Brent Johnson combined the business and customer service skills he learned in retail and occupational therapy to build his salon business. Today, he and his partners own and operate six Square One Salons in Dayton and Columbus.
In the beginning…
Brent Johnson has been fascinated by business since childhood. As soon as he turned 16, he got a job in a restaurant and discovered, “I loved working”. In his last year or two of high school, he attended school for a half day and worked half a day. “I always wanted my own business, so the more I could learn, the more I could be exposed to the public, the better my confidence would become, the more I could connect with people”.
Brent’s first two managers taught him to “really listen to and be a problem solver for guests. Really listen to people and find out what they want and go deeper than their answer. Don’t be afraid to step out of your box a little bit and do whatever it takes”.
What did Brent do after high school?
After graduation, Brent quickly moved from a job as a floor manager at a store in the Dayton Mall to become the assistant manager of Benetton at Town and Country Shopping Center, and then the manager of Benetton at the Dayton Mall. The promotions enabled him to move from his parents’ house in Carlisle, Ohio to his first apartment in Dayton’s downtown Oregon District.
Brent recognized, however, that the promotions were both “a gift and a trap”. The increased money was great at the time, but it wasn’t enough to live on forever. Consequently, he enrolled at Sinclair Community College for “one class a quarter”. At that rate, he thought, “by the time I’m 86, I might actually have a degree”.
Although Brent dreamed of owning a business, he was unsure of his direction. “The financial world was sort of in crisis and I got scared I was going to be 50 years old and working in the Macy’s Young Men’s department, selling Levis”. At the time, he was a Visual Merchandiser for Macy’s and loved the creative aspect. Consequently, he decided to pursue the goal of a Masters degree in art therapy. His first step was the 2-year degree program in Occupational Therapy at Sinclair. “Art therapy was in the safe world of the medical field where I would actually have an income and health insurance”.
Upon graduation with his Associate’s degree, Brent immediately took a job at Maria Joseph Nursing & Rehabilitation Center focused on geriatric patients. After three years, he moved to the rehab services at Grandview Medical Center and continued working with similar patients.
How did Brent move from being an occupational therapist to owning a salon?
Brent never lost his dream to open his own business. When two friends, Nick and Doug, and his roommate, now husband, Josh, raised the idea of opening a hair salon, Brent was ready.
During their early planning, Nick left for Chicago. The three remaining partners each added different dimensions to the project. Doug, a hair stylist, had years of salon experience. Josh, a schoolteacher, had a Master’s degree in learning styles and a degree in massage, which inspired them to plan spa services in the salon. Brent said, “I don’t bring anything to the table other than a lot of retail experience, visual merchandising and customer service. And I love people”.
How did Brent and his partners go from a dream to a successful salon?
At first, all Brent and his partners could do was dream. In 1998 a friend told them the Cannery Building in downtown Dayton was being renovated to include retail and residential units. The project planners “were motivated to talk to anybody, because the bank wanted to see retail commitments”. The bank required a business plan, however, and Brent and his partners had no idea how to write one.
When they sought help at SCORE, the mentor “thought we wanted to open a salon like a place to go smoke cigars” and admonished them for failing to wear a suit to their meeting. “It really lit a fire under us”. The partners realized they needed “to act like we know what we’re talking about”.
Then Brent broke his leg. His injury drastically reduced his hours at Grandview, because his job, which included showing patients how to move safely, was “hard to do when I was non-weight bearing on my left leg and in a wheelchair myself”. With time on his hands, Brent started drafting their business plan using a friend’s business plan as a template. It “had nothing to do with my world, but at least I saw a Table of Contents”.
They needed a down payment of $10,000 in order to borrow $100,000, but all they had was $300 and nothing to sell. The partners each raised $3,300 from family and friends, and the bank made the loan.
The partners used $20,000 to buy equipment, start a payroll and pay accounting and legal fees. They used the remaining $80,000 to refurbish the space. In November 1999,
Brent, Josh and Doug opened Square One Salon with seven employees. “We had 8 styling stations, a massage room and a facial room and a bathroom and a break room and a laundry room… We thought it was important to do it all”.
Brent quit his hospital job to work full-time at the salon. At that time, he didn’t “know the difference between a facial or a highlight”, so he concentrated on customer service and the interior design.
In order afford a pay cut to help the salon’s cash flow, Brent gave up his health insurance and his car and walked to work for two years. He did home health care in the evenings or on weekends to earn supplemental cash.
Square One entered into a contract with Aveda to carry their products exclusively. In return, Aveda provided free education, a free back bar, and business guidance based on Aveda’s analytics. Early on, Brent adopted their benchmarks to measure the salon’s success:
- Don’t pay more than 6% for rent
- Don’t let your payroll for stylists go over 45%
- Make sure your managers and front desk personnel margins don’t run over 8%
What did Brent and his partners do after opening the first salon?
After several years, Brent and his partners opened Therapy Café, a bar/restaurant, also in the Cannery Building. They quickly learned it was a drastically different type of business. “It was a potential killer of everything we had…we had to take out a $400,000 loan and it’s hard to make that up on $2 coffees and $9 martinis”. They also learned owning a bar/restaurant isn’t a party. “You have to stay up late, but you can’t drink”. To Brent’s relief, after four years they sold Therapy Café without going bankrupt.
“We learned some valuable lessons…what I call our adult college:
- Stick with what you know; do what you do well
- Just because you do one thing well, doesn’t mean you’ll do everything well
- Just because it looks like easy money, doesn’t mean it is
- Nothing is free”
Thereafter, Brent and his partners focused solely on the salon. They knew, however, their space constraints limited their team’s potential to “spread their wings”. “We had people who had been with us for 8-9 years”, and they risked losing stylists to the lure of “opening their own business” by renting a chair in a loft or salon. “They’re in charge of booking their own appointments; coming in when they want to”, which works for some, but not all.
Square One’s solution was to open a second location in order to give employees opportunities for advancement. Brent found an old building with reasonable rent in downtown Centerville, Ohio. “We’re all about going into historic buildings and renovating that building”. After intense negotiations, Brent and the owner agreed to a five-year lease with the first six months free for the necessary renovations. Square One put $275,000 into the building to complete the 5,200 square foot salon.
How did Brent go from two salons to six?
“Seven years ago, we got really scared again”. Businesses were leaving Dayton and Brent and his partners worried that “all of our eggs are in one basket”. The opportunity to buy two salons in the Aveda network in the Columbus, Ohio area – downtown and New Albany – coincided with Doug’s desire to move there. Brent, Josh and Doug opted to buy them.
Opening the new salons was “a struggle, because their culture was so completely different than ours”. In order establish the quality and customer service expected in a Square One salon, Brent made a lot of trips to Columbus.
Two years ago, they opened two more salons after a longtime Dayton employee warned Brent he intended to open his own salon. He said, “I want financial security; I want to own a business and be my own boss; and I want to have creative control”. Brent sat down with Josh and Doug to devise a strategy to motivate the employee to stay.
They decided to offer to sell shares of stock to certain employees. Brent, Josh and Doug retained ownership of 51% of the stock and offered 49% to qualified employees. The criteria for eligibility were:
- Longevity – at least 10 years of employment with Square One
- Full-time (30 hour/week)
- Hold a leadership role
They offered shares to seven people and five accepted, including the employee in question. Sale of the shares paid for the build-out at two more locations: Brown Street in Dayton and Oak Creek in Centerville, Ohio.
Brent said that with the new shareholders, “I’m really motivated to make sure my employees are happy; so are they. They’re really motivated to make sure they have the education they need to provide great services; so am I. We’re all motivated to keep it looking great; we’re all motivated to make the client happy; we’re all motivated to be sure our benchmarks” are met.
What is Brent’s business philosophy?
Brent’s philosophy is simple: “It matters. Everything matters from the condition of the stairway to the cleanliness of the break room to the treatment of everyone who walks through the door”. No matter whether it’s a client or the UPS driver, everyone should be treated with respect and courtesy.
Treatment of employees also matters. Brent’s emphasis on respect and listening has led to a “95% retention rate with our stylists”. In difficult situations, Brent asks himself “three questions: is it good for the business? Is it good for the client? Is it good for the employee?” He initiates a conversation to understand the situation, discover the employee’s goals, and emphasize his expectations.
Brent believes in creating a balanced team of people with different strengths. “You need to have people who are good at doing books or managing people in addition to people who are good at doing hair”. If everyone was similar, “no one wants to do the books, because everyone sucks at doing the books, but we’re all really great at doing highlights”.
To give employees opportunities to advance, Square One offers training in both job skills and leadership and management development. Unlike many other salons, Brent distinguishes between managers and stylists in order to benefit from the strengths of each. With training, stylists may advance as teachers and leaders “along with their career behind the chair”.
In addition, the partners demonstrate they care about their employees by providing full-time employees with health insurance and a 401(K) savings plan.
What is Brent’s advice for customer service?
“Never shy away from asking a guest if they had a great experience. If you sense that they’re telling you it was great and it wasn’t,” dig deeper. “I want to know before they walk out the door”.
Brent’s process for resolving client issues is:
- Thank the guest: “Thank you for making me aware”
- If the solution isn’t obvious, ask, “How can we make this better?” “Most of the time, people just want to be heard”
- Thank them again
“Once you do that and you own it, people just de-escalate really fast”.
- “I’ve never quit one job without having another one in place”
- “Just because it’s a great idea, doesn’t mean it’s a great idea for you”
- “You don’t have to have a business degree; you can learn it. It doesn’t have to be taught in a classroom; practical knowledge – for example, Therapy Café – is so valuable”
- “Don’t try to do everything, because you just can’t master all of it”
- “Work-life balance is really important; make sure you get your family time in”
- Brent’s dad taught him, “if you agree to dig a ditch, you make it the best ditch, not a half-assed ditch…when you agree to do it, you do it to the best of your ability, no question”
“I love business and I love my salon, but it’s not the salon business that I love. I don’t love hair, I don’t love creating makeup and hair. I love it when it’s beautiful and I love that my client’s happy and I love watching the artist be creative and be proud of what they do”.