With more than 40 staff across five salons, Beauty Secrets owner Karen Thompson has a lot to manage, and although she may not have come to the role via the usual beauty therapy route, her background in business and management has been key to Beauty Secrets’ success.
A family salon business
Leaving her corporate career 25 years ago, after the birth of her first child, Thompson joined her Cidesco-trained mum’s existing beauty salon business, creating a partnership that would be the envy of most salons.
“I had 15 years of corporate life; with about 12 at the Department for Trade and Industry. I’d specialised in management training and have a qualification in staff development training, so I actually had a really complementary set of skills to work alongside Mum,” says Thompson. “It meant she could stay in the treatment room and do advancedlevel treatments while I ran the business.”
Thompson recognises that this dual expertise is a rare combination, with the majority of salon owners trying to juggle both sides alone.
Don't miss Thompson's advice on everything you need to know to set up a beauty salon.
“It’s one of the biggest controlling factors for people, because unless you can actually take the time out of your business to work on it and run it, you stay as you are – you struggle to grow,” she says.
So, when Thompson lost her mum just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, it was a huge blow. “Losing your mum is one thing, but losing your mum and business partner is something quite significant in life,” she says. “So, it’s taken time, but for me this year has been a real step forward.”
Salon business mentoring
Now, with five salons under her belt and plans for more business growth, Thompson is also turning her attention to mentoring other salon owners in a bid to demystify some of the business processes. She is now an associate business mentor in the Government’s Help to Grow Scheme, which exists to enable businesses grow with the help of business mentors with relevant experience.
“During the pandemic, one thing I did to keep us going was to apply for all the grants and support available. But because of the form-filling, some people were quite panicked by that so I found myself helping other salon owners,” she says. “Because I’ve got that background within the civil service – I’m a form-filler by trade, if you like – it doesn’t panic me.”
Thompson joined Susan Routledge’s Beauty Directors Club during the pandemic, where she met many other beauty salon owners with whom she has shared ideas and been able to participate in events where she has shared her knowledge and continued her own learning and development. “I was able to help one salon owner demystify her accounts a little, simply by explaining the purpose of her balance sheet. This was something she had not wanted to ask her accountant as she felt it was a silly question!” says Thompson.
“That’s quite a common scenario, and I think the reason I can help people is because I’m doing the job so I speak their language. I don’t want to take the place of any of these amazing business coaches out there but I’m still in the industry and understand the current challenges.”
Now, following her Round Table workshop at Professional Beauty London 2023, and Beauty Secrets’ highly commended placement in Large Salon of the Year at the PB Awards, Thompson’s skills are in even higher demand.
Growing a multi-site salon group
Alongside personal growth as a mentor, Thompson is also planning growth for the business. In advance of Beauty Secrets' 40th year in business in 2025, Thompson is planning to launch a new arm of the business to provide salon owners or those aspiring to be one, an opportunity to join a membership scheme to have a monthly call with her and WhatsApp support.
"It will be to help generate ideas for dealing with challenges involving staff and communication; a place to bounce ideas about business growth and marketing and access to just talk through any work-related issues with someone who has probably seen it and dealt with it in 25 years-plus of experience in managing within the beauty industry and 35 years experience of managing all sizes of teams and people," says Thompson.
"There will also be an option to have paperwork to help with staff development and performance management, plus other systems commonly needed to run a successful beauty salon business. This will be a limited number group, which people can apply to join from March 2024."
Thompson says that her plans for growth now are only possible now due to the processes and procedures that have been put in place over the last few years.
“We used to be firefighting all the time. Issues would come up and we didn’t know how to deal with them,” she says. “We always managed but we didn’t plan. It’s only around eight years ago, we decided that after 30 years in business, we needed to get some processes in place.”
Now, each of Beauty Secrets’ five salons has an individual manager who is responsible for both staff and budget, looking after the whole premises.
There are monthly management meetings at which notes are made then information fed down to the teams during team meetings. In addition, managers have fortnightly 20-minute one-to-ones with each team member.
“That’s in work time marked out of the diary,” says Thompson “We actually invest the time taking therapists away from doing the clients because unless you do that, people don’t know what the expectation is.”
Managing a large salon team
Thompson has also created an in-house training framework to teach personal development and communication skills as well as the hands-on therapies.
“A lot of people end up being managers just by organically growing or taking over a business and they kind of forget that actually management is a skill in itself,” says Thompson. “It’s not one that the colleges are picking up, although I am now seeing more college-leavers staying on to Level 4, which is when they do start to talk about management, but that’s late in the day and not many people actually do it.”
So, Thompson has packaged together all her management training and experience and now trains staff in those things herself. “It’s about giving people opportunity to be the best version of themselves. I’ve designed programmes that we use within our salons where we take people who are keen to progress,” says Thompson.
“They have one-to-one time with me and we talk about all those skills that are non-therapy based, but equally important, such as how to deal with staff, how to communicate and how to delegate.”
Although it’s taken her a long time to reach such a structured set-up, Thompson’s advice to other salon owners – whatever size their business – is to get the processes in place as early as possible.
“It’s really important that people know where you want to get to. You need to communicate your vision from day one if you can because if people are aware of where you are going, they know how it will impact them and they’ll feel involved,” she says.
“My team tell me they now feel much more involved in the direction of the company and have the opportunity to have a dialogue as well.”
Of course, processes are only as good as the team behind them and for a multi-site operator like Thompson, being able to rely on the salon managers in particular is vital.
“The reason I’m able to do this is because of my team. and the team that I have is incredible. The whole of my central management team were trained up by my mum and have been with us a long time,” she shares.
Check out Thompson's contribution to our International Women's Day video where she explains why she loves being a woman in the beauty industry.
Creating a salon brand
Thompson is now gearing up for growth and has been working with Glow Bright Marketing on a brand identity that can be easily replicated.
“I’d like to be able to have a package that we could lift, and say, ‘we know this works so let’s go and make it work it in this organisation too’,” says Thompson.
“I suppose it’s a bit like franchising, although I don’t want to go down that route, but having a business package that I know works, and a strong brand identity, means we should then be able to put that brand wherever we want to go next.”
Beauty Secrets key dates
1985: Beauty Secrets begins life as a home salon, launched by Thompson’s mum, Beryl Martin
1990: The first salon moves to its own premises in Horsham, with two treatment rooms
1993: The salon moves premises in Horsham to a larger site with six treatment rooms
1995: Beauty Secrets opens its second salon in Godalming
1999: Thompson leaves corporate role to become a business partner in Beauty Secrets
2003: The Horsham salon doubles in size to 12 rooms including a day spa. Third salon opens in Hove
2022: Post pandemic, the fourth salon opens in Chichester
2023: Acquires fifth salon, formerly Sarah Hurst Skin Clinic, in Patcham. Beauty Secrets wins highly commended at PB Awards and receives Platinum Award from Matis
2024: Launches Beauty Business Buddy Membership Scheme