- August 27, 2021
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This story is part of the 2021 Profiles in Power awards, honoring influential women leaders in Austin. Go here to see the rest.
If Chelle Neff had a superpower, it would be resilience — an ability to grow stronger from setbacks.
She founded Urban Betty Salon in 2005 in an industry known for slim margins. Neff has built the company into a thriving business with two locations, more than 60 employees and multiple appearances on the Inc. 5000 list for revenue growth. She plans to roll out this fall her first line of beauty products, and she has set her eyes on further expansion in Texas and beyond.
But there have been struggles, like when half her staff quit in 2010. That prompted the CEO to switch to an employee-only model with commission-based pay.
“While there have been a few times when I thought that I would have to close the doors of Urban Betty, I chose not to give up, learn from my mistakes, and implement significant changes to grow the business,” she said.
It has been her understanding of the stylist experience that has allowed the company to thrive. She’s been in the business since she started cutting hair at a Supercuts in her hometown of Abilene.
Urban Betty provides health care and retirement benefits, unusual for hair stylists. The salon has received accolades from the likes of the Austin Chronicle, Austin American-Statesman and Salon Today magazine.
Neff has been a coach to countless women in her own company, always following an open-door policy so anyone on the team can meet with her one-on-one. She advises other business owners as a member of the advisory board of cosmetology for the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation.
Neff also serves on the community engagement committee for the Whole Planet Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to poverty alleviation, and on the board of Austin Classical Guitar. She is also part of the Impact Austin giving group. And she was co-founder with her husband of the Austin Weird Homes Tour, although it recently went on hiatus.
What has helped or hindered your career?
What hindered my career was my inability to ask for help and to be vulnerable. I like to do things independently, make mistakes, fall on my face and finally ask for help. One example of this was when I structured the price list of services for my salon; I offered package deals and all sorts of special discounts. I thought this was the best way to draw in new business. After struggling to make ends meet, I finally ran a report to see how much money we were giving away. It was an astonishing $50,000 in just one year. After that, I humbly decided to hire a business coach and implement the Summit Salon Systems. I restructured our pricing list to an a la carte menu with a limited amount of discounts. Our revenue grew 30% within one year after that. While I still struggle to ask for help, I have learned that it gets easier each year, and my business can only get better when I let go and ask for help.
What advice would you give to women trying to achieve leadership roles?
The best advice I can give other female leaders is to stay connected with their team and be vulnerable. Know every person that works for you and listen to them. You need to meet with your employees and ask them how they are doing. All you need is a 30-minute meeting to talk about life and ask any questions with no agenda. Business or personal, dealer’s choice. I feel like if you can cry and laugh with your team, you will forge a bond like no other. Being strong is great, but being vulnerable is even more powerful. And vulnerability and our desire to show our human side will connect us all.
I would also advise that there are no mistakes and that all movement is forward movement. Anything that you do in this world can teach you something. People might look down on a job working at a beauty supply store, but that same job taught me priceless knowledge on how to stock my retail inventory for my company. Being a receptionist might not be appealing to most, but working in that job taught me the value of customer service and how essential it is to have it in your business. Take every opportunity wherever you are to learn every facet of a company. That can give you a well-rounded class of knowledge to apply later in life when you do what you want to do. Every job is a learning experience.
Who is your mentor and why?
About 12 years ago, I was doing hair, and a new guest named Rebecca Hamm came in. When I asked her what she did for a living, she said that she meets with people to help them heal trauma in their lives. I thought, “What the heck, I’ll schedule a visit.” When I first met with her, I admitted things out loud about my life that I had never told another person. It was an awakening, and I realized that I needed much help in my personal life. What I thought would be one visit turned into weekly visits that changed my life. And I still meet with her to this day. Problems never go away, and you always need a fresh perspective in life and business to get you out of your head.
She helped me gain the perspective I needed to leave a dysfunctional marriage, know my worth, and she helped me to let go of the fears I had surrounding scaling my business. I suggest that every person in business have a life coach, guru, therapist, or whatever you feel comfortable calling them in your life. Meet with them at least twice a month and make sure they aren’t afraid to call you out on your BS.
How have you influenced growth or success in your company?
In 2010, we had just over 10 people, and we were running out of space. So we upgraded to a larger retail salon space that was twice the size inside the same shopping center. But, unfortunately, the salon also had many complications, such as not knowing how to structure our pricing lists or manage cash flow.
For years, I struggled with trying to make a profit on my own. I started with a contractor-based model and then slowly switched to a commission-based (employee) model. I kept trying to change things up, thinking, “This will be the thing that will turn my P&L around and make a profit.”
After 11 years of being stuck in that hamster wheel, I decided to turn to professionals in my industry and ask for help, which by the way, is extremely hard for me! So I hired a consulting group that changed my life forever. They have 30-plus years of industry knowledge and showed me how to restructure my entire business. Within three months of implementing their methods, we had more money in our bank accounts than ever. And two years later, I retired from doing hair and focused solely on managing and scaling my company.
From 2014-2017, we had a whopping 82% growth, and in 2018, 2019 and 2020 we were named one of Inc. 5000’s fastest-growing privately held companies.
In a world that considers college the only option for success, my salon company empowers women and gives each person who works here the ability to become a future shareholder and grow to have an income well over $100,000 without a college degree. At Urban Betty, we pay our employees well above the industry average with benefits — 1/4 of the stylists make six figures in my salon, where the industry average is $22,000.
I have brought on two current employees to be shareholders in our salon company — encouraging entrepreneurship and helping women achieve their dreams of owning a business. I have also created a plan for more employees to become future shareholders and launch it this fall. In addition, we host personal growth retreats for our employees and have developed an innovative system of mentorship. We want to shatter the glass ceiling and elevate our industry.
What is your community involvement, both within and outside your business?
I had the realization one day that I have a great platform to help other people and support organizations in the world. Before the pandemic, every year, we hosted an annual women’s clothing swap — we are planning to bring it back in 2022 — which benefits The SAFE Alliance, a shelter in Austin for battered women and children. Usually, over 200 women show up to drop off their gently used clothing and take it home with them, whatever clothing they like. All leftover items are donated. We donate around 20-30 large bags of clothing, shoes, and accessories. Every year, attendance increases at this event, and all of my staff participate by sorting the clothing. We’re able to draw new people into our salon because clients invite their friends and families to this event. This introduction is a great way to gain new guests and help our community.
The month of September is Leukemia Awareness Month and anyone willing to donate their hair during this month receives a free haircut from us. Any other month of the year, we offer 50% off your haircut for every guest willing to cut at least eight inches of their hair and donate it to this great cause. In the past, we donated the hair to Pantene Great Lengths, which provided the funds to turn this hair into free, real-hair wigs for women with cancer. Pantene has donated over 30,000 free real-hair wigs to the American Cancer Society wig banks, and we couldn’t be happier to have been a part of this. We’ve partnered with Wigs For Kids, an organization that uses donated hair to create wigs for children with cancer.