Doug Cole, founder and CEO of Cole’s Spa and Salon

Star Tribune file,

Cole's Salon to celebrate anniversary with gifts

  • Article by: Todd Nelson
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • August 16, 2014 - 2:00 PM

Salon founder Doug Cole has rewarded employees with ownership of nearly half of his company.

This fall, the owner of a chain of five shops across south-of-the-river suburbs will extend his generosity to customers: drawings for $35,000 in gift cards and prizes to celebrate 35 years in business.

It’s an approach that appears to have contributed to longevity for Cole’s Salon and Spa, building loyalty among a remarkable number of longtime employees and generations of customers.

It includes a commitment to continuous improvement: Cole and his 340 employees dedicate an hour a day to learning. There are in-store libraries and classes and a mentoring program in which more than 100 veteran employees help newcomers develop productive work habits.

The company has expanded from the one shop he launched in October 1979 to a group with one location each in Burnsville, Apple Valley and Savage and two in Eagan.

Cole said the company, which last year had $22 million in sales, likely will begin a search for a site for a sixth location next year.

In October, Cole will thank customers by giving away $500 in gift cards at each location in weekly drawings for four weeks, said Melissa Hanson, chief operating officer. In the fifth week, each store will give away six $500 gift cards.

The firm reports that 56 people have worked there for 20 years or more. The average tenure: eight years.

Investing in workers

Cole credits that in part to an employee stock ownership plan set up in 1994. Employees, fully vested after three years with the company, now own 44 percent. Such plans are rare among multiunit retailers and appear to be unheard of in the salon business, both of which typically see high employee turnover.

“It’s a way for me to say thank you and give them ownership,” Cole said. “Our vision is to have a team of happy, balanced, highly skilled professionals whose dreams and passions are fulfilled. A lot of it is not just about a career, it’s about being happy in life.”

Feedback from employees resulted in Cole’s business recently ranking first among midsize companies in the Star Tribune’s Top Workplaces survey. Cole himself received additional recognition for earning the highest leadership scores in the category.

The salon and its employees stress community support, from making large gifts to health care facilities to giving to scouting groups.

The firm supported events such as a recent Locks of Love campaign, in which stylists cut 49 ponytails of high school students who donated their hair to have free wigs made for cancer patients.

‘True visionary’

Peter Lichtenthal, president of Bumble and bumble, said the salon operator and high-end hair product company enjoys top sales and a close working relationship with Cole and his team.

“Doug is a true visionary, he’s a true entrepreneur,” Lichtenthal said. “He has that rare balance of intellect and foresight with an extraordinary commitment to people, to culture and to always doing the right things for employees, his team and guests at the salon.”

Several elements have contributed to the longevity of Cole’s Salon, Lichtenthal said. Those include Cole’s “four C’s,” — his principles for running the company — character, commitment, competence and culture. Lichtenthal said he also likes the “Golden Nuggets” notebooks that Cole’s employees receive to record inspirational quotes and idea to share.

Martha Johnson of Lakeville, a Cole’s regular for 15 years, said that she, her late mother, and her daughters have had positive experiences there.

“It’s a gem in the Twin Cities,” Johnson said. “They have a big-city vibe but small-town values and principles. The people are so warm and friendly and really great professionals.”

The firm’s “first impression teams” of front-desk employees answer customers’ calls, welcome them for appointments and give them a positive impression when they leave. The salon aims to offer individualized cut, color and other services in an upscale, creative environment.

“We want to be known not just as a friendly place but also as a place where people can get the cutting edge,” Cole said.

Johnson recalled the words of an older lady whose bill she paid one day, who told her, “ ‘I would spend my last $50 at this place, it makes me feel so good.’ “

“I would too,” Johnson said. That’s how I feel about it. … They’re happy to see you and they make you feel beautiful when you leave.”

Todd Nelson is a Twin Cities freelance writer.

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