He’s nearly 60; a university dropout who moves like a cat through business. Ian Fuhr is probably the unlikeliest owner of a beauty chain you will ever find. He finds his constant change of career exciting, others may think him confused.
It all began on July 1, 1976, two weeks before the Soweto student uprising. Fuhr, then 22, and his brother, Rodney, opened the doors to the predominantly black-staffed retail store Kmart. After five years in retail, Fuhr was lured away by the sweet sounds of the music industry. His record company, Munjale Productions, signed artists like Letta Mbulu and Hugh Masekela.
Fuhr and fellow South African Clive Calder from Jive Records, an American label, bought a mobile recording studio, which they drove to Gaborone, Botswana. This was in 1983, when the two would camp out at the Woodpecker Inn to record exiled artists. Five years later, Fuhr left the music industry and rejoined his brother at Kmart.
The store name was changed in 1988 to Super Mart, after a lawsuit by the American chain that owned the trademark for Kmart.
“They came into one of our stores, all in suits and stuff and started taking photographs. So the manager of the store took one look at this and said: ‘No ways, you can’t take photographs’. The guy started panicking and tried to run out the door and they locked him in the store,” says Fuhr.
The Americans added a lawsuit for wrongful arrest.
Fuhr left again in 1991 to start a new career as a race relations consultant for seven years.
It was in 2004 that Super Mart was sold to the Edcon Group—a leading clothing, footwear and textile retail group in southern Africa—for R112 million ($16,034,400). After the sale, Fuhr worked directly under the Edcon CEO, Steve Ross, for 18 months.
When you ask Fuhr if he’d ever imagined, when he first started out, that his company would be worth millions, he laughs and says: “No ways”. He says the key to his success has been to sort out the employees first. He says treating and paying them well, coupled with getting the culture right, lead to unimagined levels of productivity.
With another career in his rear view mirror, Fuhr was far from finished.
“I looked for my final shot into the entrepreneurial world,” Fuhr says beaming.
And what a shot that was. An innocent suggestion by his massage therapist, Liz Goldberg, turned Fuhr into a gap in the salon market. With only one existing visible brand at the time, Fuhr asked himself questions like: “Why hadn’t people done this before?”
“I thought there was an opportunity. There was a gap in that business and the only problem was to make sure there was enough business in the gap,” says Fuhr.
In 2004, with some money from the Edcon sale, Fuhr and his two partners, Goldberg and Johnny Marks, bought the first of five pre-owned salons and ran them under their original names while they got a feel for the business.
Branding consultants gave Fuhr and his partners a list with possible names for the business. Halfway down the list was “Sorbet”. Funnily enough when Fuhr called Goldberg to find out what she thought of the list, they realized they had both fallen in love with the same name. It was a done deal. The logo was a different story and it took four months to finalize. The business was launched in August 2005.
If the beauty industry was so lucrative, why not create a spa? Fuhr felt the salon market was small and fragmented, while the competition with spas was too great. The difference between Sorbet and other salons is that it focuses on the retail to create the bulk of its revenue, with treatments being a secondary source of income. This is proven by the retail styling of the salons, which Fuhr refers to as stores. According to him, the industry norm is to earn 65% from treatments.
With retail being such a large component of the company, the trick was to find products that were big enough to piggy back. The answers were the imported up-market skin care brand Dermalogica, South African produced Environ and the nail care brand Essie.
The first few years were hard for Sorbet as it tried to create a three-phase concept that not everyone found easy to buy into. Fuhr’s “You come to work to serve and not to make money” philosophy meant a mindset change among the staff. With around 56 stores, 15 of which are company-owned and 450 employees, Fuhr still does all the induction training for the entire group’s staff.
The company-owned stores were to develop the model and build the brand before franchising it in 2009. Due to the nature of the business, franchising was always the plan. A salon franchise costs between R850,000 and R950,000 ($95,455-106,694), while a nail bar is between R550,000 and R650,000 ($61,773-73,000).
In September 2011, Sorbet gained access to the 3.66 million club card members of Clicks—South Africa’s large pharmacy, health, home and beauty retailer. It began when three, female Clicks senior executives, who were Sorbet clients, telephoned Fuhr. It has now blossomed into product development: Clicks has developed a range of 17 Sorbet bath and beauty products, with further plans to diversify.
“We had been thinking about doing our own range, but we had been dabbling a little bit with it and it wasn’t anything exciting,” says Fuhr.
With the hope of someday getting into hair, Sorbet was, again, not looking to compete with the big hair salons in the country. The American concept of dry bars was a new moneymaker in South Africa.
Great, but what’s a dry bar? Judging from the pilot store, it’s a hair salon that only washes and blow dries your hair into one of 8 styles. No cuts or color. It still keeps with the look and feel of all the other Sorbet establishments, complete with nail treatments and the front-of-store retail side.
Continuing to do things its way, Sorbet became a franchisee of the Beauty Therapy Institute last year. The school offers training to aspiring beauty therapists and nail technicians and is a finishing school for the company’s staff. Students are guaranteed a job interview for any opportunities at Sorbet outlets.
The nationwide Sorbet stores perform around 40,000 treatments a month, with waxing accounting for 40%.
“There is a hell of a lot of hair that comes out of Sorbet, I can tell you that,” Fuhr laughs.
How well is the business doing? With the average store turnover at R3 million ($336,809) a year, the projections for the year ended February 2013 are R150 million ($16.8 million). Store-for-store growth is at 19% and overall growth for the company is at 40%, in the last year.
With 15-20 new stores planned for South Africa, Fuhr says the country still has a lot of potential and there has been some interest from other countries on the continent as well. As much as expanding beyond South Africa is on the agenda for the next three to five years, Fuhr feels this is too big a venture for his company to go at alone and that a strong financial partner is needed.
So for Fuhr, 60 could be the new 30. It’s never too late to start over.