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Spa owners master the art of friendly competition
Dog-eared magazines disrupt the picture-perfect interior at Pure Joy Day Spa. Yet there they are: People, Elle and gossip rags stacked in the waiting lounge.
“They’re for the girls. We gossip about celebrities,” said spa owner Joy Nishikawa about her six employees dubbed “the girls.”
“I don’t like gossiping about clients. I always tell the girls I don’t like drama,” she said. “We provide a very private, personal type of service. We are not to talk about who comes and what they do.”
Playing well with others is how Nishikawa does business, a philosophy that worked in her favor in 2003 when she left her previous employer, Amparo Chaves Santiago, to start a competing spa across the street.
“Ampy,” owner of Ampy’s A Day Spa, was Nishikawa’s mentor and was like a mother to her.
In 1999, Nishikawa, a hotel concierge fresh out of college, walked into Ampy’s Spa one day and handed her résumé to Ampy, who offered to train Nishikawa together with her own college-aged daughter.
“I was trained with her daughter and was treated like her daughter,” Nishikawa said. “She treated me like a daughter and scolded me like a daughter.”
Under Ampy’s tutelage, Nishikawa started at the front desk, became an aesthetician and later a manager, learning every aspect of the business for three years.
‘Willingness to learn’
Ampy remembers Joy well.
“I always make sure that the person I’m giving all my talents to really deserves that position, and Joy had the ability and willingness to learn and has compassion. That’s very important,” said Ampy, who worked at the former Kahala Hilton’s spa for 14 years before opening her 15-room spa that now employs 30. She also runs Ampy’s Institute of Advanced Aesthetics.
“I tell them, ‘I don’t expect you to be with me for the rest of your life. I want you to go on,” she said. “It’s a blessing because mentoring is part of their success.”
Although Nishikawa was passionate about the health-and-beauty industry, the hours were grueling and left little time with her husband, Jason, who now is in real estate.
“I wanted to start a family,” she said.
In 2003, a European aesthetician across Kapiolani Boulevard in the Kenrock Building listed her 260-square-foot studio for sale. Nishikawa bought the studio with personal funds and a bank loan.
She continued working at Ampy’s for several weeks, laying the groundwork for her new company. But she didn’t tell anyone her plans. Especially not her clients.
“Even my co-workers didn’t know, just to avoid rumors and out of respect for Ampy,” she said.
Nishikawa left Ampy’s Spa that summer to open Joy’s European Facials, taking over the previous owner’s 30 clients. She kept a low profile and allowed new and former clients to find her through word-of-mouth.
Ampy’s reaction? Supportive.
“It was bittersweet,” Nishikawa said, “because she was in my position 30 years ago at Kahala, where she wanted to make the best for her family, too.”
By December 2003, Nishikawa’s appointment book had a 10-page waiting list. Saturdays “were gone for a year.” She also trained a new employee to take over while she went on maternity leave with her newborn daughter, Miya.
The need for a larger studio became clear by 2005. Through a client, Nishikawa found a 1,000-square-foot location at 705 S. King St. and poured $150,000 into new equipment and renovations, including new plumbing and four private rooms.
Clients appreciate that the spa is not in a mall or hotel.
“You don’t want the world to see you after your treatment,” she said. “We keep it private and try to keep our appointments apart so you don’t see too many people at one time.”
Clients, numbering between 400 and 500, run the gamut from teenagers to high-profile businessmen in their 50s, to grandmothers in their 80s, she said. The 90-minute Pure Glow Facial for $115 is the most popular treatment.
Nishikawa does not plan to have multiple locations and hundreds of employees. Conservative growth is her strategy.
Gross annual sales, which have doubled annually since 2005, are just under $1 million.
“Balance is the key to life. I have a good balance right now,” Nishikawa said. “I can spend time with my family and the girls can, too.”
As a business owner, her biggest challenge is balancing high costs with taking care of employees and her girls — three facialists, two massage therapists and a hair and make-up artist. All are full-time and receive health-care benefits.
The spa also uses high-end skin-care products: Jan Marini and Methode Physiodermie from Switzerland. Although they are costly, switching brands isn’t an option.
“I know that if I use good stuff on customers, they’ll get good results and come back,” Nishikawa said.
Electricity and water costs have increased, and overall business expenses have jumped at least 15 percent annually over the past three years, forcing Nishikawa’s girls to be creative without affecting services. They cut paper towels in half, look for fabric-softener sales and transfer final drops of skin-care products into tiny vials.
“That’s two more applications per bottle,” she said.
Meantime, the spa continues attracting new clients through word-of-mouth. It rolled out a new service this summer: private bookings for bridal parties.
Nishikawa says she has moments when she reflects on Ampy’s guidance. Every year, she wishes her former mentor a happy birthday and occasionally leaves messages just to thank her for introducing her to the field.
Opening a competing business after training under a mentor.
• Don’t burn bridges. Leave your former employer on a positive note.
• Don’t tell anyone where you’re going. Make clients and former colleagues find you.
• Don’t expand too fast. Take baby steps and be conservative.
• Be nice to employees. Treat them like family.