop level to our operating principle to be a great place to work and the best place to get a haircut.
Would you say you are in the franchising, real estate, or customer service business? Why? Though I spend time on all of these things as well as marketing, I am in the people business--first our employees and then our customers. That's where success starts.
What gets you out of bed in the morning? Every day I get excited thinking about how I can help our managers grow, learn, and do a better job of taking care of our customers. What's your passion in business? Raising the bar on our performance every day.
Management method or style: I'm pretty tough, with high expectations of myself first. I'd like everyone to have the same. I don't want to be a taskmaster. That's why we've created an environment where an employee feels she can work with me, meet her challenges, and grow.
Greatest challenge: To be more patient and a good listener.
How close are you to operations? I'm as close as you can get. I try to know every employee and have close relationships with our terrific shop managers. I visit stores all the time and all three of my children grew up working in our stores, so I am very much in touch with the good, the bad, and the hairy.
Personality: Driven, impatient, multitasking, passionate about teamwork.
How do others describe you? Opinionated--outspoken and into the details.
How do you hire and fire? I don't do either quickly. When someone leaves, I like to feel that we've done everything we can and it's not going to work. We're open to transfers to another salon, changing the environment. Our expectations are clear, so people know if they're not meeting them.
How do you train and retain? Supercuts is built around education. We hire people and give them 20 hours of pre-training, which is extended into the orientation process. We then send them for 40 hours of formal education and have post-training and follow-up that lasts as long as necessary. On the technical side, we're always training.
How do you deal with problem employees? If we are doing our job and setting clear expectations, problem employees will get better or they will "fire" themselves.
Annual revenue: $13 million
2010 goals: To get better at the basics with 5 percent sales growth.
Growth meter: How do you measure your growth? By haircuts, dollars, and growth in management staff.
Vision meter: Where do you want to be in 5 years? 10 years? I'd like to see the management team we've built grow professionally, economically, and personally. And I'd like for Joey and me to keep learning and doing new things and keeping our business vibrant and healthy.
How has the most recent economic cycle affected you, your employees, your customers? Our customers are always looking for great value, and that is even more important today. Our team is very much aware of how the economy is affecting customers.
Are you experiencing economic growth/recovery in your market? Southern California is still in a very difficult time. We are hoping 2010 will be the beginning of our recovery.
What did you change/do differently during the recent tough economic times that you plan to continue doing into the future? We communicated honestly with the staff when things started getting tough a year ago. We told them we would not hire anybody else at any of our salons, so that everybody could have as many hours as they wanted. They are our family and they come first. We haven't cut benefits and we've improved our health insurance. We have a lot of single moms, so that's very important.
How do you forecast for your business during trying times? Can you even forecast at all? We have great POS tools, but forecasting is an art and not a science. We can look at sales forecasting by the hour, the day, the product line, but if we rely too much on that, we miss larger factors. We combine the numbers with what's going on in each community around each salon.
Where do you find capital for expansion? Mostly internal right now.
Is capital getting easier to access? Why/why not? We haven't been looking for capital since real estate has been so difficult in our market.
Have you used private equity, local banks, national banks, other institutions? Why/why not? National City Commercial Corp. financed several new shops for us and an acquisition. They have an existing relationship with Regis Corp.
What kind of exit strategy do you have in place for your business? Our franchisor, Regis Corp., offers exit strategies to all its franchisees. They're happy to buy back our units, but we're not going anywhere anytime soon. We love what we do and still have a lot to offer our salons.
What kinds of things are you doing to take care of your employees? We offer traditional benefits like health and dental insurance, holiday and vacation pay, and a retirement plan. Then we have extra things that hopefully make them feel appreciated. We pay to renew their cosmetology licenses for them, and we give them our costs on professional tools and let them pay us over time. We have an anniversary program where we send them a handwritten card and a gift card to Costco depending on their years of service. With our managers and shift managers, we have a variety of educational events for them to stay at the peak of their profession and to grow as business women.
How are you handling rising employee costs (payroll, healthcare, etc.)? We are trying to schedule more carefully and improve our training, both with our front desk people and stylists. To be honest, we will just make less money until things are better.
How do you reward/recognize top-performing employees? We have an informal company newsletter called Blue Notes. We use it to keep salons up to date and also to honor salons and people that deserve special recognition.
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