UCLA grooms salon owners for success

Times Staff Writer

At Topps Salon Day Spa, owner Suzanne Van Houten is going for a look that is “very seamless.”

Clients are greeted by name and offered something to drink before their hair, skin or nails get a tuneup. A list of values -- “creativity, commitment, integrity, loyalty, trust, fun” -- is displayed throughout the small Oakland salon.

It wasn’t always this way.

Just a couple of years ago, stylists would routinely arrive for work late and unprepared, Van Houten said. With clients waiting, they would rush to the bathroom to style their hair or apply makeup. Employees would set their own schedules and make other business decisions without informing her.


“My salon was run by my employees,” Van Houten, 47, said. “Not by me.”

Van Houten credits her salon’s turnaround to UCLA. The university’s business school has developed an unusual sideline: fluffing up beauty salons.

Last year, Van Houten attended a five-day program created for owners and senior managers in the beauty industry by the UCLA Anderson School of Management.

School officials developed the course after learning that salon managers worldwide share similar problems with handling employees and keeping their businesses going. Since 2005, the annual Executive Salon Management Program has drawn salon entrepreneurs from a dozen countries, including South Africa, Australia and the Netherlands.


“It was incredible -- it’s probably one of the best things I’ve done professionally,” Van Houten said. Without the program, “I don’t know if I still would have my business.”

Her customers have noticed the change.

“It’s not just about styling people’s hair; it’s about approaching this as a business,” said longtime client Deborah Kaplan, 57, a technology administrator with the California State University system. “People know what they’re supposed to be doing. Things run smoothly.”

Although there are many leadership seminars targeted toward cosmetology professionals, programs focused exclusively on the business side of managing a salon are much less common, said Alfred E. Osborne Jr., program faculty director and Anderson senior associate dean. The goal of the program is to give salon entrepreneurs an “MBA-like experience without having to go to business school,” he said.


Among the challenges that participants face in their salons are inadequate marketing strategies, high staff turnover and problems managing cash flow. Many come to the program with the hope of expanding their businesses but don’t know how.

“They’re smart businesspeople,” Osborne said. “They just never had a formal business education.”

The program began after salon owners expressed their frustrations with the day-to-day management of their salons to the faculty at Anderson.

“Like a lot of business owners, they get to a certain point in their growth cycle where they need some more management tools to take their business to the next level,” said Elaine Hagan, executive director of Anderson’s Harold Price Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, which helped develop the program. “We saw an opportunity that we thought no one else was addressing at a business-school level.”


The cost to attend the program is $4,500, which covers tuition, most meals, books and other educational materials. Travel and lodging are extra.

Entrepreneurs from small independent salons to large chain franchises can apply, though a participant’s business must have generated annual revenue of at least $250,000 for each of the previous three years. About 25 to 50 participants are selected each year.

Lectures and small discussion groups are integral to the intensive program, with topics including finance and accounting, marketing and human resource management. One session has students analyze the financial statements of a real salon; another teaches them to incorporate risk and reward into how they make decisions.

“We’re really treating these people like they’re executives, which they are,” Hagan said. “We want people to be mentally prepared to engage in the rigor that’s going to occur in the classroom.”


Each student also completes a salon improvement project: an individually tailored, narrowly focused assignment that identifies one problem area at the participant’s salon. The expectation is that they will implement the findings from their projects after they return to their salons.

For her salon improvement project, former program participant Sue Passman chose to examine the front-desk reservations team at A Robert Cromeans Salon’s flagship location in San Diego, where she is salon director. She said her hope was to transform the desk into the “heart and soul” of the business.

After the program, Passman bolstered her front desk’s presence by hiring more staff members and training them in customer service. She also introduced a managerial accounting sheet and stressed greater accountability and time management among all of her employees.

“The business part of our salon needed improvement,” said Passman, 38, who attended the program last year. “Instinct only takes you to a certain point.”


Anderson faculty members said they hoped the Executive Salon Management Program would lead to better exposure of the frequently overlooked salon industry.

“It’s often not viewed as a profession or a career,” Hagan said. “By having a program like this, we’re hoping to bring a certain level of respect, to say this industry is worthy of a top business school paying attention to it.”

For Van Houten, who has owned Topps for 12 years, the program allowed her to “look at my business from the outside rather than being in it,” she said. She returned to Oakland and set a one-year agenda, spending the first six months conducting a careful review of her salon and the next six months implementing changes.

“I audited my salon from the front to back and looked at everything,” she said. “There were many things that were in place and made sense, but there were some operations that needed tweaking.”


The biggest task was turning her salon into a more structured, streamlined business “operating from systems rather than from feelings,” she said.

That transition included reorganizing the salon’s payroll compensation structure, eliminating the salon’s front-desk position and retraining some of her employees.

At times, her new management style meant taking a stricter approach with her employees. A few decided to leave but were replaced by stylists who were on board with the salon’s changes.

“You can’t be held hostage by your staff,” Van Houten said. “There was definitely a shift in attitude and expectation and accountability.”


She also hired assistant manager Kris Lupien early on in the transition, telling her upfront about her experience in the program and her plans to take Topps in a new direction.

“That was what attracted me to this salon,” said Lupien, 34. “It has a business sense to it, an order. Everyone’s on the same page.”

Van Houten still stays in touch with fellow salon owners she met at the program and keeps a framed group photo, taken on their first evening at UCLA, on the windowsill in her office.

Her only regret, she said, was not attending the program sooner.


“I did not have a profitable salon when I went to UCLA,” she said. “I do now.”





Salon primping

Program: Executive Salon

Management Program


What: A five-day program for salon industry professionals offered through the UCLA Anderson School of Management

Who can apply: Salon owners and senior managers

Courses: Managerial decision making, marketing resources, financial accounting and cash-flow management, among other things

Founded: 2005


Past participants: 107

Cost: $4,500 enrollment fee plus travel and lodging

Information: (310) 825-2001 or www.anderson.ucla .edu/EEPesmp.xml