Talking to...Ian Fuhr

The man behind South Africa’s largest beauty salon franchise, Sorbet, tells Amanda Pauley how he plans to establish a national brand in the UK and help raise the standard of education

With 150 stores in locations such as Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg and Hartbeespoort, Sorbet Salon is without a doubt South Africa’s biggest beauty salon franchise. The business, which uses skincare brands Dermalogica and Environ, plus Gelish for gel-polish manicures, is planning to open another 20 to 30 stores this year and has even launched its own skincare line, Salon Skin. It also recently broadened its offering by launching two other concepts; Sorbet Man – a men’s-only grooming bar, and Sorbet Dry Bar – an express hair salon that offers just blow dries.

Last year, founder and chief executive Ian Fuhr decided to try to crack the UK market, opening his first two London sites in Muswell Hill in July and Crouch End in October, but this wasn’t where he initially planned on taking the business. “I asked the founders of Dermalogica where they thought I should go next, country-wise, and they said the UK. It really shook me as it was the last place I was expecting,” says Fuhr. “I imagined the competition would be incredible but they told me the industry was fragmented and that there was no national footprint of a single beauty salon. After a bit of deliberation, I accepted the challenge and now I’m trying to emulate what I’ve done in South Africa here.”

Price match
The salons are pitched at clientele in the middle-to-upper income group, with facials starting from £40 and full-body massages from £55, and the treatment menu is very much trend-driven. Every ritual is aimed to make guests – Sorbet doesn’t call them clients – feel good and confident within themselves. “Even though we’re aiming for that higher bracket, and are currently based in affluent London areas, we want to stay competitive within the field,” says Fuhr. “So, we’re presenting something that’s high quality but with an average and fair price.”

The main difference between Sorbet and other salons is the business’s strong retail focus. Last year retail made up 40% of the company’s turnover, generating around £9m. “Our retail and treatment sales are pretty level – 50/50 – which is higher than the general beauty industry. For most salons it’s all about the treatments, and products are on the sideline, but I see them as equally important. Of course we’re strong on treatments but it’s just not as pronounced as in other salons – not the only focus,” he says.

Every Sorbet store has a significantly sized retail space which Fuhr believes is the secret to his business model’s success: “I think UK salons don’t maximise their retail potential and that’s what makes us different. We’re not selling just a product or a treatment, we’re selling a feeling. Being able to take that feeling home is critical.”

Cultural differences
The move from South Africa to the UK has been a learning curve for the entrepreneur, with Fuhr admitting he still has a lot to discover about Brits. “I’m still adjusting to the psyche of the UK consumer. I’m not coming into the market arrogant and I’m willing to adapt our offering if I need to, but what I have learned is that consumers here are much more educated on beauty than in South Africa. I think that’s because of the broad range of TV, magazines and shows you have,” says Fuhr. “However, there’s a greater focus on the quality, training and education of beauty therapists back home.

“In South Africa trainee therapists do two years of training – full-time, five days a week – before they can practice, whereas in the UK it’s often two days a week for eight months.” It’s this variation that Fuhr has found most challenging when bringing his business to London. “Just imagine the difference in the intensity and quality of the learning. It’s the huge differentiator in our cultures,” he says. “The problem we’re facing when hiring staff in the UK is that most aren’t trained to the level we would like them to be as a qualified therapist – Level 3 or above. Most are Level 2 and unable to do all the treatments we have on offer.”

All UK staff do induction training with Fuhr to learn about the business, quality of service and culture of the organisation, followed by practical learning with trainers to help upskill them. “Our business is all about staff and although it has been challenging, we believe it’s an opportunity to create something special – to raise the bar. We’re also going to look into working with local colleges to help build consistency across the board and uplift the image of where the typical beauty salon exists,” says Fuhr.

UK domination
Fuhr’s mission is to start franchising in the UK as soon as possible, with plans to open three franchises this year and then five to 10 every year after that. “This business is a franchise model and the quicker we start the better because then we can get to a critical mass of stores. We are open to different locations but we started in London so I would like to build more around there first,” he says.

The programme is almost ready and interest is already there with more than 60 franchise applications submitted so far – the majority from South Africans who are living in the UK and already aware of the salon chain. “There’s not a single beauty salon brand that exists on a multinational level and we want to fill that void. The idea is to sell the two London stores we already have on to franchisees and then continue from there. I really want to establish a national brand in the UK and, by doing that, help raise the standard of education.”

2005 Having sold his retail enterprise, Ian Fuhr moves into the beauty industry, opening two Sorbet Salons in Bedfordview and Norwood, Johannesburg.

2009 Sorbet Salon grows to an impressive 23 stores and the first franchise opens.

2014 Fuhr launches the Sorbet Skincare range and thinks about taking the business to another country.

2015 Opens his first UK salons in London’s Muswell Hill and Crouch End, and celebrates the business’s 10th birthday.

2016 150 Sorbet Salons now exist in South Africa and Fuhr plans to roll out his franchise model in the UK.