Photo by Chris Ware
Out of the Ashes: Richard Scott Mason (standing) and Joseph Norris (seated)
On a cold January night in 2007, Joseph Norris got a call that no business owner wants to receive: the fire department was on the line to tell him that his beauty salon, Richard Scott Salon and Day Spa in Mount Kisco, was on fire.
Norris, who lives in Briarcliff, called his business partner, Richard Mason, and the two rushed to their salon, only to find it in ruins. The fire apparently started from a spontaneous combustion of chemicals left on towels after spa treatments. “When the fire reached the gas line, it blew a three-hundred-pound dryer off the wall,” Mason says.
Norris and Mason met in the early ’90s, when they were both part-owners of the Adam & Eve hair salon in Scarsdale. Norris specialized in hair replacement, Mason in curly hair—and the two decided to branch out. They opened Richard Scott Salon and Day Spa in March 2003.
“It was a little bit overwhelming, because it was seven thousand square feet,” Mason says. “It was taking a big chance.”
Mason and Norris signed over a total of $400,000 in equity on their houses to cover the down payment for furniture and start-up infrastructure, a move that was not met with unquestioned support at home.
“We both have very strong-minded wives, and they were both like, ‘Don’t do it! Don’t put it on our homes!’” Mason says. “It’s the biggest risk in the world, but who gets ahead in the world if they don’t take risks?” Plus, realizing the importance of advertising, just months after opening the salon’s doors, the men paid $15,000 to be listed as platinum sponsors of Westchester Magazine’s annual Best of Westchester party. “That fifteen thousand dollars—which I thought was a very scary number—came back tenfold,” Mason says. “Every one of our vendors came to the event. Because of the exposure we got as platinum sponsors, the next year, we were gold sponsors.”
Mason estimates that the salon generated about $45,000 worth of business from that first sponsorship alone, and says that the salon immediately received mentions in local publications and on news stations, soon gaining a roster of celebrity clientele. (Neither partner would name names, but the Salon’s Facebook page shows photos of Mason in the salon with Governor Andrew Cuomo, actor Billy Baldwin, and actress Vanessa Williams.)
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Nevertheless, they were still in the red. “It was a larger undertaking than I had ever imagined,” Mason says. “As proprietors, we didn’t get paid for two years. With any new business, it takes normally three to five years before it gets going.”
“We were grossly underinsured,” Mason says of the $250,000 of betterment content insurance the salon had at the time of the fire. “That’s one thing I would recommend to all businesses: go back and revisit your insurance.” Mason and Norris upped their insurance to $500,000 after the fire.
The damage was much worse than originally estimated, and it took five months to renovate the salon. While walls, floors, and windows were being installed, Mason and Norris found space for all 40 of their staffers at neighboring salons and started running their salon remotely. “In the end, it made everybody stronger,” Norris says.
They are, however, still paying off the expenses from the fire four and a half years later. The business interruption insurance amounted to $800,000. “We’ve had to pay the taxes on all that, and we’re down to maybe twenty thousand dollars—from three hundred thousand,” Mason says. “Having just twenty thousand dollars left is basically nothing.”
At the time of the fire, Norris and Mason were subleasing the spa section to three men who ran the treatments; the spa was financially separate from Richard Scott Salon. After the fire, Norris and Mason took over the spa. “Now we run the salon and spa as one,” Mason says. “It’s the only way to make it work. You have to cross-reference and cross-pollinate.”
Time also allowed Mason and Norris to streamline costs and reevaluate the areas of the business that were consuming too much of their budget. Initially, the salon used beauty products from various brands, believing that it would be best to have a wide selection. In June, the salon partnered with Procter & Gamble to use its Wella, Sebastian, and Nioxin hair product lines.
“We’re the masters of one line instead of kind-of knowing twelve lines,” Mason says. “The last thing I wanted is to have dust collectors on our shelves. Now, we’re only keeping fast movers. Plus, if you buy everything from one house, they like you better. They give you better benefits.”
Specialization of skills is a common theme at Richard Scott Salon, and the staff tries to appeal to clients based on their own appearance. On the salon’s website, the stylists each have a brief bio with a photo, allowing clients to choose their stylist based on their similarities. Mason himself, whose curly locks are reminiscent of those of a blond Kenny G, says that the thought is to help cater to the particular needs of the client. “We are the menu, so if you look at my photo, you’d see that I have very curly hair. Clients may think, ‘I need a curly hair specialist,’ and they come in and look at me and say, ‘Oh my God! You must understand!’”
Mason, proud of his “incredibly attractive and incredibly vivacious” staff, has applied to be the focus of two beauty-themed reality shows. Though they never made it past the second round (“They were probably looking for train wrecks that they could fix,” Mason says), he thinks that the looks of the staff members play a big role in the success of the salon. “Everyone is really chic,” he says.
Even with Mason and Norris playing an active role in every aspect of the business—personally selecting the stylists from the “cream of the crop”—there is only so much they can do to prepare their business for the natural ebb and flow of salon life. In the late summer weeks, the salon averages about 470 appointments (“Kids are in camp, families go away to the shore,” Mason says), then up again to about 525 in September (“Back to school, bar and bat mitzvahs”). The salon is busy around Christmas (holiday party primping) and the spa in January (redeeming holiday presents), along with bumps around Valentine’s Day and a very busy prom season. “Thank goodness for overdraft!” Mason quips. “I’m like a squirrel. We stock it away during the busy seasons and keep it for the slow seasons. ”
Ownership, Mason says, has changed him. “It’s broken me away from the chair and made me think more like a salon owner and not a hairdresser,” he says. “A lot of salon owners still think like stylists—like with our initial reaction to have all the different brands of products to cater to the stylists instead of choosing just one for the entire salon. That’s where all of these salons go out of business.”
Though the partners would not share their exact profit figures, they are confident about their year-end results.
“Our business was up considerably—we were up a hundred thousand dollars from last year, January to June,” Mason says. “I guarantee you our business will be up at the end of the year.