QUALITY WORK AND LOYAL CUSTOMERS have helped beautician Gay Zander stay in business through more than one economic recession during the past 50 years. Elvamae Lewis, 98, of La Grande has been going to Gay for her hair care for the past 20 years. TRISH YERGES photo
Gay Zander of La Grande knows what it takes for a small business to survive through all economic climates.
This month she marks her 50th year operating as a beautician and now under the assumed business name of The Mode Beauty Salon.
Gay began her career in 1961 when she received a scholarship to attend a 14-month program at the Eugene Beauty College in Eugene. She returned to her home in this county and brought with her two business principles she learned in school:(1) professional hands are never idle and (2) no matter what—the customer is always right.
She put her newfound education into practice, working at several existing businesses including the Union Hotel where she learned to manage a salon.
“Work ethics were different in the 1960s,” said Gay. “People were dedicated to their jobs and respectful of others. In those years, I cut hair for $2.50. A shampoo/set was an additional $2.50 and perms were $15.”
Her clientele was built by word of mouth, which meant her cuts and styling had to be impressive enough to spawn new business. Gay’s clientele included teachers and others with secure jobs. To accommodate those clients, she worked a lot of after-hours.
Eventually, Gay worked for Marge Gillespie who had purchased The Mode Beauty Salon, an existing woman-owned business originally established by Marge Batrick. The salon was moved to the remodeled Wright’s Drug Store space on Adams Avenue, and there Gay worked for 11 years before she purchased the business and its recognized name.
As its owner, Gay made a bold business decision that set a trend for other salons in La Grande.
“I was the first salon in La Grande to go with independent contracting,” said Gay. “Instead of having a commission, the hair operators were all independent contractors. I didn’t have to supply their hair supplies. The operators took care of that themselves.”
Working with a 40 percent share, Gay was able to pay all her business expenses.
“I never once had to borrow money from my husband to pay for anything,” said Gay.
At one point, 11 operators were working as independent contractors at her place of business. It was a thriving salon. Gay alone took care of 30 clients a week at the peak of her career there. Then she made another wise business decision—she did the bookkeeping on a daily basis. She chose a simple bookkeeping method and stuck with it.
Over the last five decades she has seen what recessions have done to this kind of service business.
“People forego hair cuts during hard times,” said Gay, “but I never saw the slack because my regular clients had steady jobs.”
She didn’t intentionally target clients with steady jobs, but each client she had was a walking advertisement for her work and word got around. Gay also held to some 1960s business principles that have served her well for the past 50 years.
“If you want to build a business, you better be dependable and be here at your place of business for your customers,” she said. “That means being flexible with your day. Also, friendliness is very important. We love our ladies and make them feel special, and we don’t gossip.”
Gay has reached out to serve all family members, making her salon as comfortable as a family living room. Whether it’s a soft couch, a magazine, coffee or the television, everyone is pampered and comfortable.
At times, Gay has chosen to offer free hair cuts for kids going back to school. She has raised a family of her own and knows that back-to-school expenses often pinch the family budget. Business generosity is ultimately good for business too.
“I’ve always charged less than everyone else to keep it family affordable,” said Gay.
She also recommends continued education and learning from co-workers with more experience.
“I had some great teachers over the years,” said Gay. “They taught me better ways of doing things.”
In 1988, Gay sold her business but kept the business name and remained working. She joined the Alley Barbershop, 1414 Adams Avenue in 2006—possibly the last business move in her long career.
“My next move is probably going to be home,” said Gay.
Until then, Gay’s clients value her 50-year-old business ethics and remain loyal customers. Gay can be found at her work early in the morning, smiling and making her customers feel special and look beautiful.
“I’m very fortunate to have had some wonderful, wonderful ladies to work for,” said Gay.