Groom with a view: Making it big in the beauty business
An extract from 'The Soul of Sorbet'
Sorbet is the largest beauty franchise business in Africa. In just 12 years the business has gone from being mistaken for an ice cream shop to being a household name. In 2018 Sorbet surpassed 200 salons. The dramatic growth of the brand has driven business leaders to ask the question: “What is so different about Sorbet?”
In 2005, despite advice to the contrary, Ian Fuhr set out to create a national beauty salon franchise business that would offer a consistently high level of service, delivered with a uniquely positive staff attitude. He realised that the only way to achieve this and to stand out in the competitive beauty salon industry was to create a culture that focused on people first.
Here is an extract of his latest book ‘The Soul of Sorbet’ (Pan Macmillan, R224) on how to build a lasting brand.The story of the birth of Sorbet
“Why don’t you open a chain of beauty salons?” The sound of Liz Goldberg’s voice brought me back; I had been drifting. The soothing rhythm as she massaged the muscles of my tension-filled back had put me into a semi-conscious state. I had been a client of Liz’s for a few years and seldom missed my weekly massage appointment. Liz was a professional skincare therapist who had previously worked as the national sales manager for the South African agency of Dermalogica, a leading US skincare brand. When she fell pregnant with her first child, she opted to work from home. A friend had told me that should I want an excellent body massage, I should look no further than Liz.
“What?” I mumbled, trying to clear my head. “Why don’t you open a chain of beauty salons?” At first I thought she was joking. Me? A man with absolutely no knowledge of the beauty industry. Surely that was female territory?
“You’re kidding, right? What do I know about beauty? I wash my face with soap a couple of times a week and even then I sometimes forget!” She laughed but stuck to her guns.
“I’m dead serious. There’s a huge gap in the beauty salon business in this country. It is a fragmented industry with hundreds of small operators, just like me, and most of them are not in a position to build a branded chain.”
“But no one will take me seriously. What would a middle-aged man like me be doing in a woman’s world? And I most definitely don’t have the looks!” I cringed at the thought of my face on an advertising billboard promoting a new beauty business. “Surely we would want to attract female clients, not chase them away!”
Liz chuckled again. “The point is that you understand business and you have loads of experience. Trust me. Business is business, whether it’s beauty salons or retail stores. All you have to do is change the playing field.”
That struck a chord. Changing the playing field sounded like a stimulating challenge. Maybe Liz had a point. “I’ll think about it,” I said, as she began kneading the knots out of my neck.It was May 2004, I was nearly 51 years old and I hadn’t worked since I sold my previous business to the Edcon group at the end of 2003. Five months was the longest break of my working life and I was itching to start a new business. The problem was that this time I had no idea what I wanted to do. All I knew was that I wanted to do something completely different. Liz had said there was a gap in the beauty salon market. But was there a market in the gap? At that point I had a lot more questions than answers and the most compelling of these was:
Why are there no successful branded chains of beauty salons?
At the time there was nothing in the beauty salon arena; no well-known brands, only hundreds of independent small businesses, and if you asked twenty people which salon they supported, you would easily get 20 different answers.
Why was this industry so devoid of any multi-outlet chains of beauty salons under one umbrella brand? Had people tried and failed, or had no one really had the guts to give it a crack? What was the inhibiting factor?My curiosity got the better of me and I decided to plunge into a world that I was totally unfamiliar with. “Should be fun,”I thought to myself. The rest is history …
Bev Segal is a good friend of mine and a long-standing guest of Sorbet in Oaklands, Johannesburg. A few years ago she was diagnosed with a cancerous melanoma behind her right eye and sadly lost her eye. She had a prosthetic eye inserted and after several sessions of chemotherapy she was declared clear of the cancer. She carried on living a normal life until recently when she went for her annual check-up and was alarmed when her doctors picked up a few spots on her liver. She was booked in for a PET scan the following week for a more thorough investigation.
A few days before the scan, she went to have her nails done at her favourite Sorbet. She told her nail technician, Kenzi, with whom she had developed a strong and lasting relationship, that she was very worried about the scan and what they might find. Kenzi and her fellow Sorbet Citizens showed enormous empathy and said they would pray for Bev. On the day of the scan, after receiving the results, Bev and her family were relieved to find out that the spots were harmless and she was still clear of the cancer. Remarkably, the first thing Bev did once she received the results was ask her husband, Rob, to go past Sorbet Oaklands and tell Kenzi and the other citizens she was fine and there was no need to worry.I was deeply moved by this story. Something was happening in the Sorbet salons, something that was not only unusual in the context of South African customer service, but was almost magical. Over and above the service provided, this was a tale of trust, friendship and empathy that went way beyond that of the traditional customer-employee interaction. Several other powerful stories have since surfaced and one of them was captured on video. A bridal party was greeted at Sorbet Riverside by the entire citizen group standing outside the salon waving balloons, throwing confetti in the air and singing welcome songs of joy and celebration. The look of utter surprise and amazement on the bride’s face as she led her bridesmaids through the fanfare was priceless. The video clip was viewed over 35,000 times on Facebook.
These, and other stories, triggered some really important questions in me:
What was it about the Sorbet culture that had nurtured such powerful relationships between our guests (clients) and our citizens (staff)?
How had Sorbet been able to grow at a rate that was unprecedented in the South African beauty salon industry?
What was our true competitive advantage?In a search for answers, my co-writer, Johanna Stamps Egbe, and I ran a workshop with our support office community and franchise partners and put these questions to them. It soon became clear that Sorbet’s unique competitive advantage did not lie in our treatment offering because virtually every typical beauty salon in the country offered exactly the same treatments as we did: facials, nails, waxing, massage, etc.
Nor did it lie in our pricing. While we were always competitive, we were certainly not the cheapest in town. Nor did it lie in the products we sold. With the exception of our own Sorbet brand, all our other products, such as Dermalogica, Environ, OPI, Gelish and Morgan Taylor, were sold in hundreds of salons around the country.As we grappled in search of the elusive answer, several insights emerged from the team. They spoke of the “look and feel” of our salons; the quirky marketing and freshness of the brand; the very popular loyalty programme; our strong retail focus; the nationwide accessibility of our salons and the overall quality of service we provided. In their own right, each of these assessments made logical sense and had certainly contributed to the success of the business, but I was looking for that one thing that, above all else, gave us our true competitive advantage. That “pixie dust” that had seemingly created a degree of extreme loyalty among our guests; that one thing that had lifted us out of the quagmire of the competition and carried the brand to unprecedented growth in difficult economic times.
I was looking for something that went way beyond good business practice. After some time, we managed to hit the nail on the head. Our competitive advantage was simply the positive attitudes with which our franchise partners and our citizens were serving their guests. The discussion was then brought to a snappy conclusion when our group operations manager at the time, Liana Proost, proclaimed that our magic lay deep in the “Soul of Sorbet”.We loved this phrase and immediately adopted it as the name that perfectly described our community culture. This was what had separated us from the rest and created the foundation upon which we built a franchised chain of over 200 branded beauty salons.