Entrepreneur says training is key to keeping staff motivated

In 1984, Lewis Thomas started Partners Hair Design in Cape Town, South Africa. Since then the salon group has grown to include 11 unisex and seven gents’ hairdressing salons in the Western Cape region. In January 2012, Thomas opened Partners Hair Design Training Academy which offers training to the group’s staff, as well as people wishing to gain a hairdressing qualification.

Lewis Thomas

Lewis Thomas

While Partners’ salons are only situated in the Western Cape, the group has received national and international recognition and a number of awards, and Thomas is one of the finalists for the 2013 Sanlam/Business Partners Entrepreneur of the Year award. How we made it in Africa asks him about his entrepreneurial experience, his strategy behind remaining in the Western Cape and how he keeps his staff motivated.

Why were you inspired to start Partners Hair Design?

When I worked for a boss I noticed that decisions made were not always conducive to the well-being of the business. Then, when I became manager, I realised that I was making all the decisions but not reaping the benefits. I therefore decided to become my own boss.

Partners is well known in Cape Town and in the Western Cape, but doesn’t have branches in the rest of the country. What is the strategy behind this?

Hairdressing is a hands-on business and I would rather have successful salons in Cape Town, than salons in other parts of the country which are moderately successful. Also, I am a family man with three children and consider time spent with them extremely important.

What was the tipping point for Partners?

There have been so many memorable moments so there has been no actual tipping point: starting with one salon, then the next five, then the first gents’ salon, salon number 10, double figures and 100 staff.

Drawing from your experience, what are the most important factors to consider when choosing a location for any business?

Location within the mall and the correct size of the premises – too large or too small will impact on your profit potential. Read and understand your lease document and make sure that you understand all the information therein.

Besides money, what have you found is the best way to motivate and retain employees?

Education; we are on top of our game. Our education is continuous and totally accessible to all our staff.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever done as an entrepreneur?

In 1994, a landmark year for South Africa, I opened my two salons in Somerset Mall, Somerset West. I recall riding along the N2 highway, after spending a full day at the Partners Hair Design’s Claremont salon, not passing one vehicle, except for Casspirs (landmine-protected infantry mobility vehicles) parked along the highway. In that moment I had a voice inside me questioning the existence of these salons but luckily I trusted my instincts. Today we have three salons in the mall which are some of the busiest and most profitable salons in the group.

What advice can you offer to first time entrepreneurs?

Identify your passion and do not go for the money or the want. Do not let others put you off. Learn from your mistakes and find that X factor.

Where do you see yourself and your business in 10 years?

I am a perpetual student, always learning, so I predict about 30 salons and a training school and academy which is even stronger.