Gina Lillie is the regional director of a chain of salons that has cut more than 500 million heads of hair in the past two decades.
But don’t ask Lillie to trim your tresses.
Lillie, who sports beautician-scissor earrings while swiveling on a barber chair, can’t cut hair herself.
“I passed the Supercuts course, but I was only an average student. My mannequin’s hair was lopsided,” she said unapologetically. “It’s really difficult to give someone a great haircut.”
Lillie, six-term director of Supercuts Franchisee Board, owns all six Supercuts salons in Spokane, Coeur d’Alene and Wenatchee. Although she bought her first Spokane franchise in 1981 purely as an investment, she has since adopted cosmetology as her No. 1 cause.
Cosmetologists - beauticians or hair stylists to lay people - are among the most underpaid and unrespected professionals in America, Lillie said. Most toil long hours entirely on commission and rarely receive health care benefits.
Lillie’s out to change that.
She ensures that all of her 97 stylists receive a minimum of $7 per hour before tips. Her top-grossing stylist earns more than $30,000 per year. All full-time workers receive insurance benefits, on-the-job training and optional management training.
“I want cosmetology to be known as a viable career where professionals can earn a decent living and know that their work will be respected and valued,” said Lillie, who won the 1993 Supercuts franchisee of the year award.
Lillie’s unwavering admiration for hair stylists does not stem from a particularly fabulous, $9 Supercuts haircut or eyebrows spared from a red-hot curling iron. As she opened more franchises and hired more beauticians, she simply came to respect her employees.
“The stylist has to be a psychologist and friend and a critic. You have to be able to touch people, both physically and emotionally. Then, when you’re finished, the patient looks and feels better,” she said during an interview at her Lincoln Heights store.
In addition to offering competitive pay and benefits, Lillie hopes to raise the nation’s cosmetology consciousness by providing the profession with a political voice. In June, she represented cosmetologists and franchisees as a Washington state delegate to the White House Conference on Small Business.
She’s also one of the founding members of the Spokane chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners. She has served as speaker at the 1995 Rural Women’s Health Conference, as well as the 1994 National Cosmetology Association Annual Convention. She’s also been the featured speaker at seminars at colleges in Idaho and Colorado.
Lillie, who worked as operations supervisor at United Airlines for five years before opening Supercuts, hopes to provide an example to women who are considering opening their own businesses. She offers employees - 97 percent of whom are women - the chance to attend a 60-hour management session. The classes are designed to help them become a franchisee or district supervisor.
But as much as she loves her job, she admits that franchise ownership is often trying. The first months of ownership are particularly difficult, she said.
“The myth of owning a franchise is that it’s less risky and that you don’t have to understand the community. That’s wrong,” Lillie said. “If you don’t tailor your business to the neighborhood, the franchisor will not save you.”
So Lillie tries to make Supercuts synonymous with community activism.
The company has become the largest local sponsor of the Multiple Sclerosis Walk and has won six awards for community service. This year stylists cut more than 200 heads of hair in Riverfront Park at Hoopfest; at Ag Expo they trimmed the tresses of 95 farmers next to combine and tractor displays.
Supercuts also volunteers haircuts at the Spokane County Juvenile Detention Center and gives a free haircut every month to the Jefferson Elementary School outstanding citizen.
“If you can’t give back to the community you work in, why bother?” Lillie asked.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo