People frequently ask Ian Fuhr what it is like to work in a woman’s world.
“It’s been fun, challenging, stimulating, terrifying and highly educational,” says the creator of the Sorbet chain of beauty salons. “Before setting up Sorbet, I thought a Brazilian was someone that lived in Brazil and Hollywood was a place they made movies.”
After designing the price menu, Fuhr noticed a service called the three-quarter-leg wax and “it always boggled my mind as to which quarter they left out”. He would have nightmares about people leaving a Sorbet salon with hairy ankles.
Fuhr is a business go-getter, whose beauty salons have made him a well-known name in his native South Africa. Having launched there in 2005, this year he has brought the concept to the UK. His fearlessness, drive and modesty are thanks to his late parents Fay and Kenneth, who gave him a strong Jewish upbringing, he says.
He remains Orthodox and very active in the Jewish community, supporting local synagogues, Jewish social services organisations in South Africa and Jewish day schools.
He began his career selling LPs and went on to launch his own music business and record label. Later, with his brother Rodney, he set up the South African equivalent to America’s K-Mart discount stores. And then came the idea of Sorbet beauty salons.
The focus is mainly on waxing, as Sorbet envisages growth (no pun intended) in that area, as well as on nails and skincare. All the Sorbet salons stock skincare products by Dermalogica and Environ as well as their own brand (the serum is a must-have). South Africa has 185 stores, collectively carrying out 275,000 treatments a month, of which 65 per cent are for nails.
It took five years to establish Sorbet salons in South Africa. “It’s very hard to start something new, especially in a fresh country where new qualifications and new education need to be considered before opening a salon,” says Fuhr.
That the UK is the first country set for Sorbet international expansion is because of the suggestion of Dermalogica’s founders, who happened to meet Fuhr at an international convention in Cape Town, six years ago.
In a highly competitive and sophisticated market, this kind of expansion was a huge gamble. However, Fuhr took a trip to the UK, walked the high streets of London for about a week and returned to South Africa with the view that there was the opportunity to do something a little bit different from what the UK high street had seen before.
“We felt a lot of the salons we saw were at a mediocre quality in terms of their services, hygiene, look and feel. And we felt there was an opportunity to disrupt this market and raise the bar and to try to see if we could offer a retail-focused beauty salon,” he says.
But why has there not been a high-street beauty salon chain before? It seems a no-brainer. It is mainly down to staffing, consistency of service and controlling a multi-chain, says Fuhr. The chain has a concept of the “Soul of Sorbet”, describing the culture and the positive attitude of staff. This has helped to create a consistent quality from one salon to the next — though this is still no small challenge.
Another key concern is education. Fuhr says people coming out of beauty school in the UK are not trained to the same standard as they are in South Africa. For example, in the UK you would normally have to train for about eight months, for two days a week. The same course in South Africa would be taught over full two years and would be five days a week.
This means staff often need to be retrained to get to the Sorbet standard in the UK — “maybe one day we will open schools here,” says Fuhr. With his wife, Sandy Roy, already a principal of nine beauty schools across South Africa, this seems a likely development.
Now a key part of many north London Jewish communities (Mill Hill, Temple Fortune and East Finchley), there are plans for more Sorbet salons elsewhere. All Fuhr’s projects have ambitious long-term goals and ideally Sorbet would be the first truly international beauty salon chain in the world.