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6:14am EDT August 23, 2005
Sam Lehman calls his business “an overnight success that took 30 years.” Thirty years ago, Lehman began his career as a hair stylist; today, he heads up a team of 300 employees as president of Philadelphia-based Jean Madeline Inc.

The company owns three full-service Jean Madeline salons and two high-end Adolf Biecker Spa/Salons, and last fall acquired the 3,600-square-foot Salon NormanDee in Northeast Philadelphia. The company also runs Jean Madeline Aveda Institute cosmetology schools in South and Northeast Philadelphia.

“We do all of our training the same way, educate the people the same and hold them to the same standards,” Lehman says.

Smart Business spoke with Lehman about his newest acquisition and his plans for a third cosmetology school opening next summer on the University of Pennsylvania campus.

How have you dealt with the challenges of growth?

We’re in the people business, so that’s our biggest challenge. Fortunately for us, we do have the two schools, so we constantly have a pool of fresh talent coming out of the schools, which gives us an advantage.

All of our people are home-grown (at our schools). It takes us a little longer to get them up and running, but we eliminate a lot of the other headaches from importing them (from other salons).

When you acquired Salon NormanDee, how did you communicate your corporate culture to those new employees?

We met the employees when we had a definite deal in place. We did a presentation on what they could expect from Jean Madeline — the history of the company, how many people were with the company, how we pay, the training we offer, the benefits we offer — and reassured them that we weren’t going to come in and upset everything they were doing but that it would be a gradual process.

We’re doing that now; we’re there almost eight months now. We’re keeping what was good there and introducing the things that have made Jean Madeline successful — creating more value. One of the areas (where) we saw tremendous opportunity for growth was in the resale of retail products. We knew that if we went in and spruced it up and put a good-looking retail center in there and focused on one line, that we would see the retail sales increase. And that’s worked out perfectly for us.

How are you managing the addition of your new cosmetology school within the next year?

When we opened the first school, there was so much government involved with funding that we really had to have it together. Then when we opened up the second school, it was a matter of having the teachers in place because we just had to duplicate all the government issues for the second school.

We also offer a teacher training program. After (students) have done their 1,250 hours and get their license to be a hairdresser, they can come back and do another 500 hours and get their teacher’s license. Hopefully we can keep two or three teachers every year from each school, and they will fund the next school with teaching staff.

It’s like a little nucleus; we have the school, we have the spa, we have the salons. They’re all relying on the experience from the salons to filter into the school, and the population of the school we try to filter into the salons.

It creates good growth opportunity within our company. If they don’t want to do hair anymore and they’re qualified, they can come in and be a school teacher. Or if they don’t want to, they can go out into the salon and be a hairdresser.

Or they can forget both of them and go into management. Each salon has a business manager who runs the salon. There’s a general manager who handles both schools. There’s a manager in each school. We have a financial aid department and we have a high school recruitment department.

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned about managing growth?

Any real challenges that I may encounter are because I don’t have the right people in place. Before you start expanding, make sure that you have a qualified team in place.

Funding we can take care of; there are lending institutions out there that’ll lend you the money, but it’s really about the people. You need to have loyal people and qualified people.

Because of the size of our company, we handle about 5,500 phone calls a week for appointments. It makes more sense to me that we centralize all the phones. If (an employee) is in the salon answering phones, they have to be short-changing the client that’s standing in front of them or they’re not paying attention to the flow in the salon because they’re getting such a high volume of phone calls.

So we’ve invested in a central booking room at our corporate office.

We went outside of the industry to hire the phone center manager. We’re investing so much in this that we want it to work, and we don’t want to drop the ball on this. (Employees) now should be able to offer much better customer service, which creates more value for us.

HOW TO REACH: Jean Madeline Inc., (215) 238-9998 or http://www.jeanmadeline.com