Luxury Leader

We are told of many qualities that define luxury and a leading luxury hairdressing business. Circles of Subiaco has defied all stereotypes with applaudable growth year after year and a business as unique as it’s owner, writes Cameron Pine.

Sharlene Lee has owned Circles of Subiaco for 22 years, moved locations, purchased a premises, outgrown it and then purchased the premises next door — proving that above all, salon culture is the best friend of success.

After more than a decade of blood, sweat and tears, it was 2008 when Sharlene opened the new salon and turned heads with an industry first sushi train retail display in the salon — just another sizeable notch to the points of difference spectre that is the beauty business. But it wasn’t just the milestone of owning her own building for the first time, following two previous locations that were outworn and outgrown, but it was about empowering the brand to grow but without losing it’s distinctive DNA.

Fastforward to now and she is a die-hard L’Oreal Professionnel loyal client, sells more Kerastase than your average stockist and is one of Oribe’s biggest salon accounts in WA. How do you achieve significant growth year on year and how do you stock multiple luxury brands and achieve stand-out success with all of them? Everyone should be asking Sharlene how.

It mostly comes down to her energy and enthusiasm for the best and to always push her limits both financially and creatively. Not only has the original property she purchased more than doubled in size, so has it’s value — a dream come true for a salon owner and a team of 24 that all enjoy the salon’s success and engagement in a market crowded with ‘me-too’.

Those who know Sharlene know she’s worked hard to get her business to where it is, but they also know, thanks to social media, she has a great lifestyle and for Sharlene a good business is as much about lifestyle as it is the day to day salon work.

“Obviously hard-work is a big part of it but my success comes from the confidence to employ experienced stylists that have the capability and potential to be better than me,” Sharlene said.

“A good business is about empowering staff and having the ability to let go and not micro-manage my team while also focusing on what I want from my business,” she said. Using social media for example, Circles has developed an above-average salon organically — without resorting to extreme marketing campaigns, rather trusting in her team.

Salon loyalty certainly isn’t a dirty word at Circles, and I’m not just talking about the clients. Several of her staff have been with her for more than a decade — attracting the right people she says is as much about knowing them on a personal level as it is a matter of professionalism. “I encourage them individually and help them to achieve their personal and work goals. It’s about a bit of give and take for both of us,” Sharlene said.

“After 22 years there’s no other way to describe it other than a rollercoaster ride. I would love to go into partnership with another salon and guide my new partner on how to make the business a success (without making the same mistakes I made when I was young and naïve,” Sharlene said.

Sharlene recalls of the times she was desperate and considered what would happen if some kind of disaster would take her business — just to get her out of a very difficult time, “it’s crazy what goes through your mind,” she said.

How things have changed and it’s almost four years ago Sharlene realized she was already outgrowing her new space and purchased the shop next door — for double the price she paid for the original, “There really was no option. I just had to pay what it was worth and if I could rewind I could probably have bought an even bigger premises at the time — I’m outgrowing the 255 square metres I have.”

So what’s the Circles point of difference? A 255 square metre salon is relatively unheard of in our major cities like Sydney and Melbourne, so why Perth? For Sharlene it’s not even about location — it’s about culture and the size of her team that has created enough momentum that people will come with confidence they are at the top of their game.

Over and above a winning atmosphere that draws you in, Retail has been a strongpoint for the business, beginning with retail as part of the initial consultation process, clients form an understanding of the products prior to making an emotional connection and experience.

“We are very strong with all of our brands and by limiting our retail to three brands that complement each other, none of the retail suffers,” Sharlene said.

Always keeping on top of the latest trends — the current top sellers are the big names of the moment — Olaplex and Oribe Dry Texturising Spray.

“Clients want to see change in one visit and they want it ‘now’. They are so much more demanding and they want your blood.”

Brought on by the powers of social media, clients are a lot more educated in styling their own hair. Sharlene admits that exceeding expectations is a lot harder than 10 years ago now. “They read more, they search more, they google everyone and everything and want ‘what she’s got’ so we have to be on it.” Yes, her salon attracts clients and has an approachable rather than a high-brow aesthetic from the street but to retain them she says is a constant process of development.

Just like may businesses, the first years are the hardest but for Sharlene she says even the first five to 10 years were tough when she was trying to build both her client base and a brand that people wanted to be part of. Managing finances she says were the biggest challenge for her budding new brand — something now that she seems to take in her stride.

So how does Sharlene keep her team motivated now? What new incentives have been introduced and how do they change it up? Not only are the Circles team one of the most social salon teams I know — it’s not uncommon to see them out drinking or socializing together on a Friday night but when it comes to the day to day salon hours — they work seamlessly in a salon that can have more than 25 clients at any one time. “I always have different incentives running in the salon geared towards the individuals and their needs — whether it be a car as part of their salary structure or a ticket to their favourite event or voucher, Sharlene admits it’s not just about the money, but what it is you are actually offering that will further encourage them to reach their goals.

Attendance at company conference both nationally and abroad are a big part of the salon career for Sharlene and her team — from front flying across the country to be front row at Ssh or in Cannes at an international business forum — it’s a presence and relationship she says also ensures her business is always a leader and recognized in all areas. “It’s also important for clients as they see us at leading events and it gains respect,” she said.

“I’m not scared to make changes in the salon, I always come back on a high which inspires my team but it’s important for me that every time I implement a change it is a positive experience for everyone.

“I involve the staff personally in these experiences when I make change.” she said.

While change is a constant and Circles embraces change from the top down — just look at how many pairs of shoes Sharlene can buy in one weekend and you realize she is not afraid of changing it up. Not only this, but spend five minutes with this energy and you learn she loves the satisfaction of selling and she’s damn good at it.

An often misunderstood element to hairdresser — if you can master the art of selling and creativity you can be always ensured of a good business. “If I wasn’t a salon owner and hairdresser, I think I’d sell real estate — I get so much satisfaction from it.”

A client once told Sharlene she was Wonder Woman — overflowing with energy and forever effervescent and enthusiastic about life - she’s one of those people who can connect with anyone and accepts people with sincerity. When connections can be so impersonal nowadays, Sharlene always treats every client with a relatable and personable manner — no salon owner all manager hierarchy exists within the walls of Circles — a brand who’s graffiti heart centre is as strong as it was the day the old premises was continually tagged.

The Circles graffiti provided a brand philosophy that was about acceptance and creativity and thus the entire salon powerhouse has been built on this phenomena and things like the café wine bar, the sushi train retail and the curved basin wall have become synonymous with a salon experience a step above others in the area.

“You’ve got to look at where your weaknesses are so I trust a lot of my younger staff in social media knowledge. We also meet regularly with a digital strategist to ensure the salon stays in touch with the latest ideas and are ultimately ahead of other salons in this area.”

Even down to the details of understanding the back-end of her website Sharlene says helps her stay aware of what works and what needs to be improved — even if it is just an online review, being present with your brand goes far beyond servicing clients for a brand that continues to grow.

“In our industry you need to be proactive in every area and not be afraid to try something new but recognise if it doesn’t work, you don’t dwell on it and you try something else.”

Time is of the essence in a business the size of Sharlene’s and with that many staff — she said If she had more time, more staff meetings would be at the top of the agenda. “And two of me, that would be great too.” For most of us that could also be scary — Sharlene’s energy outplays that of two people and is one of the biggest assets for her business.

It hasn’t been all smooth sailing — when Sharlene expanded,  making sure her weekly turnover didn’t suffer and ensuring her clients still felt comfortable in the space were concerns, just like in any business. Clients were still in the salon while works were taking place. “I wanted clients to feel like a million dollars even though there was dust everywhere.”

And if she could expand again she would do it a thousand times over, in a climate when a lot of salons are getting smaller — this is a significant accomplishment.

It’s people, hair and money that make Sharlene go to work everyday and she’s not afraid to admit that new staff come to her, “It’s very rare I advertise for staff anymore. I didn’t receive a few emails each week about employment in my early days.”

The biggest piece of advice? Face challenges rather than directing energy away from them or onto something else. “If only I had this level of maturity of handling staff and KPI’s I had in the beginning.”

There’s no going around in Circles for this savvy salon — it’s one step up the luxury belt each and every day — where growth and the new frontier of luxury is guaranteed.

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