Chicago Business November 24, 2010

Maxine Salon's Owner Maxine Kroll featured in Crains Chicago Business November 24th, 2010Chicago Business: Powered by Crain's

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

Blagica Bottigliero: The Maxine behind Maxine Salon

By Blagica Bottigliero


A few years ago, I had the opportunity to have my hair colored and styled at Maxine Salon. The occasion was a special Gals' Guide/Banana Republic fashion event. Maxine Salon was the sponsor and treated me to a new 'do. I remember walking into the Rush Street salon and reading the oversized magazine reprints on the wall, wondering how long it took Maxine to receive such national notoriety. Since that first visit, I became a regular. During my subsequent trips, I got to know Maxine Kroll, the woman behind Maxine Salon. She's an example of an entrepreneur who didn't look at gender as holding her back from starting a business. She simply . . . went with it.

From a business standpoint, Maxine understood what she was good at, but also understood where she needed a little PR boost to land her those magazine mentions.

To Maxine, a salon is more than a place to cut someone's hair. It's an adventure. It's a new opening every day. It's also taking risks that pay off.

Meet Maxine.

Maxine Salon is a fixture on Rush Street. How long have you been in business?

I opened on Walton Street in the fall of 1986. I had two locations on Walton during the first 11 years, one at 64 East and the other at 100 East.. The opportunity to remain at the second space became questionable because the building was in financial trouble. What seemed to be a nightmare translated into an amazing blessing. I was able to walk from a lease and purchase my own building. We moved south of Chicago Avenue, which seemed a real reach from Walton Street at the time. Little did I know that the Peninsula was going to open on my corner as well as Tiffany’s and the Fordham.

Was it difficult to open a business in 1986?

In 1986 it wasn’t that it was so difficult to open, it was difficult to stay open. Don’t forget that the market dove in 1987 and my clients were greatly affected by the downturn. Not to mention the early days of anyone’s business are the most tumultuous. Sea legs take a while to develop.

Do you think it’s easier today or years ago for women to open a business?

I have never really thought about it in terms of being a woman. I doubt that it is ever easy for anyone to open a business today or in the past, and that is a good thing. It should be work to get it started. It should be for the strong of spirit. It should be for survivors, not just entrepreneurs. I actually prefer the word "adventurer." And may the adventure never end.

I would say today for a woman the need for start-up capital doesn’t seem to be a great as before. With a great idea and the support of technology, especially social media, one can get going fairly quickly on one’s own steam. By the time you need substantial capital, you already have credential. For me it was the opposite. I needed capital before I had credential, and I had to pay the price for that opportunity and risk.

Any challenges with getting financing?

Absolutely, especially because we were a salon/service entity and probably the female aspect. There were no assets, no brick and mortar. I had to collateralize it by 120%. But I also acted on my game plan very quickly, during a weekend to be precise. I had to leave my existing position as soon as I gave notice and I didn’t have the time to wait for the paperwork for a small-business loan or any other type of specialty loan for that matter.

You’ve had some amazing coverage in high-end magazines. How did you make this happen?

After the first 11 years, in 1997, the salon moved into its current Rush Street townhouse location. It was bigger than life, even scarier than the initial opening back in 1986. I now had 9,000 square feet to fill. Soon after that, Chicago Magazine featured the top 30 salons in the city, or some absurd number like that, and we were not one of them. Finally the rock hit me on the head. My own steam was not enough. Word of mouth in 1998 wasn’t cutting it and it certainly wasn’t viral. I hired a publicist. I thought the relationship would be occasional. She has been working for me monthly ever since.

The most brilliant part of the relationship is the synergy. She forces us to continue to excel at what we do in order to keep our brand alive and new and fresh. After all, it is only with great information that she can get the media to listen. We have to respond as though we have just opened, every day, every month, every year. There always has to be a new story to tell. In the end our brand stays exciting, not just for the media but for our staff and especially for our clients. The investment in a publicist and the responsibility it puts back onto us has certainly kept us in the forefront. I like to think of my company as 24 years “new”.

How long did it take you to get a solid client base? Any favorite marketing methods?

A client base is a very fluid commodity and always one to be cherished. It took years to develop our client base beyond the initial start. For various reasons clients move on, and you need to recognize that fact so that you constantly seek to fill those relationships. In addition, you have to grow an entire team in order to grow your business, so you need to focus on much more than just the transient factor. You must focus on growth. It is imperative. You need the youngest staff members sometimes more than the most senior in order to protect and advance the whole. New staff members and new clients represent the greatest resources for new business growth as well a fountain of inspiration for the senior team.

I would say the No. 1 marketing method I have is my front desk team. They are the lifeline between the client and the staff, the first contact and the last. My team has been with me for years. Their personal touch is everything. Invest in your personal points of contacts and, even more importantly, make sure you have some. Automation isn’t always cost-effective.

I am a true believer in technology and social-media marketing, and it is actually quite exciting to see how quickly you can get your message out and how far-reaching it can be. This area is so important to me that I now employ a social-media company, a video company and content management system specialist to help me pull it all together. More new clients find us through Internet searches than through any other means.

I would suggest that one develop their website to be as fully functioning as possible. It is a very powerful tool that will build searchability, and that is the name of the game. Twitter and Facebook, of course, are part of my world now too, and Yelp has been a powerful tool.

Name a challenging time in your business — how did you get through it?

The entire first five years were very challenging. I came from the top salon brand in the world and had the top job there in the U.S. But, in hindsight, I realize I knew nothing about branding. I had a great clientele and so did the other four staff members that joined me. I naively thought that was all we needed. But I did not have my own brand. And more importantly I did not have a culture that was mine either. Everything we were about initially was borrowed from the old experience. It is not enough to do it better. You need to develop your own brand and your own culture, and that takes time.

You just expanded your business to another floor. How is this going for you? When did you know that it was time to expand?

We are so excited to have opened our garden-level cutting. We can now feature our talent in the window, comfortably so. The space and station design represents our continuous forward motion.

We knew we needed to expand when we started to run out of space on our second level. Our color department’s reputation has grown us to 10 of the city’s best colorists while simultaneously our cutting edge was dramatically growing our stylists all the way to 22. This is a far cry from the one colorist and four stylists that we opened with.

With the garden level we are able to accommodate the staff and client expansion without sacrificing the client attentiveness that is so very important to us.

What is your salon’s goal?

My salon goal is to continue to provide the most innovative salon services in the cleanest, most progressive of environments with the kindest, most talented staff in the industry.

That means I have to open new every day.

Any other comments/thoughts for up-and-coming female entrepreneurs?

Consider yourself first and foremost an entrepreneur. Leave gender out of the picture. Do I believe females work harder and longer to achieve success? You bet I do. But that is a fact, so don’t make it a campaign. Focus on your business. It will need all your energy and it will certainly pay off.

When the going gets tough, as it often does, look at it again with eyes as wide open as you had when you first started your journey. Treat every obstacle as an opportunity to learn something new about yourself and your company. You are the leader, always, and quitting is never an option.


Blagica Bottigliero (pronounced blah-gee-tsa) is a Chicago-based Emmy-winning blogger and digital media veteran (full bio here). She is a member of the Edelman Digital team, a division of Edelman. She comes from a family of small-business owners and, before joining Edelman, she launched several enterprises of her own.
Blagica's weekly posts on Enterprise City focus on women in entrepreneurship.