Once a Hair Salesman and Beauty Supply Manager
; the Joys, Sorrows, and Dreams of Retail Store Owner
Soo-duk Kim, 53, owner of Beauty Supply of four years, worked as a hair salesman and beauty supply manager before opening his own store. He has been creating a success story since 2017 by founding Beauty Supply in a small city in Tennessee where the majority of residents are white. The adversity he had during his salesman and manager years has paradoxically become the underdog for success in the present. Although it has not been long since he started his business with small capital, he is now dreaming of taking a bigger leap forward by quickly stabilizing his business and preparing to open his second store. BNB interviewed him about his work, life, and his dreams of the future.
Nashville, a city of music located in the center of Tennessee. If you drive about 20 minutes north from there, there is a small, simple town called Gallatin. Gallatin is a place where various business opportunities are being created due to the recent increase in population and growth of the town. The population, which was 30,000 10 years ago, has now exceeded 40,000. The White population is 77.8% and the Black population is 14%. In recent years, there has been a growing number of African Americans moving here to avoid Nashville’s expensive housing costs and high crime rates.
Kim Soo-duk, 53, opened “Dream Hair World Beauty Supply” here four years ago in May 2017. It is a typical, average shop of 4,000 sf in the city’s core commercial area. Three years after founding, he paid off all his debts and quickly stabilized his business. Now, since money is piling up one by one, he plans to reinvest it by preparing for a second store, instead of spending it in vain.
For His Fragile Daughter
In 2008, Kim Soo-duk received a work visa as a salesman for a hair company, and brought his wife, Lee In-kyung, 50, and their two children, a son and a daughter, to America.
Due to her daughter’s poor health in Korea, he decided to immigrate in search of a better natural environment.
“In Korea, my daughter caught the cold so frequently that we had to visit the hospital more than 60 times a year.”
“I felt so sorry for her, and my heart was so heavy because she was born so fragile.”
His daughter, who was so fragile, came to the United States and grew up healthy and entered college this year. She actually grew healthy enough to become the same height as her father, who has a pretty big physique.
“I came to the U.S. on a work visa and I had a lot of trouble with identity instability, but fortunately, the children are healthy. That’s the biggest reward.”
Hair Salesman Days were so Hard
After coming to the U.S., the hair sales job was hard beyond imagination.
“I had to endure ridiculously low salaries and long hours of work because of the shackles of my H1 visa status. I was abused.”
Eventually, he gave up midway and came out of the company. Then he was faced with immigration status problems and economic difficulties. ”It was a really tough time,” he recalls.
Shortly after leaving the hair company, he took a job as a manager at a beauty supply in Nashville, where he was offered a green card sponsor, and worked with his wife there for seven years. He obtained Permanent Residence after 5 years.
From Beauty Supply Manager to Owner
He ended his seven-year manager career and established his current store in 2017 independently. This was also a decision for his children.
“As my children grew up, they had to spend a lot of money on college and so on, and I couldn’t afford it with my manager’s salary. Rather, I had to use up the money I had saved, so I decided to set up my own store before it was all gone.”
Opening a New Store Rather than Taking Over an Existing One
Rather than taking over an existing store, Mr. Kim chose to set up a new store himself.
“Since I was the the manager, I knew clearly about the inventory in the existing store. If I bought an existing store, I had to take all the piled-up stock that wasn’t selling well, and I didn’t like that. So I decided to open a new store and fill up the inventory to my liking, although it would be a hard path.”
Loyalty to Salesmen and Wholesalers
Kim said that when he opened up a new shop and filled the inventory, he received so much help from Salesmen and Wholesale companies. He didn’t have enough capital, so he was digging one hole to fill another to pay his debt. He says he will never forget the grace of the salesman and wholesale company who gave him goods on credit, and will keep his loyalty to the end.
“I paid off all my debts in three years since I opened my business. When I got money, I didn’t waste it elsewhere, I paid for my credit debt first, and then poured it into ordering more items.”
“I couldn’t get to where I am now without the help of the salesmen. They gave me the goods on credit and waited for me, so I was able to set up and run the store. The same goes for the company that the salesmen belongs to. The salesmen didn’t decide to do this for me all on their own, right? I could never forget what they’ve did for me. I always put their order first. I never abandon the companies that helped me.”
Goods Equal Money
His 4,000 sf shop is filled with items from floor to ceiling.
Warehouses, offices, and even the bathroom are overflowing with boxes of goods. He has a storage near the store, and it is said that it is no exception, too.
He kept piling things up when he made money.
“You need goods in order to make business. Goods Equal Money. You can’t sell what you don’t have.”
“We’ve got enough stuff, so now I want to launch the second store as fast as possible. The store is too small right now.”
The Cosmo Prof Store Next Door is a Win-Win Relationship, not a Competition
Dream Hair World is, strangely, right next to Cosmo Prof, a national beauty product chain store. It’s the same beauty business, what’s going on here?
“When I was trying to contract a beauty supply store here, the Cosmo Prof store wasn’t right next door, but it was running on a small scale in this mall. When they heard that our store was coming in, there was a lot of opposition because it was the same type of business. Cosmo Prof is mainly sells to white beauticians, so I convinced them that our business area is different.”
After Mr. Kim set up the store, Cosmo Prof, which had only white customers, said that there was a growing number of African American customers. That must’ve been the reason why they moved. After some time, Cosmo Prof expanded and moved right next door.
“After that, white customers come to our store and sometimes take charge of the day’s sales. They don’t care about the price of clip-in hair extentions, so they buy expensive ones. There are many cases where one person buys about $ 1,000 at a time.”
Actually, Mr. Kim was well aware of the characteristics of white customers since his time as a manager, so he was able to strategically choose a city where white people were the majority.
To Grow an Employee, You must Pay a Reasonable Price for Their Work
“When I was a manager, there were many times when I had to do extra work because an employee didn’t show up. Inevitably, there would be a lot of workload. But there are very few owners who share the salary of the employees who don’t come to work with the rest of the employees who work instead of them. That’s when the employees’ complaints pile up.”
Mr. Kim said that he knows employee’s complaints since he’s been in that position, so he doesn’t forget to give his employees benefits.
“If one in three employees don’t come to work, the people who do come has to do extra work. You don’t have to give them all of the salary of an employee who doesn’t come. But you could give them at least 20% of their salary. Most owners don’t even do that, though.”
“If my wife and I sometimes go out to do things or leave the store, (pointing to Christiy) that employee is in charge. In that case, since she does everything by herself, I give her a bonus- it’s what I wanted to get in the old days. If I can’t give her 100%, I give her at least 50%. I give it to her even if she refuses it. And I pay 1.5 times the hourly rate on Sundays.”
A Total Wreck without Staff During the Pandemic
“We were badly affected by the lack of staff during the Pandemic. When I was doing curbside business for a month during the shutdown order, I ran up and down about 10 times from one end to another in this store to sell braids to a single customer. The sales went down as well. But I was grateful and happy to do business at that difficult time.”
“I couldn’t take a day off for a month because the staff didn’t come out. I literally flew. I sold little things like eyelashes in front of the store. Everything was, in short, a wreck.
The Reason of Store #2
Mr. Kim says the uncertain economic outlook after the pandemic is unsettling. Nevertheless, there were three reasons why he was preparing store 2.
First, the current shop is too small. Second, it is necessary to grow buying power. Third, the prospect of beauty supply business is bright in the future.
“The salesmen in the old times had “Jung(Korean cultural emotion: warm connection with others)”. They were friendly with each other, the owners and salesmen were like brothers. Sometimes, when the owner left the store, the salesman would look after the store a little while. But now the salesmen threaten to not give me goods if I don’t order a particular item. It’s infuriating. I mean, not all salesmen… but nowadays, you need to have buying power to not get mistreated.”
“Even if you go out of business, beauty supply leaves something. Restaurants, for example, need to buy expensive machines, and when you go out of business, you need to pay in order to throw those away. But if beauty supply is going out of business, you could sell inventory by giving lots of discount. Inventory can be disposed of somehow. Or you could give them to other store owners with a deal.”
“This is a business that can draw a lot of profit compared to other business. It’s often said that hair leaves 2 times, wigs 3 times, chemicals 1.5 to 1.7 times, and sundries 2 times the profit. Sometimes some items can profit up to 3-4 times the cost. This is a 30-40% margin, even if you subtract all the operating costs.”
“Some people look down on this job, but there is no ‘class’ in jobs. No job is less noble than others. Of course, there are many cases of business in dangerous places…But how noble did we live? How many Koreans have been successful in the mainstream of the U.S.? Beauty Supply is a tough job, but it’s not bad.”
From Manager to Owner
Mr. Kim says that as a owner of a store, it is difficult to manage inventory and people.
“You have to be careful when a manager who was in charge of ordering things in a big store sets up a store themselves. As they did in the big store, they might order too much stuff in their own small store and suffer from it.”
As we listened, we noticed loads of boxes in the office where we are interviewing Mr. Kim.
“It’s also hard to manage employees. Sometimes employees ignore me because of language problems. An employee who doesn’t keep promises later makes an excuse that he didn’t understand what I said. Then I have to give up and do it myself.”
What to prepare for the 2nd store opening?
Mr. Kim says that he needs a trustworthy employee to prepare the second store. He has a manager who he trusts, and he is going to leave it to her.
“You need a manager you could trust and someone that knows the business and customers’ characteristics, so it would be better if that someone is African American or Korean. However, there are no Koreans here. I’m going to give Christy (45) employee training, salary payments, and dismissal rights. She was originally a MacDonald’s manager, and she’s bright, sincere, and has great work ethics.”
“Wouldn’t it be possible if you paid your employees a high salary and make them feel that it’s better to work here than elsewhere? Even if I take less money for myself, I want to create a good working environment with a higher salary.”
“So, when the management system is settled in the beauty supply industry, it will become a business that can be managed systematically and can be passed down to our children later.
“I’m going to continue to increase stores in the future. And when the time comes, I’m going to hand the store over to a trusted manager or salesman. Even if they don’t have the money to take over right away, I am sure they can pay it off little by little.”
Dilemmas of Business Expansion — No Damage to Other Stores
Mr. Kim is thinking of increasing stores but is very careful not to damage other existing stores.
“When you set up store No. 1, they understand. Store No. 1 is a job you need to live on. However, the second store is for more money, and the third is to build strength. It’s not just a necessary means of income, so stores around you will keep you in check. That’s why I’m being careful. We try to look for a place for store No. 2 that minimizes the damage to existing stores.”
Anything you want to say?
“The society is getting colder and more stone-hearted. Competitive stores antagonize each other. It’s so lonely. It’s also painful to be in the middle of an antagonistic relationship. I want them all to be friendly and united. It may not be possible until the next generation but… I want to help each other out and make donations… it won’t make a huge difference, but I’ll try to make an example first.”