Pacific Northwest haircut chain The Barbers is celebrating 20 years in operation this month. The family-owned company began with a single barbershop in east Vancouver specializing in men’s style haircuts and grew to 34 locations across two states.
The company plans to commemorate the milestone with an all-day anniversary event June 1 at the original location at 1900 N.E. 162nd Ave., offering free food, drinks, music, prizes and half-price haircuts, as well as a fund-raising partnership with the West Columbia Gorge Humane Society.
The company was founded by Vancouver residents Alison and Don Lovell, who continue to operate its stores along with a group of franchise partners. The original location has been joined by nine more shops in Clark County, with a few more in Spokane and the remainder in Oregon.
The company employs more than 350 barbers and averages about 2,500 haircuts per month at each shop, according to Don Lovell, for a total of just under a million haircuts per year for the whole company, serving over 750,000 clients each year.
The Lovells opened the first store in May 1999, drawing on their extensive experience in the hair industry — Alison as a hairdresser and Don on the sales and operations side.
They developed the Barbers concept in response to a pair of industry trends at the time: the widespread use of a contracting business model in which individual barbers would essentially rent workstations from salons and barbershops, and the decline of independent mom-and-pop barbershops, which left men with fewer places to go for simple haircuts.
“Guys were getting their haircuts at salons,” Alison says.
The Lovells saw an opening for a business model that would provide a traditional barbershop experience for men and provide full employment for barbers. They decided to open their first shop as part of the 162nd Place shopping center, which was under construction a few miles from their house.
It took some work to convince builder Gramor Development to take a chance on the untested idea of a barbershop for men, Alison says. But the new shop quickly took off. The Lovells ended up opening their next few shops in Gramor developments in Battle Ground and other Clark County locations.
Alison took the lead designing the shop interiors, settling on a wood-and-metal aesthetic with cement floors, open ceilings and a paint and decoration scheme that evoked the feeling of a retro barbershop. They also included old-school features like a popcorn machine, free soda and shoulder massages after the haircuts.
The design worked well, and the Lovells have stuck with it at subsequent shops, making only a few changes over the years. TVs have been added at each station, along with a full lineup of sinks instead of just two at the back of the store. Some of the larger locations also include a pool table.
The first stores used refurbished vintage barber chairs, Alison says, but many of them proved to be too tall for some of the stylists. So the chain switched to custom modern chairs with a standardized design.
But aside from that, the look and feel of each new Barbers shop hews very close to the model laid out by the original location.
The Barbers tried to focus on suburban markets in the early years, Don says, because that’s where they felt the decline of mom-and-pop shops had created the biggest lack of service. Most of the new stores still aim for the suburbs, although some have also opened in central Portland.
The suburban locations give each shop opportunities to become involved in the surrounding community and take on a “neighborhood barbershop” role, and that’s an aspect the Lovells say they’ve consistently tried to push, with frequent sponsorships and participation in charity events such as a food drive for the Portland Police Bureau’s charitable Sunshine Division.
They also take a community approach to advertising, Alison says, by printing T-shirts for local youth sports teams and other organizations with the Barbers logo on the back.
The Lovells formed their first franchise partnership after five years in the business, when their friends Kim and Barry Spiegelberg offered to begin operating Barbers locations in Washington County, Ore.
Two more franchise partners joined in subsequent years: John and Connie Oljar, who focused on the Clackamas County, Ore. area and Dan Dickau, the former standout NBA player with numerous local ties who set up four shops in Spokane. The partners were already friends with the Lovells, who remained heavily involved in designing the new shops and teaching the business model.
The employment model has remained consistent at all the shops — the barbers are employees rather than contractors, with paid vacations, health care benefits and access to company-wide training events. But they’re still encouraged to build their own following of customers, Don says, and each store’s front counter has business cards for every employee.
The result has been a consistent record of employee retention, Don says. He attributes to that retention to the company’s success because it ensures customers keep coming back to visit their preferred barbers.
“The biggest problem in our industry is turnover,” Don says. “Barbers are always searching for better money. We have a lot of managers and barbers who have been with us 15 years — that’s why it works, because they stay.”
The growth rate has been slow but steady over the chain’s 20 years. And the Lovells say it’s been consistent even in the midst of the recession that began in 2008, which didn’t lead to a drop in business.
Future of The Barbers
The Lovells say they aren’t actively looking to add more franchise partners. They prefer to keep the company’s growth at a slow and organic rate that allows them to remain closely involved, evaluating potential new stores on a case-by-case basis.
“We don’t have the desire to be 500 barbershops,” Alison says.
The company has stayed in the family — not only because the franchisees are close friends, but because Don and Allison’s children, Olivia and Alex, grew up in the haircut industry and are taking on new roles in The Barbers. Alex has his barbers license and Olivia handles the company’s marketing and human resources sides.
Some of the oldest Barbers shops are also taking on a family role among customers, Alison says, because they’ve been around long enough to become multi-generational.
“There are guys that I cut when they were little kids at the very first shop who now bring their kids in,” she says. “That’s been fun.”
The Lovells were among the pioneers of the “barbershop for men” business model in the Pacific Northwest, but these days they’re not the only ones pursuing it — national chains such as Sport Clips have expanded into Oregon and Washington, and there’s competition from local chains including Rooks Barbershop.
But the Lovells say they’re confident that there are, as Don puts it, “plenty of heads” — and that their business and employment model will continue to serve them well.
“What we’ve done is maintain what we originally started,” he says.