Success, Sisterhood & Staying Current
Eileen Casey, a Boston-based hairdresser, suddenly found herself widowed at a young age prompting her to return full-time behind the chair to support her family. When she opened her 600-square-foot salon, Eileen soon realized that ownership was so much more than doing great hair. She reached out to her sister, Jeanne Gianino, to help on the business side.
After nearly four decades working together, the sisters discuss what it’s like being sibling business partners at Keldara Salon & Spa, how they found balance, and the secrets to their success.
Tell us about your roles in the company.
Jeanne: I am the business side of the business, and Eileen is the hairdresser.
Eileen: I’ve gone to the bank twice in thirty years!
How did it all start?
Eileen: In 1985, I opened a business that was 600 square feet. I was a young widow and had to go out and support my family. Jeanne came down to the salon one day a week to do payroll and ordering. That’s how we started; now, we are in 15,000 square feet. At that time, she started coming two days a week, then three days a week, still having to get home to get her kids off the bus. That’s how we started.
I could never have done the business side. I’m really creative and a great hairdresser, but I absolutely get heart palpitations if I have to do a form. I would rather cut hair all day or go to the paint or wallpaper store than have to fill out a form. Jeanne, she’s great with that, so it’s worked out.
You are the creative side, which is vital for a salon, but many salons, unfortunately, don’t have the business side.
Eileen: Exactly, I don’t have that. I’d be, “We’ve made a profit. Let’s go to the Caribbean.”
How long were you doing hair before you opened your salon?
Eileen: I was 39 when I opened. I was widowed when I was 30, and I had to go out and support myself by that time.
What’s it like, working together as sisters? Do you want to kill each other sometimes?
Jeanne: Sure, but mostly it’s wonderful because we both recognize that we do what we do well – and we don’t interfere. I don’t tell her how to do a haircut because I can’t, and she doesn’t tell me how to do the business. So it’s been very good, and there’s a lot of trust and sisterhood.
Eileen: I’m not working as a hairdresser now. I’ve had multiple joint surgeries, and I’m 77, and I’m done, except I cut my sister’s hair. I miss it terribly, but I can’t. I’m done.
I was still working behind the chair right up until Covid. Not full-time, but enough and also training. I like teaching and am ready to do that in September. I had a shoulder replacement, so I have a good shoulder now, a good arm, and a good hand opposite.
We have a training program, but I enjoy one-on-one training because everyone learns differently. I love to be able to zoom in on the stylist’s learning style. You’re more comfortable expressing your weaknesses when taught one-on-one. So, that’s something I enjoy, and I look forward to returning to doing that and spending money on the salon and changing decor whenever my sister gives the okay.
Jeanne: We need to make upgrades and changes all the time to present to the world that we’re up to date.
Eileen: And successful.
How did that progression go from 600 square feet to the current 15,000 square foot facility?
Jeanne: Our original location was 600 square feet in a 1200 square foot building with a dental lab on one side and a shade and screen store on the other. Six months after we opened, we took over the dental lab. We took over the screen store maybe eight years in when he retired.
At that point, we were bursting at the seams, and the city of Boston had taken away a great deal of the parking for commuter rail customers only. We didn’t have anywhere else to go in that building, so we moved about three miles away to a big strip mall with much more space. In 1999 we rented 8,000 square feet; in 2008, we took over the tuxedo store next door and expanded to 15,000.
Eileen: It was a massive renovation of actually building a new salon.
Jeanne: When the salon was 8,000 square feet, we devoted more percentage of space to the spa than we did to the salon. We just got so many interested applicants that we ran out of chairs, so we expanded again.
What is it now as far as the percentage of salons versus spas?
Jeanne: It’s about 50/50 – within the entire 7,000 we picked up is the front desk, some offices, all salon, and retail space. We have a generous retail space where we do clothing, accessories, jewelry, etc.
How many chairs for hair do you currently have?
And treatment rooms?
Jeanne: We have dedicated rooms for waxing and pedicures, plus six massage and six facial rooms.
Eileen: We also have a beautiful ladies’ lounge and men’s lounge and a conference room where we hold our meetings and spa parties. The space is not crowded; it’s airy. It’s different, the decor is different from other salons, and it just feels nice.
What sets you apart from other salons and spas in your area?
Eileen: French cutting.
In 2000, I started training with Candy Shaw, owner of Jamison Shaw Hairdressers and creator of Sunlights Professional. She became my mentor. I had learned some French cutting from a couple of guys in New York before that, but when I met Candy, it just came together, and I clicked with her. I loved her teaching style and knew that it was the direction I wanted the salon to go. Since then, we have only cut French.
We also hire young people right out of school and teach them our method and culture, at least until recently, because there’s a staff shortage everywhere. It’s been so fabulous for us, as we have a system where everyone cuts the same. They have their own style, and everyone brings their own creativity meaning how they might finish the hair or just see what they choose to do. But we all cut the same method, so it’s good for the client because they can go to different stylists and get more or less the same result.
We are a very big salon, and we do a lot of color. Our vendors give us so much education, and the quality of the color that leaves the salon is impressive, just impressive.
Jeanne: Besides the French cutting that we stayed with all these years, I think the other key to our success is that we demand education. It’s just constant here.
Eileen: It’s “demand” with a small d (laughs). They know that from when they start, it is expected, and then after a while, they become successful.
Jeanne: They are further along in their career, so it’s a rejuvenating experience for them. If they’re starting to feel stale or they need new ideas, the classes help. They had a class yesterday, and they used each other as models. They just had a ball and came away with ideas to pitch to their clientele.
Eileen: It promotes creativity and confidence.
Jeanne: It also keeps the clients coming back.
How does retail play into your business; what percentages do you have for retail over service?
Jeanne: Our percentage is about ten percent. We have a big place and higher prices.
We also don’t service the town. Our clients come from abroad. We are at the intersection of two major highways, Routes 1 and 128, in Boston. So, we have a wide-ranging clientele and are not a place where our clients can pop in.
Do you take advantage of eCommerce at all?
Jeanne: We don’t sell anything directly online for our clients. However, with one of our distributors, clients can go online and purchase through our website, which links them directly to our distributor, and they mail it out to our client.
Jeanne: It’s so easy when you’re in your shower, and you say, “Oh, I’m out of shampoo,” and to go online to buy… it’s that easily accessible.
Aside from hair, skin, and body products, how has your boutique done for you?
Jeanne: We started to focus on the boutique, which does well. We go to shows a few times a year and bring in quite a bit of clothing, jewelry, etc. We even sell quite a bit of a local candy store’s chocolate because the clients are always hungry.
Eileen: Yup, an impulse buy at the front desk.
Jeanne: We just started working with a local woman to do a line of candles with our label. We’re using her candle melts in the spa, generating many sales for the candles because it’s, “Oh, what is that aroma?” It actually excites me now when I walk out into the spa. We had other things before, but nothing quite the way the candle melts smell.
Eileen: It’s a natural aroma, so that heightens the pleasure. I’m not a fan of anything synthetic.
Jeanne: We’ve never done acrylic nails because of that smell – we didn’t want that permeating into the spa. We also stopped doing perms about six or seven years ago.
Eileen: Yeah, it was the day my throat closed up; I said, “We’re done!”
Jeanne: We try to maintain a healthy environment so we don’t smell like a salon when you walk in.
You have a great spa etiquette page. How did that come to be? Is that something you set out to do, or was it out of necessity?
Jeanne: It’s a little bit of both over the years. Those things were on the back of our printed menu before we even had a website. We have an excellent management and marketing team, and they’re constantly looking at other websites, and they take inspiration from anything good that solves the problem for us. But the biggest thing was the potential for inappropriate behavior in the spa; we just wanted to nip it in the bud.
Do you all have a cancellation policy, and if so, how does it work for you?
Jeanne: We only had a real one once we started with Rosy because they allowed us to take the credit card and store it. The policy is half of the service for cancellations less than 24 hours of the appointment and the total amount of the services for a no-show. We charge them and don’t make a big deal about it. It’s surprising how many people don’t resist it.
Eileen: Well, they know they’re guilty.
How has salon software played a part in your business?
Jeanne: We switched to Rosy right during Covid. We closed on March 17th of that year and reopened the salon part on June 1st. During that down period, we swapped everything over. We transferred all of the information. It’s funny because we no longer will even book an appointment without a credit card, but I still remember when no one wanted to give their credit card in the early days. Now no one resists.
Eileen: Your credit card is everywhere if you order online.
Jeanne: Yes, every restaurant, every door dash, you know. So the Rosy software really changed everything for us in terms of having a cancellation policy that we could follow securely without typing somebody’s credit card information into a random line that’s accessible to anyone. So that’s been wonderful.
What would you consider to be your favorite feature or features within Rosy?
Jeanne: Eileen doesn’t use the software at all.
Eileen: I’m happy when Jeanne is happy.
Jeanne: To me, it’s online booking and the ease of integrated credit card processing. I also love the option to link the parent account to the child for the credit card information. The appointment builder is lovely too. I just used it when a client wanted a lash lift and a haircut. So, rather than juggling back and forth from one department to another, it was easy to request the two services, and Rosy came up with the next available appointment.
I don’t use them often, but our managers love the reports. One of our managers, Lynae, who facilitated the whole swap over to Rosy, probably knows more about it than the people who designed it – she’s that good. She’s also always in contact with the team at Rosy.
Online booking was the biggest thing that prompted leaving our other software and going to Rosy. Our other software would only allow clients to request an appointment. We still had to find it, book it, and get back to them. So, now with Rosy’s online client scheduling, we’ve reduced our front desk, which has been especially helpful since it’s so difficult to hire.
Do you have a rough percentage of people that book online versus calling or coming into the salon to book?
Jeanne: It’s probably upwards of 40% to 50%. A lot of our clients have gone on and booked themselves out for the year. Many of our clients still pre-book when they’re leaving the salon or they’re not online. Plus, we get the last-minute phone call, but there is definitely a reduction in the phone calls with online booking. Lynae has the numbers, and we can look back to see what percentage of online booking has gone up – it’s pretty fascinating.
A few years before Covid, I wasn’t paying much attention to online booking. My daughter once said she loved booking online for her local nail place. “I can go on at midnight and book an appointment,” she said, and I thought, “Oh my god, I have to look into this more.”
They started showing me the increase in online booking, and it’s pretty amazing. I think it’s also increasing because of the whole “I don’t want to give a credit card.” Of course, they must add a credit card to book online. Initially, they may have balked about it, but now everybody’s there. These younger people throw the credit card around for door dash, uber eats, and everything. So I think there’s just not the fear of giving credit cards.
What is the secret of your success with your business?
Eileen: The secret of our success has been the business model with the French cutting. The cutting method, and our color techniques, have brought us success—also how we treat and acknowledge our staff. We do a lot with them. When staff feels empowered and earns money in beautiful surroundings – I know that helps. In my opinion, I think it’s a well-run business.
Jeanne: The key to our success has been that we stand behind our work and exceptional, intense training in all departments. Our massage department, the estheticians, our stylists, everyone working to keep up with everything current and new. Because they have trained so hard, they have confidence in their work and take great pride in it. When the staff is successful, the business pretty much takes care of itself.
Eileen: We also hire carefully.
Jeanne: Companies come in and try to get us to do shoulder rubs and hand treatments, but if the haircut’s not good, nobody cares.
Our team is successful because they get involved in all the training. For example, last Sunday, we had a social media class. They all wanted more information about how to promote themselves online, and everybody came – it was just wonderful.
How do you, as owners, stay current?
Eileen: As Jeanne and I have matured, we have yet to become old in our thinking, which is all part of keeping the place exciting and on point with many things. When you go into other salons with mature women, they can sometimes become fuddy-duddies. Their thinking needs to stay in tune with the younger staff.
Jeanne: I defer to the management team now because they are a lot younger, and they know what is current. I had to learn about TikTok and all of that.
If you were to advise somebody looking to start a salon these days, what top few things would you recommend for them?
Eileen: For me, learn from Candy Shaw in Atlanta. I’m 100% a believer in that, and you’ll want somewhere to go where you have consistency and high-quality education. That’s what I would tell somebody just starting out. And then find a sister, Jeanne.
Jeanne: Over the years, we’ve had people leave to start a salon of their own. As they go, I say, “Please make sure you have an account and then a lawyer – people that are guiding you.” That’s one of the things.
We have an accountant who’s also a lawyer, and he has been with us since the mid-nineties. He has kept us on the right track with changes in tax laws and getting us through the PPP period, and the employee earned retained credit (ERC), but he also informed us that Massachusetts changed over to where we have to give sick time. I wouldn’t have known that without his advice.
You have to have a good mentor for the hair ideas, whether it’s Candy Shaw or our wonderful color line, but you also have to have somebody that can keep you having workers comp, for instance. I didn’t have a business background. How would I have known that? Yeah, health insurance and workers comp – he’s done so much over the years. He’s been fantastic.
What advice would you give two siblings wanting to go into a salon or spa business together?
Jeanne: Stay in your lane. Decide who’s doing what and stay in your lane. As I said, I defer to Eileen for what color she’s painting, what she’s doing…
Eileen: I asked her the other day – I was excited about something – to come look at something, and she said, “Oh, just do what you want.”
Jeanne: There were things over the years that she was working on I thought were horrifying, and when it was done, it was like, “Wow, that’s really nice.”
My brain is entirely left, and hers is right. So, stay in your lane. If it’s two siblings that are both hairdressers, get a good accountant and a business person. Even so, sibling sisters must agree on who’s doing what and how to resolve it. Eileen and I don’t have much conflict at all.
Eileen: You’d have to be in harmony; otherwise, you’d need a good mediator.
Maybe that could be a manager?
Jeanne: Yeah, just doing the ordering, running inventory, and keeping track like I did in the early days. I knew how to figure out how many products we sold in a week. That wouldn’t have been something up Eileen’s alley to figure out.
Eileen: I’d rather do twenty haircuts and pay someone to do that part.
The name of the salon. What is the personal tie there? Why Keldara, and how did that name come to be?
Eileen: Our original salon name was K.C. and Company. In 1999, we both wanted something entirely different for a name, not trendy, just different.
I always was into Celtic myth and religion, the druids, and Native Americans, and I have read many books set in England. We were under the gun to come up with a new name. Jeanne gave me two hours, so I went online to the Durham County Library. I found a book on Celtic myth and religion, sat down, and read about St. Brigid. Our grandmother was Brigid, who I always loved. St. Brigid founded her abbey in Kildare, Ireland, under the shade of an oak tree. Kildare derives from “Cill-Dara,” meaning the Church of the Sacred Oak.
So, I just came back to Jeanne and said to her – I can still see me coming in, “It’s called Keldara.” I replaced the C and I in the name with a K and E.
Jeanne: In Boston, our basketball team is called the Celtics. This is the funny part. Imagine calling 411 or looking up in a phone book to get a telephone number. If we called the salon Cilldara, people would have an issue spelling it. Now, our maiden name is Kelly, so we changed Cilldara to Keldara so that our maiden name is part of it, plus people would spell it correctly.
Eileen: But the other thing on a different level – the Druids had sacred spaces. St. Brigid built her monastery on a sacred space, and I always wanted a salon/spa that was sacred. A place where people could come in to feel pampered, taken care of. They would trust us. So that’s where that name, that’s the esoteric part of the name and, and it’s different.
Jeanne: We changed the name when we moved from the 1,200-square-foot place. We had a green awning, and people thought we were florists.
Eileen: Or an Irish bar!
Is there anything you want to talk about but working with your sister more on a personal level?
Jeanne: Over the years, frankly, we didn’t see that much of each other. We did it in the original space because I was at the desk ten feet away from her. So when we moved where we are now, I had an office with four walls, and she had her own room to cut her clients. We really were two ships passing in the night.
Eileen: And if I had extra time, I’d be with the hairdressers – the only time she’d see me is when I needed to escape.
Jeanne: She’d come into my office and eat.
Eileen: You know how that goes with hairdressers – that’s a two-minute thing.
Jeanne: We saw so much more of each other in the first fourteen years than we have in this 25!