“It’s not about whether you’re a man or a woman; it’s about the length of your hair.” So says Leigh Feldman, the newly-appointed CEO of the entrepreneurial hair salon business Bishops that now has 50 sites across the US. “We’re tolerant unless you’re intolerant,” Feldman says of the ethos of Bishops, which has grown in large part thanks to its embrace of community and inclusivity.

The business traces its origins to 2001, when founder Leo Rivera realised he was fed up with the hair salons in his home town of Portland; they either charged hundreds of dollars for a high-end treatment or a bargain-basement price for a cut that left him embarrassed to go out in public.

Rivera sought to exploit the gap in the market with a new salon that would offer high-quality haircuts but at nowhere near the prices charged at the top end. To differentiate the business, he wanted Bishops to be unisex and he was determined it would reflect its community, installing local artists’ work in the salon, for example, playing local musicians’ records, and welcoming customers with a drink.

The shop took off overnight and Rivera started to open new branches of Bishops in other US towns and cities. The expansion really began to accelerate in 2013, when the company moved to a franchise model.

Feldman joined the company in 2018 as chief marketing officer, stepping up to the CEO’s role in March when Rivera decided it was time to take a step back. “I joined because I was promised Bishops was recession-proof,” Feldman recalled. “Then the pandemic arrived.”

With many Bishops salons closed for long periods of the pandemic, the last two years have been challenging, though Feldman says that as soon as salons reopened, their revenues came bouncing back at pace. In a handful of cases, franchisees were forced to shut up shop for good, often following difficult conversations with their landlords.

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The good news is that Feldman believes the worst of the pandemic is now behind the business, and growth is back on track. So far this year, the company is up 16% on its growth projections, and is on target to hit $25m of revenues.

Indeed, Covid-19 aside, Feldman thinks the advice he was given four years ago still stands. “We’ve found that when people aren’t doing well, they’ll either want to drop their spending at high-end salons or, if they’ve been using a chop shop, they’ll spend a bit more to get a more professional looking haircut for job interviews.” Bishops benefits from both groups, he points outs.

It helps that the business is not focused on a single clientele. Prior to the pandemic, the split of men to women customers was roughly 55% to 45%, and customers are as likely to be middle-aged as young.

Feldman is particularly proud of the company’s embrace of the LGBT community, particularly in areas where that community is not always warmly welcomed. “We definitely have salons where people will travel for several hours to get a hair cut because they feel they’re in a safe space,” he says. Several franchisees have become strong advocates for LGBT rights, he adds, even though such campaigns may have sparked controversy locally.

Looking forward, the company now sees growth coming from two distinct commercial objectives. First, Bishops expects to increase revenues at its existing salons. New services such as hair extensions, molecular hair repair, and instant waves and perms are selling well, Feldman says, and the company is also expanding its product range.

In addition, Bishops is keen to grow its geographical footprint with new salon openings and franchise partners. It already has a presence in 28 states, but Feldman thinks there is room for plenty more salons, particularly with plans for a new franchise model that could help franchisees are able to reach profitability more quickly.

However, growth has to come without compromising the recipe that has got the business this far. “Our salons become real community hubs that really represent their neighbourhoods, Feldman says. “Everyone needs a haircut and that isn’t going to change; but we can change what the expectation for a haircut experience can and should be.”

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