Forget cosmetology school. Fifty beauty shop operators spent this week at a UCLA graduate school learning how to cut it in the hair salon business.
But there were no scissors, brushes or blow-dryers in sight at the UCLA Anderson School of Management.
Instead, hairstylists combed through lessons in operational strategy and financial accounting -- topics that, to many, might seem to be plenty dry already.
They took careful notes as professor David Lewin lectured on leadership styles, the concept of time-versus-error and the relationship of diversity to value.
"There's so much I don't know," said Marlene Gadinis, who runs an 8-year-old styling salon in San Diego. "I know now that if I just stay the way I am, I could come to the end of the line very quickly."
Gadinis has a high school education along with her cosmetology training. From the back row of the university lecture hall, she told of how her need to better organize her 30-person staff "crystallized last month" when one key worker quit without warning.
"I almost wasn't able to come up here because of that," she said of the upheaval caused by the sudden departure.
Rookie salon operator Lena Patton, whose background is in computer software, likewise had no idea what she was in for when she went into the beauty business with her daughter in Sacramento.
"My perception was that salons were a lot of independent technicians who ran the business informally from behind their chairs," Patton said. That view faded fast when her daughter took a leave of absence because of illness and Patton had to run the place by herself. "That's when reality hit me."
About 50 salon operators from as far away as South Africa and New Zealand attended the weeklong course, which ended Friday with a "graduation" ceremony. Half of the $5,000-per-student tuition was underwritten by a hair products firm.
An industry group, Business Education for Salons Today, hopes to stage several UCLA sessions a year for beauty shop operators, said Kristin Firrell, the group's executive director. Beauty salons are a $140-billion-a-year global business, fueled mostly by small shops, she said.
"The salon industry tends to attract young, artsy types with technical and artistic backgrounds truly unready to deal with customers -- not knowing how to build and manage and retain a customer base," she said.
Stylists move frequently, taking their regulars with them.
"They'll go down the street with their customers and open their own little shop," she said. "Hundreds, thousands of salons are barely making it."
Lecturers moved at a fast clip through this week's lessons. Class sessions lasted nearly 12 hours some days.
Anderson School leaders acknowledged that there were some arched eyebrows when the program was proposed.
But, said Senior Associate Dean Alfred E. Osborne Jr., "no one has to talk down to this group. I think whatever skepticism you had disappears when you meet them and realize they are running significant businesses."
Rob Norton of San Francisco -- sporting an ice-blue Mohawk -- left the campus Friday with ideas he hopes will give his 10-month-old salon a financial makeover. He initially set his stylists' commissions too high, he learned at UCLA. "When you first open, you're trying to make rent and payroll, and you forget why you're doing it," he said.
No matter how blue, a salon owner should never have to pull out his hair to make ends meet.