by Angie Kay Dilmore
Melinda Tilley was born and raised in Moss Bluff, the youngest of five children and the only girl. After high school graduation in 1984, she went to Louisiana College in Pineville, La. on a full scholarship and planned to major in social work, but after one day on campus, she returned home. Ultimately, she became an unexpected type of “social” worker – a hairstylist and businesswoman. After a few years of experience, she opened her own salon, and in January 2020, she opened The Ritz Academy, an Aveda Concept School. Thrive magazine recently caught up with Tilley, where she shared her thoughts on caring for her employees, changes in the beauty industry over the years, and making the transition from hairstylist to businesswoman.
What exactly happened after that one day at college that prompted you to become a stylist?
I went to work for my dad, and one day he fussed about something, so to make myself feel better I called my hairstylist. Debra always made me feel good. In her salon, I saw an ad for a cosmetology school, and I thought, “I could just be Debra!” I signed up at a local cosmetology school and immediately knew this was where I was supposed to be. After graduation, I moved to New Orleans to do an internship as an assistant to a prominent hairstylist. While there, I went back to school for my cosmetology instructor’s license. Shortly after my apprenticeship in 1987, I knew I wanted to be close to family, so I moved back to Lake Charles to start building my own clientele. A friend of my family owned The Ritz at the time, and she offered me a job.
Describe the course of your career from that point.
In 1995, the opportunity arose for me to purchase The Ritz. At that point, I started building my team. Of course, I had stylists come and go, but I was blessed to have what I call my core four, who stayed with me through so much. We’d been renting on Lake Street for years when the opportunity arose in 2013 to purchase the property on Lake Street where we’re currently located. I promised myself I would do everything in my power to give these four stylists the best future I could. This promise significantly changed my business model. I started attending business classes and making small but powerful changes in our daily operations. I began cutting back from behind the chair and focusing on the growth of the stylists. I realized I cannot be all things to all people. Having a salon manager and a creative director on board means all staff has support whom they can reach out to for any issue. We now have eight stylists, one esthetician, one guest service coordinator and a salon manager, as well as inegratIV Hydration nurses in the salon a few days a week.
I understand The Ritz has won some awards?
Yes, we’ve won Best of SWLA for the last five years, Salon Today magazine’s Top 200 Salons in 2020, and named a VoMor Champion Salon for hair extensions in 2020. Our next goal is to be named a Seven Figure salon 2022.
What prompted you to open a cosmetology school?
In 2017, while touring potential cosmetology schools for my daughter, from the Woodlands to Lafayette, I realized how much more was available. I returned to the salon and talked to my stylists there and the dream to open a cosmetology school was born. In January 2020, The Ritz Academy, an Aveda Concept school was opened. We are a full-service salon and spa open to the public for luxury services at school prices.
I originally planned to split my time between the salon and academy, but COVID-19 changed that. With the CDC guidelines, hair salon chairs had to be eight feet apart. That cut our work staff in half. We had two teams and they alternated days. I would have had to let someone go in order to add myself to the schedule.
However, the academy is growing much faster than our business plan originally forecasted. We started with two instructors, myself, and one support person. We currently have six instructors, two support people, and myself. At the beginning of 2021 we added on two more classrooms and a lab for our esthetics department. We have had 20 estheticians and 10 cosmetologists graduate already. We currently have 10 estheticians and 31 cosmetologists enrolled.
How have you managed the shift from hairstylist to cosmetology school owner?
When I was behind the chair, I can honestly say it never felt like work. My clients were never just clients – we grew up together, raised our kids together, and enjoyed our grandchildren together. I miss my clients. Most had been with me for 20-30 years! Being at the school full time is different than the salon, you can’t have the same relationship with students that you have with guests, but it is so rewarding. I love teaching the students that it’s not just about hair and skin but about building lasting relationships with guests, which is the greatest reward of this career choice!
What changes have you witnessed in the beauty industry over the decades?
When I first started, we had a paper appointment book and four phones on the wall. We took turns answering the phone while doing hair and fought over walk-ins. Today’s world is completely different. My salon manager, Sara Martin, and our creative director, Mary Camille King, and myself have committed to change the industry standards in Lake Charles. We provide our stylists a career where they can have a work/family balance and live abundantly. We promote them on social media and have upgraded our booking system to better support them. We now close every other Saturday to allow them more family time. We offer apprenticeships to all new hires and share our knowledge with them. We offer our stylists a healthy environment to work in, continuing education, paid short term disability, 401K, and paid vacation.
What do you do in your free time, when you can find it?
I love to spend time with my grandchildren. They are the BEST!!
List three things you most want your clients and Thrive readers to know. Blondes do not always have more fun, long hair is not pretty if it’s not healthy, and you should wash your hair once a week whether you need it or not.
What’s next for Melinda Tilley?
My personal goal is to be able to start cutting back from the academy to spend more time with family, especially my grands. They are growing up so fast.