A few years after Charles Penzone launched his first hair salon, his attorney took him aside for a serious talk.
“My attorney, who is still my attorney, he would talk about long-term planning,” Penzone said recently. “And I said, ‘In my industry, you’re only hot for three years. Let’s not plan that far ahead.'”
Penzone chuckled. “Well, here we are.”
Half a century later, Penzone, now 73, is still in the business.
“I’m a second-generation Italian-American,” he said. “It was very common for us to go into barbering, beauty, construction, grocery. I had three male cousins in the industry as well. So it was just a natural segue — I was right out of high school and three weeks later was in cosmetology school. It was a normal thing.”
It might have been natural, but it wasn’t easy, at least not in the beginning.
“When I’m in schools, sharing the story, so many of the students didn’t know Charles Penzone started as a hair artist,” said Debbie Penzone, president and CEO of the Charles Penzone business and wife of the founder.
“Everyone thinks I was always Charles Penzone, the brand,” Charles Penzone added. “But when I got out of cosmetics school, I wasn’t a great hairstylist. I worked hard at it — I failed my first state board exam and was fired from my very first job. Yeah, it’s true. After 13 months of shampooing hair, I was fired a few weeks before Christmas.”
But Penzone persisted, and, in 1969, five years after graduating from cosmetology school, he obtained a bank loan for $500 and launched his first salon at Northwest Boulevard and Chambers Road (now the site of a dog spa).
“I inherited two stylists,” he said. “I basically took over the lease from a gentleman who was an interior designer. My stylists were two ladies who had been in the industry longer than I had been alive.”
The salon business was ripe for a new breed of entrepreneur. Penzone designed his salons to be not only fashionable but also comfortable. He also focused on developing his workforce, starting a training program for employees.
From the beginning, he made sure to charge a price that reflected all that attention to detail. A Dispatch story from 1992 reported that Penzone’s haircuts were “$100 a pop.”
Aggressively growing the business, Penzone opened more salons, always with an eye on expansion — and in 1991, opened his first Grand Salon.
Penzone’s original 18,000-square-foot Grand Salon in Dublin Village Center wasn’t just a beauty parlor but “a total beauty experience,” a deluxe supermarket of hair, body and skin-care services offered for the first time under one roof. The staff included 67 hairstylists, 24 receptionists, 14 manicurists, seven skin-care technicians, six massage therapists and nine pedicurists.
“We hit a speed bump in 1989 and nearly lost the company,” Penzone said. “I contacted Ohio State. I had heard their MBA program did case studies, and I was lucky to have five last-quarter MBA candidates study the feasibility of a grand salon.”
Penzone’s dream was to build the biggest beauty shop in the nation, perhaps the world.
“When I opened our first Grand Salon in 1991, I took my parents to see it while it was under construction,” he said. “It had been framed and roofed, and there was parking for 260 cars. I took them to the back of the parking lot, so my parents could see the largest salon in the world, and my mother said, ‘You described this to me when you were 16.'”
One of the young employees was a self-described “small-town girl from Springfield,” who eventually became Debbie Penzone.
“My instructor said she didn’t think I’d get hired. So I applied at a small salon, and a lady there brought me to Penzone to get an interview.”
Even though Debbie was 21 years younger, the two married in 1998.
“She has gone through every single stage,” from trainee to artistic director, training director, senior vice president and now president and CEO, her husband said.
In the past year, the business has undergone a transformation, with five of the six locations becoming Penzone Salon + Spa. (The German Village location is too small to include a spa and is called Penzone Salon.) Customers can spend essentially an entire day being pampered with hairstyling, manicures, pedicures, facials and massages, all while enjoying organic food and drinks and connecting with friends in a community space.
The concept is another Penzone success, said Stacey Soble, editor-in-chief of Salon Today magazine, in a statement.
“It seems anytime there is an innovative new idea in the salon and spa space, Charles Penzone is behind it,” Soble said. “They’re frequently an early adopter of salon technology, and they are always embracing wildly creative marketing approaches.”
Penzone shrugs off the praise.
“After 50 years, I get a lot of credit. However, we’ve probably employed 8,000 to 10,000 people who have contributed to making this brand every bit of what it is. To them, I want to say a big thank-you.”
So, what’s next?
The Penzones launched LIT Life & Yoga and the Royal Rhino Club Barbershop & Lounge in 2017 in Italian Village.
“Two new business models — that’s fun to watch,” he said.
“To be honest, I feel as excited about the company now as I did in 1969,” he said. “I am chairman of the board, and I’m not micromanaging anyone these days. It’s a pleasure and a joy to watch what’s going on with the care and feeding of the company I founded. I think the perpetuation of the company is in place.”