How Rick Tonet Retired Early and Launched a Thriving Family-owned Fantastic Sams Franchise

Owner of four salons calls Fantastic Sams ‘an entrepreneur’s dream’ in his Fantastic Sams franchise review

Rick Tonet’s daughter Sarah Boley convinced him to invest in a Fantastic Sams franchise, and he’s very glad she did. Sarah had been working for a Pittsburgh salon and learned that the owner was ready to retire. Sarah knew the business was busy and encouraged her dad to take a look. Once he had a chance to study the financials, he jumped at the chance to buy his first two stores. He now has four stores, and their success has allowed him to retire from his previous career.

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Rick tells his story in this Fantastic Sams franchise review.

How did you decide to become a Fantastic Sams franchise owner?

My daughter Sarah was working for a gentleman who owned two Fantastic Sams, and he wanted to retire. I was employed by Allegheny Ludlum, a steel company, where I was in management. My daughter came home one day and said: “Dad, you should buy these. They are doing very well, and I’d like to run them for you.”

I sat down with the original owner and an accountant, and we looked at the previous three years. We saw that these places were doing pretty good business. So that’s how we bought the first two.

At first Sarah was a hair stylist and manager. Then she became general manager at both salons, cutting less hair and doing more hands-on business management.

How did you expand?

In 2009 Fantastic Sams approached me about a salon that was going to close, to see if we were interested in turning it around. We went in as secret shoppers and saw that the store wasn’t run very well, but that the location was great. We installed a computer system, fired some people, got a fantastic manager, and right now that Fantastic Sams is doing wonderful. It’s made a complete U-turn.

That same year we noticed in a local plaza in Armstrong County that a store had left. There wasn’t a franchise salon around — just mom-and-pop places — so we decided to start one from scratch. We opened that store in April 2009, and it is doing very well. It really took off.

Is it hard to get good stylists?

We have 32 stylists, and we are closed on Sundays and have a set schedule, which is something most salons don’t do. I have found that stylists really, really like that. We have lost a few over the years because of illness or divorce, or because they landed a better-paying manufacturing job, but we have nice staff now who seem like they are going to stay. The Fantastic Sams website helps a lot with hiring. Online applications are forwarded to the franchisee in the specific area where people apply. My son, who has a computer science background, also created some local websites that people can use to apply for work and learn about us.

Do you expect Sarah to take over the business?

There is no doubt that at some point Sarah will take over.

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How has Fantastic Sams affected you?

I am 60, and I retired from Allegheny Ludlum at 58. The reason I was able to do that is because of the income from Fantastic Sams. Allegheny Ludlum treated me very well for many, many years. I had managed one of the product lines, and a sales person had left. They wanted to put me in that role. It would have required a lot of travel, and I told them that I couldn’t fly because of an inner ear condition — I would have to drive all over the country. They insisted that I had to take the position, and I told them that I would leave rather than take the job. I think the vice president thought I was joking, but I handed in my retirement papers. The only reason I was able to do that was because of Fantastic Sams. If I hadn’t had the salons, I would have been in a car all the time, miserable. I would have rather gone to the dentist every day than take that sales job.

What do you like about the job?

If I had to use one word, it would be freedom. Fantastic Sams gives us the freedom to run the salons the way we see best. Of course we have to fit their mold and do things the way they like, but they are not in our face every day telling us how to run our stores. They come in sometimes to see how well we’re doing. If we have a problem with something — product sales are low or we need a class on a particular popular hairstyle — no problem, it’s addressed. Owning a Fantastic Sams is probably an entrepreneur’s dream. They are not in your face every day. It’s like: “Here’s everything you need. Go and do the best you can, and if you need help, we’re there for you.” And I like that.

What does it take to be successful?

With Fantastic Sams, you don’t have to have an MBA. You just have to have good common sense. You cannot be an absentee owner. You have to have yourself or someone else in there routinely to make sure everything is going well. When we took over the underperforming store in 2009, we learned that it’s really good to have video cameras in our stores. We routinely use them to see how employees behave when we’re not around; how quickly customers are greeted. We’ve learned what works and what doesn’t work as far as how much space to give employees.

The most important thing is to get a good manager. If you get a good manager in there, do everything you can to keep that person. And I have four fantastic managers.

Employees are a key, too. You’ve got to be disciplined; you have to have rules and you have to stick to those rules. We have an employee handbook, and it’s thick — it spells out everything we expect and what we don’t expect, and we sit down with employees every six months and they initial every page. If somebody breaks a rule, you have to talk to them about it.

How do you motivate your stylists?

They can make a pretty good wage. We pay a guaranteed minimum wage plus commission, which is a percentage of product sales and other categories. The faster they go and the better they are, the more money they can make. Stylists have an opportunity to upsell. If a person comes in for a cut and you sell them a perm or a color, you just put $20 in your pocket. If they can follow up the perm and color with some supporting shampoo and conditioner, you have put another $5 in your pocket. Some of these girls, it’s impressive what they can earn.

How much do you communicate with other franchisees?

I get together with them every other month for a regional meeting in Pittsburgh. We usually discuss the latest trends and local advertising. We do a lot of radio advertising in the Pittsburgh region; Pittsburgh has found best success with radio. Sometimes a supplier will give a presentation on a new color line. During the meeting, the owners also talk to each other about how things are going. When I started there was another owner with six Fantastic Sams (Chuck Ruggeri), and he would show me the ropes. If I needed anything, I would just pick up the phone and say, “I’ve had this issue, do you have an answer?” Now, I get those calls from other franchisees.

What hair trends are you seeing for men and women these days?

With women, we’re seeing a lot of wild colors — blue and pink — especially in the younger generation. We’re kind of getting away from the older ladies who did a lot of perms, and coming into the world of coloring. There are some stunning combinations. I was recently saw a girl who came in with jet-black hair. She had a quarter of it dyed a vivid blue, and it was just striking. It made this girl look like she was a model. We see people come in, and wow! Color is really where it is at.

Do you think previous salon experience is important?

Not really. I think sometimes it can be a hindrance. I think starting fresh helps you not have a paradigm in your head that holds you back. Fantastic Sams gives you everything you need to be successful. You are the background support system for the business — you’re not the one doing the haircuts.

How often do you have to rescue a tragic hairdo?

We have a joke around here that we fix a lot of Great Clips haircuts.

What does it take to succeed?

You need to keep your finger on the pulse of your salons and know what is going on. Know your customers. Advertise, advertise, advertise. Even though Fantastic Sams has an advertising budget that you pay into, I supplement that by advertising in local magazines and shoppers. One thing I always heard from the CEO of Allegheny Ludlum was that if you can’t understand something, you can’t manage it. Every week I have managers give me a graph of how many customers came in, what products were sold, how much was sold, what services were used. I know how much revenue we need to generate per hour to run a profitable store, and I measure everything.

What kind of ramp-up time did you experience?

The stores have always paid for themselves. I have never had to dip into my savings to supplement one of my stores. The new store, at first, was a wee bit of a challenge, but after a couple of months it was running like it had been there five or six years.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I am an avid model railroader, and I write articles for national train publications like “Classic Toy Trains” magazine. A book called O’Brien’s Collecting Toy Trains actually has a photo of my collection featured in it.

Learn more

You don’t need salon experience to open a Fantastic Sams franchise; you just have to be passionate about people and have good business sense. If you are thinking of making the leap to business owner independence, start the journey by signing up for our free franchise report. You may also want to read a Fantastic Sams franchise review on our company blog. We look forward to hearing from you!

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