Quite a Kee to success

Quite a Kee to success

Every obstacle is a stimulus for Stephen Kee as hair and beauty group extraordinaire Saks takes its creative talents international. Brian Nicholls explains.

As you’d expect, Stephen Kee the managing director of a 100-strong salon group renowned for its award-capturing hair and beauty standards, looked immaculate delivering a keynote address at BQ’s National Emerging Entrepreneur dinner. Not one silver hair out of place.

What you might not expect – and what his attentive audience, eager to relive with him his 40 years success in business, probably did not know – was that this lifetime achiever had actually trimmed his own hair before stepping out to the Hilton Hotel.

“No-one has cut my hair for 20 years except me,” he laughingly admitted offstage to BQ. “That sounds bad, doesn’t it? We’ve an artistic team who work all over the world and they say ‘why don’t we do your hair?’ I never get round to that. Or don’t have the time. I just do it myself. I think you get used to it. I did a bit before I came out tonight, knowing I was going on stage.“

Few at the Gateshead awards gathering, even had they intended staying at home for the next month, would have risked such tonsorial tinkering. How on earth does one keep the scissors straight behind one’s ears? Obviously Kee, as in his business moves, has a knack.

What else but knack has taken him from 17-year-old school dropout to managing director of Saks, the UK’s leading salon group, a pioneering leader in the hair and beauty craft recognised internationally?  

Entrepreneurial enthusiasm from a lapsed sixth former was perhaps not what his dad expected. His son had, after all, been earning his pocket money earlier by running copy for sports writers reporting matches for the Press. A career in the newspaper industry, where his father Jack Kee was general manager of The Northern Echo at Darlington, would have been understandable and feasible.

Indeed, for six months after the lad joined Saks as a beginner, Jack repeatedly reminded him: “You don’t have to keep on going there, you know.” But soon Stephen had his own flourishing salon, a Saks franchise, and by 21 had made enough to buy part ownership of Saks itself.

Today, endorsements by celebrities such as Gerry Halliwell, Nigella Lawson and Girls Aloud help drive the business, from Aberdeen down to Exeter. And, through franchising, Saks operates as far as Dubai, Kuwait and Mumbai, the latter centre winning a “best salon in India” award last year.

No surprise, perhaps, since Saks abroad ensures it has well-off partners prepared to invest liberally in the brand. “We’re very happy to have our name associated with them,” says Kee. His fellow director Dennis Cheesebrough, an original founder, leads the international side. “That’s his thing,” says Kee, and foresees a possibility of further launches abroad.

Kee, now 57, recalls: “Even when Saks opened in Darlington all those years ago it was a phenomenon. We were first to move away from traditional shampoo and set culture, to pioneer the new ‘cut and blow dry’. Customers flocked in. Twelve salons were opened with aspirations to become national, and franchising provided the key to success.”

Intensive franchising at home got under way from 1981. But even from the 1970s beautiful women wearing Saks’ signature haircuts and colours have been portrayed in magazines around the world. Saks’ seasonal signature hair collections today feature online, on point of sale and in consumer and trade magazines worldwide.

Saks now is noted not only for its salons’ standards of hair and beauty treatments, but also for upskilling to exemplary level hairdressers and beauty therapists, this through its training academies in Darlington and London, and through apprenticeships accredited by the Government.

Its training academies teach NVQ level courses in hair, beauty and barbering to beginners and experienced stylists and therapists, and are open to outsiders as well as its own staff.

How did the beauty element enter? “Our customers wanted it. So we launched our Saks beauty concept in 1995 and have never looked back. Saks was first to introduce injectables as a high street service. Non-surgical facelift treatments, anti-ageing facials, IPL laser hair removal and 3D-lipo fat removal strengthened the clinical offering further.

“The launch of advanced beauty offers, bespoke skincare and treatments make Saks the high street choice for better skin – the UK’s leading high street group whose salons are dedicated to beauty in the mix too.”

No holding back there, then. And in 1998 Saks linked with health club giant David Lloyd Leisure as its salon group, and continues to open salons in the group’s clubs nationwide.

Last year Saks also linked with Virgin Active. The Saks art team that can’t pin their boss down offer advanced courses through the training academies. They create hair looks for shoots, shows, catwalks, TV shows, awards and more opportunities. They advise glossy magazines on latest trends in hair fashion.

In 1999 in-salon apprenticeship NVQ hair and beauty training was introduced. Stylists and beauty therapists can learn through this, rather than through college. The programme carries Beacon status awarded by the Quality Improvement Agency, and grade ones across the board by the Adult Learning Inspectorate for giving outstanding training.

Saks thus is recommended as a benchmark for educational best practice across all industries, officially acknowledged as a best training provider nationwide.

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At a time when many people in other occupations were being paid off, Saks launched a barbering course enabling redundant workers to reskill and become franchisees, or set up in hairdressing for themselves. Kee explains: “While we offer apprenticeships we also opened a barber’s chain. We realised there weren’t many barbers out there and there wouldn’t have been anyone to staff them.

“So we put on a course teaching people to become barbers. Many who came were putting redundancy money they had received into it. Members of the Forces returning to civvy street also got onto it. Then, with opportunities apparent, they became Saks franchisees of barber shops or else went off and did their own thing.”

One of the smartest moves in the firm’s promotion, Kee explained to his audience at the awards, has been to interface with celebrities. That began with its Saksessories range of ceramic straighteners, described as having taken the hair world by storm.

He recounts: “We decided to bring out our own range of hairdressing dryers and other accessories. On a whim I said ‘why don’t we send some of our straighteners out to celebrities or their agents?’ We sent about 50 to any celebrities we could think of. Two responded saying ‘we love your straighteners – can we have some more?’

That was Gerry Halliwell and Nigella Lawson. Indeed Nigella said whoever invented Saks straighteners should be knighted. “We used that endorsement and sold thousands,” Kee went on. “It would have been a slow burner otherwise. Geri Halliwell, who couldn’t get enough of the straighteners spread the word so Holly Valance, Dani Behr, Dannii Minogue and Denise Van Outen also became fans!

“We now have a full range of styling tools and accessories for customers and hairdressers including the hugely popular Pro Dry hairdryer and Pro Straight straightener featuring the latest electrical styling tools technology. We launched our new Auto Curl Tongs at Clothes Show Live and they sold out every day.”

For Saks, the power of celebrity endorsement has become even more effective. “Everything we do now we link with celebrities. For our apprenticeships we linked with comments from Made in Chelsea and The Only Way is Essex – Joey Essex saying apprenticeships are fantastic. We use that on Facebook pages and so on.

From a client’s point of view, we’ve done Girls Aloud’s hair, Paloma Faith, Coldplay, loads and loads.” Has all this brought him closer to the knighthood Nigella recommends? “No,” Kee laughs. “I haven’t done any royalty. I did get that lifetime achievement award in franchising. It made me wonder if it was a secret message.

Why would you get a lifetime achievement award when you’ve many years work left in you? I’m still not sure if it was a message they were trying to get rid of me!”  

But there are numerous awards to take pride in: the L’Oréal Colour Trophy, British Franchise Association awards, numerous British Beauty and national Customer Care awards and distinctions at the British Hairdressing Awards.

Now Saks, besides marking 20 years of its beauty concept by opening more salons wholly dedicated to that aspect, is out to make a mark in another different direction also. It aims to raise £100,000 in two years for the Eve Appeal, fighting women’s cancers through awareness and research.

This stems from a brand re-ignition survey run amid a spirit of determination that the recent recession couldn’t go on forever. Saks invested £100,000 and a year in talking to customers, salons and manufacturers about their perception of the brand, and how it might change in future.

Kee describes it as “probably the biggest thing we’ve done in 20 years, interviewing every stakeholder. It showed us where we should be in the market.”

It did indeed. One particularly significant revelation was that customers’ average age was 35 upwards. “So we’d been catering for a younger audience,” Kee admits.

“On realising our clients were 35 to 55 predominantly, we recognised that if we were going to get behind a charity it had to be one aimed towards women of that age group. So Eve is perfect. Our brand is all about women. We men say we understand women, all their different moods. Can a man ever understand a woman’s moods? I don’t know.”  

But he certainly tries. Besides relishing the business side of things, he enjoys actually hairdressing still, and particularly interacting with clients. “Yes, women do tell their hairdresser everything,” he confides, and perhaps that’s partly why Saks enjoys the success it does. At any rate, the campaign of support for Eve Appeal has started.