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Tuesday, August 16, 2011 - Page updated at 10:30 a.m.

In Person: CEO Denyer expands Gene Juarez salon chain

By Melissa Powell
Seattle Times business reporter

Janet Denyer's perfectly manicured nails match her bright red blazer. Her blond hair is skillfully colored and her precisely shaped eyebrows would most certainly be approved by Anastasia, the Hollywood brow master.

Then again, high-end beauty is what she does for a living. Denyer just celebrated her fifth anniversary as CEO of Gene Juarez Salons & Spas, a chain of 10 stores in the Greater Seattle area.

Since becoming CEO, she has opened two new salons, doubled the enrollment of the company's two beauty schools, moved three salons into new locations and introduced a national line of hair-care products — while battling the recession in a trade providing services that, even she admits, are "discretionary."

New to the salon world

The 55-year-old discovered the charms of the spa business after she graduated from the University of Georgia with degrees in education, kinesiology and dance. She took a job as a fitness instructor at a destination spa in Florida.

"I fell in love with everything else in the spa," she said. "I just loved all of it."

She became one of the spa's directors two years later and spent 10 years in the industry before creating her own spa-consulting business, with clients including Disney, Ritz-Carlton and Marriott.

In 2001, she sold her company and became vice president of operations at Red Door Salons and Spas, overseeing 40 salons across the country and in the U.K. She stayed at Red Door until she heard of the opportunity at Gene Juarez.

Gene Juarez, who had founded the salon chain 35 years earlier, sold the business in 2006 to Evergreen Pacific Partners, a Seattle-based private equity firm, prompting a nationwide search for a new CEO.

Denyer visited five Gene Juarez salons before her interview for the job. "I saw that the people were so fantastic, the salons were really busy and the women looked fabulous when they left," she said.

Juarez, who is now retired and not involved with the company, said Denyer came with "a lot of great credentials."

The salon chain's private equity buyers "took it in a different direction than I did, but change was inevitable," he said. "I was a hairdresser, so my passion was the people and the product, and they're economic guys and look at numbers a lot more than I did."

Tim Bernardez, managing partner at Evergreen Pacific, said Denyer quickly emerged as the best candidate out of a pool of hundreds of potential CEOs.

"It wasn't even close," he said. "We had no trouble selecting her."

Expansion in recession

A year after Denyer began her dream job, the Great Recession hit.

But even during tough economic times, Denyer said, she wasn't too worried.

"Our salons are all really successful, and they perform in the top 1/10th of 1 percent of salons," Denyer said, citing industry statistics she said show Gene Juarez salons outperform "the vast majority of salons in the nation with regard to revenue per salon, customer visits, and revenue per square foot."

The company won't disclose its revenues, however.

At the salons, a haircut starts at $47, the cheapest hour massage is $95 and the simplest manicure is $28. The salons perform around 750,000 services a year, and in the last 10 years, they have served more than 1 million unique guests.

Denyer said 85 percent of guests who enter the salon come back on a regular basis. During the recession, she said the company saw little falloff with those regular guests.

"Because of that, we were able to continue with our expansion plans, and we were very delighted with that," she said. "It was not as challenging as it was for other luxury retailers and salon operators around the U.S."

Bernardez said visits did decline for a while during the recession, but growth in the two beauty schools offset the loss.

"People looked for retraining and technical training, and as salons and spas suffered, the schools did much better to train people so that when the economy rebounded, they would have jobs," Bernardez said.

He said visits have "stabilized," and Evergreen Pacific is "very pleased with the results."

Denyer oversaw the launching of the Kitsap and University Village salons, the expansion of the South Hill salon into a new site and the relocation of the Northgate and Southcenter salons. The two Gene Juarez beauty schools, which opened in the late 1980s, have doubled in size during Denyer's tenure.

The schools, in Northgate and Federal Way, have a total of 500 to 600 students at one time. Students complete 1,600 hours of schooling over 14 months. Denyer said 90 percent of her 1,100 employees graduated from one of the schools.

She said the company wants to expand eventually down the West Coast once the economy improves, but she's currently focusing all of her attention on the recent launch of Identity{+1}, a professional hair-care collection developed by Gene Juarez artists over a three-year span.

The line consists of 17 products, from shampoos and conditioners to ocean-texture spray that provides hair with beachy waves without the seaweed remnants. Denyer said the products launched nationally May 23 — her birthday.

The company is working with two independent distributors, Salon Services Group and East Coast Salon Services Group, and Denyer said the goal is to have products across the entire U.S. by 2012.

Kelli McCusker, vice president of marketing for Gene Juarez salons, said a successful salon not only provides services but also complements those services with the right products.

"We provide cut, color and styling behind the chair, and we use products to send them out feeling wonderful," McCusker said. "But then they wake up in the morning, and how do they re-create that? So that's why you would want retail products to help that experience extend to the home."

McCusker said 10 percent of a spa's profit is usually from sales of retail products, but Gene Juarez receives almost double that industry average.

Bernardez said Gene Juarez now has more salon and spa employees than ever. Growth may seem like Denyer's greatest achievement, he said, but something else comes to his mind:

"Her continuing effort to focus the culture on really exceeding customer expectations, because that's really the core."

"You can't say that it resulted in X dollars of revenue, but it's her best accomplishment and ongoing area of emphasis."

Northwest touch

The salons still seem to be untouched by the tough economic times, as customers stream in and out of the University Village location. Denyer sits in the waiting area, next to a gas fireplace, and watches a nearby haircut.

She said she tries to capture the Northwest feel inside many of the salons.

At the University Village location, salon manager Angelina Provenzano said they used warm wood tones with pops of orange and green to recreate the feeling of a forest with flower petals and dew. They even imported Italian glass to create "raindrop" chandeliers.

"We wanted to capture that feeling of warmth and intimacy, and we had fun with the finishes and textures," Provenzano said.

Denyer, a mother of two grown children, fell in love with the Pacific Northwest after moving from her permanent home in Florida and her Red Door office in Connecticut.

An avid guitarist and snowboarder, the winters give her a chance to stay inside or get on the hills, she said. The summer weather is perfect for hiking and exploring with her two Labrador retrievers and her husband, who's retired, she added.

But she enjoys being pampered, too. Christophe Soltane, a creative designer at the downtown Gene Juarez location, is her hair artist of choice.

And the service she cannot live without? Hair coloring, she said in an outburst of laughter. "It's more of a necessity."

Melissa Powell: 206-464-8220 or mpowell@seattletimes.com

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