By M.L. Dehm HBJ Freelance Staff
MILL CREEK — Some people might consider it risky to put aside a successful career in the corporate world in order to start a business in a field they know nothing about. But for Colleen Buck, owner of the award-winning Elle Marie Hair Studio, it seemed the most natural thing in the world.
The risk paid off. Since the first location opened six years ago, Elle Marie has not only expanded, it has also won multiple awards from different trade publications. The company took top honors with Salon Today 200 magazine three years in a row.
“We were a top five finalist for Evening Magazine’s Best of Western Washington for 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011,” Buck said.
In 2009, Elle Marie was runner up for 425 Magazine’s Best of 425 and in 2008 it won a Business Excellence award from the South Snohomish County Chamber of Commerce. Buck herself was runner up for this year’s Herald Business Journal’s Entrepreneur of the Year Award.
But how did this Seattle native go from 30 years in the corporate world to running a hair salon? It wasn’t through job dissatisfaction. Buck loved her past career. She started as a banker with KeyBank and later left the world of finance for the high-tech industry.
It was when she was an administrator with McCaw Cellular that Buck felt she made the most growth, both in herself and in her understanding of how to run a successful business. The company also employed her husband, Bill, in a technical capacity. Together they were able to travel the world, building cell systems and the offices to support them.
“We would hire local people, launch the system and then we would go on to new country,” Colleen Buck said. “We had the job of a lifetime, travelling all over, and we loved it.”
The couple lived in Taiwan, Ghana, Ireland and Slovenia. They enjoyed the new people and new places. But McCaw Cellular was unexpectedly sold and this left Buck wondering what to do.
By now, she was well experienced with starting up new offices for McCaw Cellular. Could she start a business for herself and be successful? Buck decided to start two businesses instead of one.
“I thought if one didn’t work then I would have a backup,” she said.
She went to school and received life-coaching certification. In this new role, she helped successful business people look at options for career changes.
Meanwhile, her daughter, Lorry Green, who was a hairdresser, suggested that they open a hair salon. Initially, Buck envisioned a business run out of her garage. Instead, an opportunity arose to purchase an existing salon south of Mill Creek that she believed had solid demographics.
The location was perfect. It offered great parking and an existing client base. Using knowledge gained from her corporate years, Buck worked on creating a company culture for this new business and set out to hire the right employees.
Elle Marie Hair Studio took off right away. As the company got bigger and more successful, it began to take time from Buck’s life-coaching business.
“Finally I had to back out (of life coaching) and put all of my time and effort into Elle Marie,” she admitted. But she really didn’t mind too much because she found she loved the hair studio and she loved being able to work alongside her children.
Green became Elle Marie’s day-to-day operations manager. Buck’s older son, Jody Bossert, is in charge of all the marketing. Daughter Alison Buck, now a paralegal, spent her college summers at the front desk. Now teenage son Liam Buck gets work experience and supports the stylists by folding towels and performing other tasks.
It became a real family affair and Buck sees the business as a legacy that she can leave to her children. Through the business, she is trying to pass on to her children all the knowledge she gained in her career. For a start, there is no special treatment for being a family member and everyone gets to offer input, especially in his or her area of expertise.
“Jody, Lorry and I are partners and we’re all equal partners,” Buck said. “We have our own roles and responsibilities.”
Buck admits to not knowing how to do hair like Green or how to work social media like Bossert. But what she does have is a keen understanding of the role that employees play in a company’s success and how to create a good working atmosphere that breeds more success.
At Elle Marie, the working dynamic created by employees is referred to as its culture. Buck firmly believes it’s the company culture that will make or break a business. When a new employee is hired at Elle Marie, they want someone who believes in their company culture of being a team player who is friendly, trendy, energetic, professional, honest and supportive.
This company culture extends beyond the workplace. Buck recognizes that an employee’s personal life can have a huge impact on their attitude and that attitude can carry over into their professional life. This, in turn, can affect other team members and can boost or sink the business as a whole.
To ensure a positive attitude, Buck allows employees a lot of flexibility in their work hours. They’re encouraged to continue their educations and to think about where they want to be in five years both with their careers and with their personal lives.
Buck brings her third career to work, too. She offers free life coaching for Elle Marie employees.
She is also big on recognition. Little praise notes are added to paycheck envelopes and she reads customer testimonials at monthly staff meetings.
“Our staff meetings are a little bit like pep rallies,” Buck said. “We recognize employees who grow and we have a pretty good system for tracking their business.”
Employees are rewarded for business achievements. This can be anything from a small gift up to a trip to New York for an industry event. There are team-building exercises such as overnight camping excursions and more.
Green, a 10-year industry veteran, knows of few salons that have staff meetings and none that has them to the level that her mother has implemented.
“She really taught me to reward our employees,” Green said.
And the employees are employees in the truest sense. This isn’t a salon that sublets stations to stylists. Everyone works toward the common goal of building the whole business. In return, they’re well compensated based on their goals and achievements to that end.
Employees can guide and control how far they go in the company. Buck wants to see them all do as well as they can, as their success helps the business. Each employee has one-on-one monthly meetings to track their goals and progress. Buck says there are no secrets about what it takes to get to the next level and she’s happy to tell them how to get there.
The payoff for this dedication can be attractive. Buck says some Elle Marie hairdressers are pulling in $75,000 to $80,000 per year, three times or more what the average hairdresser makes.
“To find a place where you can come in and grow and make more than double what the average hairdresser in America makes is pretty amazing,” Green said.
Other business owners might question Buck’s huge investment in her employees, but it’s clear that it pays off for her with unwavering loyalty from her staff.
“They’re so protective of what we have,” Buck said. “The culture we have created is really working. They know it and they want to keep it.”
In order to preserve the dynamic, the staff is allowed to vet new hires in advance and make sure that the new person is someone who feels right for their business. Regardless of experience, new hires go through a training process. The process isn’t about how to style hair, which they already know. Instead, they’re trained in the Elle Marie culture and the team philosophy and how to work within the team.
Buck and the Elle Marie team will soon have more new hires to train. A new Elle Marie location is scheduled to open across from Alderwood mall in August. It will feature 15 chairs and will be Elle Marie’s biggest location yet.
The first Elle Marie Hair Studio opened in 2006 with five employees. A second location opened in Lake Stevens two years ago. With the opening of the third location, Buck will have more than 50 employees working for her.
“I’m really proud of what she has been able to accomplish,” Bill Buck wrote to The Herald Business Journal in suggesting his wife as the subject of a story. “She is one of the hardest workers I’ve ever met and she lives her life with purpose and passion.”
Six years ago, Buck never imagined the level of success that she would achieve with the little hair studio suggested by her daughter. But looking at it analytically, she knew it could work provided she could get other people to love the business and enjoy it as much as she has herself.
Elle Marie info
Mill Creek-Bothell salon: 17917 Bothell-Everett Highway, Suite 102, Bothell. Phone: 425-402-1900. Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Lake Stevens-Snohomish salon: 9623 32nd St. SE, Suite B102, Lake Stevens. Phone: 425-397-8883. Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.
Lynnwood salon: 2701 184th St. SW, Lynnwood. Opening in August.