How I Made It: John Choi’s journey from tax auditing to running ‘man cave’ grooming salons
John Choi, 49, is the chief executive of Hammer & Nails, a chain of male grooming salons that specializes in manicures, pedicures, barbering and straight razor shaves, served up in a “man cave” environment of oversized leather chairs, televisions with noise-canceling headsets and a choice of spirits, beer and non-alcoholic beverages.
The chain, which first gained attention when founder Michael Elliot pitched it on the reality show “Shark Tank” (it was rebuffed by the show’s judges), has four locations in the United States: Folsom, Calif.; Miami; Owings Mills, Md.; and its original Los Angeles salon on Melrose Avenue. It plans to open 14 others by the end of the year, with a projection of more than 100 salons over the next three to five years.
From Seoul to San Jose
Born in Seoul, Choi immigrated to the Bay Area with his parents and older brother when he was 6 years old. One of his earliest memories is of the long hours his parents worked when they first arrived in the U.S., first as janitors, then as owners of a variety of businesses including a restaurant, a convenience store and a liquor store.
“I remember having dinner at 9 or 10 o’clock at night when my parents came home from work, and just watching them and observing,” Choi said. “To see my parents come to the States with very little English, just a little bit of money, and seeing them struggle and work their butts off was one of the things I [believe created] my work ethic.”
When Choi was 17, his mother was killed in a car accident. He describes that moment as a wake-up call. Until then, he’d been what he described as a typical teenager who did well in school, but “nothing spectacular.” The loss of his mother jolted him into working harder in school, taking college more seriously and focusing on what he wanted in life.
“I just remember telling myself, whatever I do, know that she’s looking out for you,” Choi said.
Falling into accounting
Heading into college, Choi knew he wanted to work in business. Having seen his parents hop from venture to venture and, at some points, struggle, he suspected that their hard times could be chalked up to their lack of understanding of the changing business environment. Choi felt that if he received a formal education in business, he could avoid the mistakes they made.
He attended the University of the Pacific in Stockton. In his sophomore year, he decided to major in accounting because he was good at math and had heard that the field was one of the highest-paying professions for recent college graduates.
His graduation in 1991 coincided with a recession that saw accounting firms rescinding job offers and hunkering down. Rather than get rich fast with a big-name accounting firm, Choi found himself working as a tax auditor for the state of California.
Finding the pattern
Choi admits that working for the government isn’t the most alluring of jobs, and tax auditing had a reputation for being stale. But he took it as an opportunity to learn not just about auditing, but also about success.
Tax auditors typically look for individuals and businesses who have made a significant amount of money and check to make sure they’re following the law. Choi did that. But he also tried to figure out what made those individuals successful to begin with.
“The common thread between them was they stuck to a field they had knowledge in,” Choi said. “They were passionate about the field they were in — if they were in construction, they understood every metric and could recite codes.”
“Then they’d get involved in a lot of things in a similar realm and leverage their knowledge,” Choi said. “I took that to heart for myself.”
Starting his own business
After seven years working for the state of California, Choi wanted to strike out on his own. Filled with knowledge of the tax code, tax incentives and tax credits, he saw an opportunity to help small and medium-sized companies take advantage of all the tax credits available to them. Bigger companies already did it, usually with the help of big-name accounting firms. But there was little to no competition in the small-business space.
“I knew it was a big risk,” Choi said. “You might have an idea that you think will do well, but you just don’t know.”
His first son was only a year old at the time, and his wife, Connie, said if there was any time for him to take a financial risk, it was now.
“If we lost everything, we could start again and our child would never know because they don’t know materialistic things at that age,” Choi recalls his wife saying.
It worked out, and Choi and his business partners ran their own tax and consulting business for the next seven years.
Investing in what you use
While running his tax consulting business, one of his clients was involved in franchising with Massage Envy, a chain of massage parlors.
His decision to go into franchising himself was the result of a confluence of events: Having had back surgery years earlier, Choi was a big believer in regular massages to relieve back pain. When he asked his wife whether she was familiar with Massage Envy, she said she got a massage there at least once a week. And franchising seemed to offer him better work-life balance. As a tax consultant, he’d worked himself into the early stages of coronary disease, and he needed a change of pace.
In 2009, he and his wife bought the right to open a Massage Envy franchise, and they built it in Livermore, Calif. Two years later, they bought the rights to open Massage Envy locations in Northern California and northern Nevada. Choi sold his tax consulting practice to focus on Massage Envy full time.
Choi learned about Hammer & Nails the same way that most people first heard about it: by watching founder Michael Elliot pitch his male grooming salon concept on the television show “Shark Tank.”
The show’s judges didn’t love Elliot’s pitch, “but right off the bat it resonated with me,” Choi said.
Choi had gotten pedicures in the past, and he’d enjoyed them. One of his sons, who played football, liked them too.
“But every time we’d go to a nail salon, my son would say, ‘Hey, can you drive by and see if it’s not too packed with women before we go?’” Choi said. “It just wasn’t a comfortable environment.”
If you’re passionate and work hard, the money usually follows.
John Choi, CEO of Hammer and Nails
Hammer & Nails was, in Choi’s opinion, a great concept. The salon also serves women, but it doesn’t offer acrylics or polish, and its decor and the services it provides are geared toward men.
Only 5% of men get manicures or pedicures on a regular basis, Choi said. He says that with the right environment and a bit of education, that market can grow to 50%. And he said that with his franchising expertise, he could help grow Hammer & Nails from a single location in Los Angeles — which provided only manicures and pedicures — into a national chain that also offered barber and shaving services.
He bought the rights to open Hammer & Nails salons in Northern California in late 2016. Elliot then invited him to invest as a franchisor. This past February, he divested nearly half his Massage Envy interest in the Bay Area and became the CEO of Hammer & Nails.
Hammer & Nails’ next Los Angeles-area locations will be in West Hollywood and Echo Park, both of which are slated to open later this year.
“I don’t think this advice is anything unique, but I do believe you’ve got to be passionate about what you do,” Choi said. “Yes, you worry about the money, but generally if you’re passionate and work hard, the money usually follows. That has always been my philosophy, and it’s been great for me — knock on wood.”
Choi lives in Folsom with his wife, Connie, and their three sons, JT, Justin and Jacob.
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