Cover Feature: Katherine Sweeney of Preen

I grew up in Essex and I left school at 17, I did my first year at A Levels but I wasn’t really applying myself. My mother sat me down and said, ‘you’ll either have to go back next year and work twice as hard as everybody else, or decide what you want to do and get on with it,’ because being my mum, she knew that if I’m doing something I love, I put everything into it.

Hairdressing was something I was always interested in, I would be naturally creative and it was an opportunity to be in a creative industry. I love the atmosphere in the hair salon: when you walk in, it’s like walking onto a stage.

Katherine Sweeney - Preen

My mum had wanted to be a hairdresser but was talked out of it by her parents, so she was encouraging. And she knew enough to tell me that if I was going to work in hairdressing I needed to be in a top salon, the West End. She didn’t let me off to the local salon.

I took myself off to London and qualified as a stylist/technician when I was 19 and was on the floor just before my 20th birthday. It was the West End but it was very cool. The guy I worked for was ex-Toni&Guy. He had been an art director there and managed their Covent Garden branch before opening his own salon. Because it was a smaller salon and team, he nurtured me and put a lot of energy into me, and I just thrived.

It was the mid-90s and top-notch session hairdressers, who were freelancing and doing shoots and covers during the week liked to have a base on a Saturday. They’d be coming in, talking about the shoots they’d been on, the location. So early on, I knew which magazines to look at, where the trends came from; it was very privileged place to be in, very exciting. I was surrounded by highly talented and driven hairdressers. Italian, French, they were all in London because they felt it was the epicentre of hair, and the West End is the epicentre of London when it comes to hair. That was my beginning: I learned there was another world out there, it wasn’t just the salon.

At 21, I moved to Dublin. I had been on the floor for two years and I knew it was time for something different. There was a lot of hype about Dublin so I thought, ‘I’ll go for six months.’ Both of my parents are Irish and we were very much brought up with an Irish identity.

Looking back now, as a hairdresser I probably was a bit cocky because when you train in London, you are very much conditioned to believe that, ‘this is the place to be, you are the best, we breed the best.’ In one way it’s not a good trait, but at the same time it made me brave, I wasn’t scared of walking into any salon in Dublin. In the end I decided I would go to Toni&Guy because of my UK training. In fact, I sat in the window of this very building waiting to do my interview 21
years ago, aged 21 so it’s very much come full circle.

I was the head of education for Toni&Guy for 14 years, I ran the training academy. It’s education and knowledge that make you the best and that give you the professionalism and credibility in what you do. The standard of training in Ireland is very good, there’s so many regulations now, you can’t get away without good training.

I opened Preen at the tail end of the recession, I got a good rent because it was empty for three years. I came in at the high end of the market, it’s the most competitive end, but I always knew if I was going to open a salon this is how I would do it. My family were able to purchase the premises – my dad is my landlord – so any investment I put into the building, is into the business. That’s a massive advantage to have and I very grateful my family were able to do that.

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I opened Preen with my husband at the time and it was going to be a family business, but unfortunately, it didn’t work out. Three months in, I was thrown in at the deep end – I was dealing with a marriage breakdown, which obviously isn’t easy, and I had a brand new business. It was really hard but I got through it. I remember thinking at the time that the average person going through a breakdown can go into their job and block it out for the day, but because I had clients I’ve been looking after for 20 years, who have gone through my life journey with me, they know everything, so you had to talk about it all day, you had to explain what had happened. That bit was hard. At a time when I needed to be at peak confidence, it had very much been knocked. I drew strength from my family. I just kept going, I didn’t feel I had any choice, it wasn’t an option for me to give up. So much had gone into the fit-out, there was no way I was going to walk away.

There are lots of things I won’t do again because I’ve learned from them. You have to do things and make mistakes and allow things to go wrong in order to learn and be better. To bring it back to education, if you’re teaching someone how to cut hair, they aren’t going to get it right the first time: they have to do it over and over and eventually they perfect it. I’ve realised that business is the same. When things go wrong, how you recover can build your confidence, you aren’t as scared of things going wrong because you know you can deal with it and overcome it. You have to get bashed about in business to get better.

I feel that hairdressing is viewed as a fall-back career, I don’t consider it as such. If you went from school to a salon that’s not committed to training, you aren’t going to develop to your full potential. I was lucky because my mum had a flair for hair – I didn’t lick it off a stone – she gave me that direction, so straight away I was in an environment that was very competitive, very passionate, where everyone wanted to be the best and that’s what it brought out
in me. There are people who probably do go into hairdressing as a fall-back but they don’t become the successful ones who are at the top of their game.

Assistant wages now are so much higher, as a business owner, a junior is a luxury. In my day I got
paid £250 a month, so you could probably have five or six juniors in a small salon. They are a much more expensive commodity now so you want the right ones. And if you’re paying them high wages, you want to put the work into them so they are trained up to do things for you within your business. In my time, you became a hairdresser for the love of it, because you knew you could earn a better wage doing something else. It made you very focused on your training because you wanted to qualify and earn more money. Because the wages are much higher now, you get a few drifters floating in. As a salon owner I have to weed those ones out because I want the juniors that really want to be hairdressers and I will put everything
into them.

I think you are going to see a re-focus on education, on staff. We are over the worst of the recession, we don’t know how we are going to be affected by Brexit, but I feel salons have got a bit more money to invest in their teams and strive to provide their clients with the best possible standard of hairdressing.

If someone’s been on a course and I’m not hearing them talk to their clients about it, I’ll bring it up. With social media now, it’s all about telling people what you’re doing. If you’re investing in training, you need to let people know about it.

I totally value the importance of a strong online presence – all of my competitors have one so it’s
important that I am up there with the best. I do a lot of it myself which is something I struggle with. I could do with someone taking it over but in the past, I have found it’s not exactly how I want it to be, and because Preen is my salon and it’s a reflection of me, it’s very hard to get inside my head. For the business, Facebook is still very important although Instagram seems to be taking over. That’s why you have to be across them all.

It can be a double-edged sword as it can be hard to control at times, if your team members are posting, keeping certain guidelines in place so your brand is being represented consistently. That
can be challenging, but it’s about being aware of it. We had a company come in and
focus on gathering reviews from our clients because it’s been proven that 80 per cent of people will go on an online review as much as a personal recommendation. Even my mum, if she’s going to a new restaurant, going to a hotel, the first thing she does is google reviews. So it’s important
that your salon has review content online.

As the owner, I always ask new clients how they heard about us, because I want to know
what aspects of what I am doing, is working. It’s advertising, having good relationships with the press, with journalists. We have a PR and we work with bloggers and influencers as well so it’s all-round.

It won’t replace providing great services in a salon. It’s not good enough to be just a great hairdresser, you have to give the full package. You have to have the bells and whistles as well to stand out.

The most challenging thing, the further on you go, is staying consistent and the better reputation you get, the higher the expectations of the new clients coming to your salon. We have to live up to our own reputation.
 

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