The Key to Retaining Stylists? A Great Culture They Never Want to Leave


In California, booth rental salons are more prevalent than in other areas of the country. In fact, Gila Rut co-owner Karla Lopez-Martinez says even the beauty schools coach students as if they’ll be going straight into booth rental, which isn’t always accurate.

With three locations in the San Diego area, Lopez-Martinez and co-owner Keri Davis-Duffy have been in business 24 years and have seen a lot of stylists go the booth rental route, believing they’ll make more money and put in less hours.

“I think it’s doing a disservice to students by leading them to believe they’ll make their own schedule and make a lot of money right after they get their license,” says Lopez-Martinez. “It takes three to five years to build your business and be successful.”

And at Gila Rut, the owners want their stylists to reach goals and experience success. To ensure this happens, they hire carefully.

“We look for people who love to be a part of a bigger team, unified culture and want a career, not just a job,” says Davis-Duffy. “We want people who are looking for the support of a company. There are a lot of people out there who just want to go to a job, do their thing and not answer to a bigger cause. That’s not a fit for us,” she adds.

Karie Bennett, owner of Atelier Salon and Studio in San Jose, California, was an independent contractor herself before joining a traditional team environment. She found booth renting to be too isolating, and makes sure her staff understands just how important a team, including an owner and manager can be to individual success.

“My staff likes that I take care of everything for them,” says Bennett. “They don’t have to worry about ordering product, paying taxes, finding health care, etc. They can focus on what they do best—taking excellent care of our guests,” she adds. “As their employer, I take care of my staff. They are a customer of ours, too and I need them to be happy.”

A Flexible Culture

While some stylists are able to find the right fit and achieve success in the booth rental environment, Gila Rut and Atelier retain their staff with benefits, flexibility and perks that can’t be found as an independent contractor.

“We want to create a culture that takes care of our stylists’ needs,” says Bennett.

Most stylists see the two biggest benefits in booth rental being a flexible schedule and more money.

So, at Atelier, flexibility is the name of the game. The salon is open seven days a week from 8am-9pm on week days and 8am-6pm on weekends. Double shifts and chair shares allow Bennett to offer stylists almost any schedule they want.

“If they can commit to a flexible schedule, we’ll commit to it, too,” she says. “We work on making the best work environment for our employees. One of our education directors recently paid me the ultimate compliment when she said she LOVES her work schedule,” Bennett adds.

“They need to spend time with their families, too. Some people want three days a week in a row, some people want to spread it out. Some moms just want to work two days a week,” she adds.

Bennett also works closely with stylists who are back from maternity leave and easing them into a work schedule that’s compatible with their new role as mom.

“We want our customers to feel like they can go to anyone,” she says. “And we want our stylists not to worry that their client won’t get taken care of while they are on vacation or maternity leave.”

Lopez-Martinez and Davis-Duffy are also working with new moms at Gila Rut to make sure they are able to balance home and work life.


The Atelier Team

“As our company matures, we have a lot of new moms and dads,” says Davis-Duffy. “We also have many seasoned team members who’ve been with us a long time and want or need an adjusted work schedule.”

To accommodate their team’s needs, Lopez-Martinez says they’ve created some flexibility.

“New moms can come back for three days, then start adding time slowly,” she says. “We also have a four-day week schedule stylists can opt to do. They can work 10 hours, four days a week and still be full-time if they want.”

As stylists want more flexibility due to having children or going back to school, or other life events, Lopez-Martinez says they’ve had to become more open minded about part-time schedules, too. “We’ve had to implement more flexibility into our culture so employees feel like they have more of a say in what their schedules look like,” she says.

Davis-Duffy adds, “Our three core values are communication, commitment and growth—and those are not one-sided values. Those are the words and behaviors practiced on both the side of the management (making decisions) and the team (servicing their guests).”

Adapting a more flexible schedule is a great example of the Gila Rut team speaking to what their needs are and management having the commitment to them to find a way to make it a win for everyone—the guests, the team member and the company.

The Power of Benefits

A flexible schedule is just one factor in the cultures at Gila Rut and Atelier that keeps stylists happy. Other benefits like medical, dental, 401k and paid education are perks stylists know they won’t receive as independent contractors.

At Atelier, Bennett brings in outside educators one to two times a year in addition to weekly Protégé classes, which are open to stylists anytime they want a refresh.

“We ask our staff what they want to determine what kind of education we bring in,” says Bennett. “Last year they wanted a master barber, this year it’s a class in Balayage,” she adds.

Continued education is also a big perk at Gila Rut, as well as involvement in events like Fashion Week in San Diego, where stylists have the opportunity to do creative work outside the salon.

However, Bennett maintains one of the most important things she does as an employer is taking care of mandatory sick pay and taxes and offering a co-op on health insurance, dental, and vision. Not to mention the 401k with a 4-percent company match.

“The financial benefits are really big,” says Bennett. “I’ve had stylists ask me if they’ll make more money if they go to booth rental, and the answer is ‘no.’ They are getting solicited by suite companies with ads that make promises like, ‘Keep all the money you make,’” she adds.

“Nobody gets to keep all the money they make—everyone pays taxes. And you have to pay bills, rent, liability insurance, credit card fees, etc.”

“You pay for product, liability insurance, outside education. Also, booth renters don’t raise their prices on a regular basis. There are a lot of little details like this,” she adds.

Lopez-Martinez agrees that stylists are often misinformed when it comes to how much money they can make as an independent contractor.

“The most common myth is that you’re going to work less and make more money,” she says. “We are very open about our finances and how we run our business. Our people really understand the value of a company that does all of that.”

Cultivating a Career

The team cultures Atelier and Gila Rut have cultivated extend even further beyond traditional benefits, a good salary, education and flexibility.

At Gila Rut, the owners have even introduced a personal development program called Landmark Education to help stylists with anything on their life journey. From relationships to finances, this three-day seminar teaches personal skills for life.

After being introduced to the program many years ago, Davis-Duffy was impressed with how it helped her in communication, clarity and creating a path to move forward in a focused way.


Karla and Keri of Gila Rut

“This is just one of the educational paths we recommend to anyone interested in seeking personal and professional development,” she says. “We believe in balance—if we find a great personal development program we see as beneficial, we recommend it.”

With the Landmark program, Lopez-Martinez says, “They develop the skill set to keep personal goals on track.”

Bennett also takes a personal interest in each stylist. Although a general manager handles one-on-ones with stylists twice a year, Bennett has recently started “Coffee with Karie” meetings with her 50 employees.

“It’s just 30 minutes with me, catching up,” she says. “I love my people and want to stay connected to them. We sit over a cup of coffee and I find out what they’re up to, where they want to take their career and hear their great ideas.”

Career paths are taken seriously and created for everyone. “We have a track for people interested in education, but also look at different roles and responsibilities that give motivation and excitement,” says Bennett.

So with all these perks, why would anyone ever leave to be an independent contractor? The fact is, it still happens on occasion.

“I had a fantastic stylist who left for the promise of better money once,” says Bennett. “But she eventually got tired of it and wanted to come back. Another who left wasn’t growing, so she came back to us for education—she couldn’t find it on her own.”

Lopez-Martinez recalls a stylist who had been with Gila Rut for five or six years and left to be a booth renter.

“When she came back, we asked her why she wanted to rejoin the team. Her main thing was she needed a team environment. She also finally understood the benefits of working for a company, and she wanted financial stability. She noticed a major dip financially when she became an independent contractor,” says Lopez-Martinez.

“Our focus is not necessarily to discourage people from booth renting,” she adds. “We’re fine with people finding their own path, but we want to make sure we guide them through and create roots to understand the benefits of being in a company like ours.”

Davis-Duffy says, “Once your team knows you are there for them, to support them and help them grow in their personal lives and business lives, retention takes care of itself.”

Bennett adds, “I let the team know how much I appreciate them daily. We celebrate success and support growth every day. I may steer the ship, but they keep it afloat, the fridge stocked and the music playing!”


Archived Comments

11 Comments (Comments are closed)

  1. Emily Hudson says:

    I’m wanting the same. I’m freshly open in a town with lots of competition and working on a two-notch salon here. I’m wanting to do the pay scale but don’t know how it feels (pay scale verses hourly) any suggestion?

    • Neill-TSP says:

      Karie Bennett is an advocate of the sliding scale model had some sage advice for another commenter. She said they did a test run before launching and found that it was very motivational for stylists, and that one of the benefits is having feedback that rewards effort every two weeks, which is a good period of time for stylists to take a look at how their hard work pays off. The stylists are in control of how well they do, and can make proactive moves after a difficult period to positively turn the next one around in just two weeks, instead of waiting for a review every few months. Hope this helps!

  2. Pam Sessions says:

    How do you offer insurance, vacation and sick days ? Does the company pay a portion of it? Approximately what % do the stylist make?

    • Neill-TSP says:

      Hi Pam,
      We brought your question to Keri Davis-Duffy of Gila Rut and this was her response:

      “We do offer:
      Health Insurance: We offer 3 plans and pay 50% of the lowest plan offered. The employees can pick any of the three available plans and upgrade if they choose.
      Vacation or PTO: We offer 5 paid days for 1-4 years and 10 days of PTO after the 4th year. This includes 3 sick days.
      The PTO days are for full-time employees only. The Sick Pay is for all employees based on the new laws.
      Hope this helps.

  3. Samantha says:

    I wish you were in Michigan!

  4. Tasharra Tucker says:

    I love this article and the way you operate your salon!!! I am a new salon owner in NC and I would love to set up my salon in this way! Does anyone offer training for salon owners, or a program that will show me how to set things up properly? From back office (taxes, insurance, etc.) to scheduling, salon procedures, employee incentives…
    I am new to this, but my goal is for my staff and myself to be successful and one day open more salon locations, but I’m having a hard time getting things set up. PLEASE HELP!

    • Neill-TSP says:

      Hi Tasharra,
      We would suggest checking out Aveda Business College. It will help you grow, be more profitable, open more salons, and achieve all your goals. (BTW -Keri Davis-Duffy, whose salon, Gila Rut, is profiled in this article is one of Aveda Business College’s instructors.) If you are interested – just click the green “ready to grow” button on the right of the website and select “Improving Business Practices” – and we will get you more details.
      Thanks and best of luck!

  5. Kelly Wharry says:

    Are you a Team Based Pay salon or a commission based pay salon?

    • Neill-TSP says:

      Atelier is sliding-scale commission.
      Gila Rut is commission based (hourly plus commission).

      • Tasharra Tucker says:

        How do you set up a sliding scale commission? And what are the benefits of one over the other?

        • Neill-TSP says:

          From Karie:

          “We set up the sliding scale to help inspire artists to strive to be better everyday.
          We felt that if someone could influence their pay on a check-to-check basis, they could have a better grasp on what they were accomplishing, so we tested it out before launching it by doing test calculations each pay period.
          We set up goals for each level, based on key performance indicators: productivity, % of guests buying retail, etc.
          Each pay period, our GM creates a one-sheet with the goal levels and indicates where the artist fell on the scale, with a note of encouragement, a ‘hurray!’ note, and a tip on how to improve for next time.
          It directly rewards effort every two weeks, which is a good period of time to take a look at how their hard work pays off.
          I hope this is helpful.”

          Best wishes for a beautiful day!
          Karie Bennett
          Founder, Atelier Salons

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