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Q&A With Michael Carnahan: The Familial Road That Led To His Westminster Phenix Salon

Phenix Founder Gina Rivera and Michael Carnahan.

Phenix Founder Gina Rivera and Michael Carnahan.

Michael Carnahan, grew up in the salon industry and, at one point, refuted any ambition to own a salon. Then, he discovered Phenix Salon Suites and opened his own location in Westminster, CO. Here is his story in a Q&A.

Michael, How were you introduced to Phenix Salon Suites?

I had a truly exceptional stylist that I had followed around to a few different traditional salons in town. After a few years though, she was so sick of the day-to-day salon drama that she just decided to quit cutting hair. Granted, she found out she was pregnant, and was definitely going through other life changes, but she was always quite unhappy with the salons she worked at. She loved her work, but like most stylists, she could never find a workplace where she could be in control and make her own decisions.  About a year after my last appointment with her, she called me and said she had just rented a suite at Phenix Salon Suites, and was doing hair again. I hadn’t gotten a decent haircut in that year, so I was thrilled to hear from her and made an appointment for the following week. When I got to Phenix, I thought “Huh, this is cool,” but it didn’t really click for me until she closed the door to her suite and I sat down in her chair. I was one-on-one with her. She was calling the shots, making her own schedule, doing what she loved. She had only been there for a few weeks but told me that it was, by far, the best decision she’d ever made in her career. Over the coming months, she got even more excited about her suite, and told me that her clients were referring her more people, and she had almost doubled her clientele since she started up again. At that point, my ears really perked up and the light bulb went on. Growing up, my Aunt Sally and my Grandmother, Charlotte, were both hair stylists. I knew from experience and their stories that they were rarely happy at their salons. They complained about the pettiness of their co-workers, the stupid decisions of salon owners, the endless bickering and backstabbing. So between my stylist’s comments, and the juxtaposition of my family’s bad salon experiences, I started to see that something new and special was happening with Phenix.

Interesting. So the beauty industry is in your blood, so to speak. That’s great. You talked about your stylist being happy with the concept but what specifically about your aunt and grandmother inspired you to open your own Phenix Salon Suites?

My aunt had owned a few salons and worked at many other salons as I was growing up. And I loved being in that environment. I was a curious kid, and the salon was such a lively, energetic, fun place to be. I think I liked the way people felt better about themselves after seeing my aunt. It’s hard to describe. I mean, I was incredibly close to her, and from the time I was a toddler, she and I just understood each other. She even used to joke with my mom that I was supposed to be her kid. But, in all seriousness, the salon felt like home to me. I used to spend every day after elementary school in the break room of the salon she owned. I remember loving the smell of the perms and hair color. There was a wig shop next door where they sold candy, and I used to go get candy every afternoon. I would eat my skittles, look at all the pictures in the magazines and style books, and I just really got into it. But then, all of a sudden, I remember that everything started going wrong at once. Chaos took over. Old friendships were becoming strained. Several of her longtime stylists left at once and opened a salon across the street. My aunt had never been more depressed or stressed out. I remember feeling really bad for her, and also feeling an incredible loss when the salon shut down. At any rate, she went to a few other salons, co-owned another salon for a while, but there were always the same frustrating problems. At one point, when I was older, I remember thinking, “what a terrible business to be in. There’s no real way to make it work. I would NEVER want to own a salon.” But the more time I spent at Phenix, the more I started seeing the possibilities. I thought, “Finally! This is how salons should be, and this is how salon professionals want to work!” I recognized the strength of people being able to be in control of their own environment, because I knew how important it was to me in my work as a real estate agent.

Anyway, a few months after I started seeing my stylist at Phenix, I was visiting my grandmother, who was a stylist in the 50’s and 60’s. I’ve always had a great deal of respect for her, and have always taken her advice to heart. I told her about Phenix, how both stylists and their clients seemed to really love it. I told her that I really believed in the owners, Jason and Gina, and what their vision was for the industry. Then I told her I was considering opening one, and she looked me in the eye and said, “I can’t believe I’m saying this but, honey, it sounds like a great idea and you should go for it.” So I did.

That’s a great story. Jason and Gina tell me that you have been extraordinarily successful with this concept and that you have an exceptionally low turnover at your location. What would you say is your secret?

There is an inherent rule I’ve found to be true in the beauty industry: First and foremost, it is a relationship-based business on every level. I don’t care if you’re a shampoo girl, a massage therapist, a rep for a supply house, a stylist, a traditional salon owner, or Tabatha Coffey. To be good at this business, you have to create bonds. These bonds are not just important, but almost essential to the people who work in this industry. I value every one of my salon professionals on an individual level. I know they can do very well in this business, but I also know how hard they work. They are making people feel better about their lives, and that, to me, is sacred work.  So, while I mostly leave them alone and let them do their own thing, I also strive to let them know that I have their back, and that I’m there for them as individuals.

Speaking of bonds, I was told that you and your property manager, Kristi have known each other since you were quite young.

Yes!  Growing up, Kristi was my best friend’s cousin. We didn’t spend that much time together, but we always loved being in each other’s company. I think I first met her when she was around 13. In addition to being smart and funny, Kristi has always had an impeccable sense of style, and when I was considering doing this, she was the first person who came to mind. She now works as the receptionist at the site and is also a hairstylist in one of the suites. Her intuitive understanding of this business has been a HUGE part of my success. This has been a shared journey for us, and I’m unbelievably lucky to have her. I also consistently get great feedback from the salon professionals about her attitude and her performance. She goes above and beyond all the time, and her heart is always in the right place.

Thanks for your time today Michael. Do you care to leave us with any other secrets for success? 
Really, I would just say that fortune truly favors the bold. That’s what Phenix is about, right?  Rise from the ash. Go out on a limb for your vision and your dream. In my experience, faith is always rewarded.