Expert Advice

Choose Beauty: Kelly Cardenas

Victoria Wurdinger | July 10, 2011 | 11:49 PM
If you want to make it big, go all-in. Kelly Cardenas, who started with zip, ought to know.

Choose Beauty: Kelly Cardenas
Cardenas works with the staff of his co-owned Chicago salon two days a month. They patronize businesses like The Four Seasons restaurant, to experience topnotch service.

Kelly Cardenas is a happy, positive guy. A really happy, positive guy. And why not? He has a great family, two namesake salons (Chicago and Las Vegas), an advanced academy and a great career. But don’t think: “big shot.” His mind is on turning his employees into millionaires and creating an incredible client experience.

Cardenas grew up in tiny Lompoc, California, where he, his mom and two brothers slept on mattresses on the floor of a one-bedroom apartment. Even as a child, he had joie de vivre: His favorite memory is when his mother made a baseball out of sewn-together socks because she couldn’t afford to buy one. Back then, money was so tight, it was either mom’s “one-finger” hair cut or try clippers on himself, which got him hooked on hairdressing at the age of 13.

“I wanted to control my own cool factor; I was really competitive,” recalls Cardenas.

Dread Head

Later, at Santa Monica Beauty College, where he loved socializing but found clinic clients were “mostly Golden Girls,” his hair was subjected to more experimentation. Adding red over bleached hair, then trying to shampoo it out led to “looking like a gigantic pumpkin … I don’t know why I never thought of re-coloring it.”

Choose Beauty: Kelly Cardenas
John Paul Dejoria, CEO of John Paul Mitchell Systems and Kelly Cardenas.

Today, he sports dreadlocks, which came about when he permed his much-beleaguered hair with pipe cleaners, and it locked on its own.

Working and following Jeanne Braa and then Robert Cromeans, at hair shows, he’d sit in front and pass Cromeans his card, which eventually led to him being hired at Cromeans’ Santa Monica salon. In barely a year, he was promoted to director and started doing platform work. Later, he opened both Cromeans’ Las Vegas operations.

Kelly’s Surprising Secrets

Favorite Pastime: “Bowling! My highest score is 267.”
Guilty Pleasure: “I used to lock the doors, close the curtains and play Spice World on PlayStation.”
Nickname: In the 4th grade, Cardenas was a break dancer named Baby Fresh. “I was pretty good back in the day.”
Commission or Salary?
Commission. “In no other business can you decide to double your income next week by working harder.”
Bucket List: Open a salon in every state, make my first millionaire stylist, go on the Pro Bowler’s tour, appear on Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry.

After 10 years, the two parted ways over a management decision, but they remain close. In fact, once every six weeks, Cardenas works at Cromeans’ Santa Monica location; he was invited back for his energy.

Creating a Brand

In his own operations, Cardenas likes to hire for young minds (not the same as chronological age). When he needs inspiration, he gets with his beginners, who have yet to learn limitations. They all wear black and need approval for cut and color changes. Why?

“They have to attract real-life clients, who may get turned off by aggressive looks,” says Cardenas. “Once they’re well-established, they can change their look or introduce tattoos, which must be covered until then.”

From home-base Las Vegas, Cardenas travels to Chicago and San Diego regularly. His advanced academies are held four times a year in Chicago, Vegas and two other “super-cool cities,” like Honolulu. He’s successful and busy, yet predictably, he only gets his brag on when he talks about his staff: How one just bought a house on a stylist’s income and another, when stuck out of town with no rental, went out and bought a car.

“The most satisfying part of my job is seeing others grow—not just professionally but as good husbands, wives and community members,” notes Cardenas. His advice to struggling stylists is: Go all in. Too many have distracting second jobs, he says. Which brings him to his favorite saying: Commitment eliminates options.

Choose Beauty: Kelly Cardenas
Cardenas’ dreadlocks became his brand identity.

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