Plum Studios: A Second Shot At Success

At this salon it's not just about beautiful manes, but community too.

Back in 1986, Karen Frances Ulrich was in Burlingame visiting her aunt. Little did she know, she would still be here all these years later. It was while browsing the magazine collection of Designers Three Salon on Magnolia Avenue while her aunt got a haircut that Ulrich overheard the stylist talking about her impending maternity leave and the search to fill her spot. She jumped at the opportunity and for a chance to have a change of pace.

Ulrich graduated from the reputable Toni and Guy Academy in 1984, and was coined "rainbow girl" for serving as a model for one of the classes and a number of self-color jobs that followed. She went on to work at Frank Ringi Salon in San Francisco. After that, Designers Three Salon gave Ulrich her first shot as a bonafied hairstylist.

Ulrich was at once lulled by Burlingame's fair weather and "the openness to walk around without a coat," she said. "[I liked] the feel of a neighborhood, the ability to walk to work, say hello, and talk to people on the way."

She said she also enjoyed the safety of the town and "the freedom to walk to my car at night and feel safe."

Today, she is glad she stayed. Now the successful owner of the former Rachel & Co., her new hair salon, Plum Studios, is buzzing with activity on Lorton Avenue. Ulrich has been running a tight ship there for five and a half years.

Plum Studios is currently staffed by 17 independently contracted hair stylists. These stylists range from seasoned professionals who usher in their own loyal clients to  several fresh-out-of-school faces just starting their careers. Ulrich offers them all her guidance and helps with marketing.

The endeavor of ownership comes with the responsibility of straddling a second job, however, which she said comes with an income cap.

"It's similar to managing an apartment complex," she said, explaining there are rules to abide by, comparing assigning designated parking to managing salon etiquette. "You're basically a landlord of stylists."

But things were not always rosy for Ulrich. This is her second salon venture. She owned Bella Sirena Salon for 10 years, and later relinquished her title to a colleague in exchange for a hair station where she went back to doing hair for three years.

She recalls a friend being puzzled by her decision to start up again.

Generally an optimist, Ulrich saw failure ripe with opportunity. So while she lived in a studio apartment for eight years and recharged her batteries, she learned a new approach. She credits much of what she learned from her past mistakes to Michael Gerber's "Why Do Small Businesses Fail and What to Do About It."

She also learned the age-old maxim: In business, you have to spend money to make money. But more importantly, she said, she learned the importance of razor sharp wit and discipline of managing time and budget– and the importance of vision. 

Ulrich is now devoting her efforts to the proposed Burlingame Business Improvement District, a public/private partnership in which business owners elect to make a collective contribution to the maintenance, development and promotion of their commercial district. She has been putting in long hours volunteering to see the proposal pass though city hall. She has taken it upon herself to work out the kinks with those who oppose the project, sending out emails "to get the correct messaging out," she said. 

In addition to her work with the association, Ulrich's business supports local schools by hosting Glamtini events at the salon. They are silent auction parties for teenagers, who get their hair, nails and makeup done for $34 each. There is also a dress up lounge with three themes: Sweetini, a princess theme; Magictini, a butterfly wing theme; and Rockatini, a rock theme.  A photo shoot follows.

The salon is also host to the Bay Area Glam Squad on Sundays. This is an opportunity for local independent contractors to come and create new looks with their own models, as well as to perform wedding trials on their clients.

So why bother with so much on her plate?

"Owning a salon is more than owning a business," Ulrich said. "It's about cultivating community."

Ana Lucia Novak July 23, 2011 at 12:28 AM
Cafe La Scala is now Munch (Dine Munch). Jan Unlu will be having a grand opening in several weeks, where patrons can sample their new menu, listen to live music, and engage with the locals. You can contact me at analucia dot novak at mac dot com. Would love to schedule a time to introduce you to Jan and get an interview up close to the Grand Opening ? Thanks again, great piece on Karen, Plum Studios


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