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“Is ambition something that can be taught?” | Phil Smith tackles your tricky business issues

May 06, 2022

As one of the most respected names in the hairdressing world, Phil Smith has built salon empires, launched multi-million selling haircare ranges and won countless awards for his business acumen. Here, he tackles your tricky post-Pandemic business issues…

“Call me old-fashioned but when I started out in hairdressing, I dreamed of owning my own salon and did everything to make that happen. Years later, I’m struggling to see the ambition in my young team and don’t know how to motivate them. Is ambition something that can be taught… Any tips?”


“I could not agree with you more on this. When you look up ambition in the dictionary, it’s defined as a ‘desire and determination to achieve success’. The same as you, when I was starting out at the very beginning of my career, I was hungry to open salons, make money and be the best. My first job was at Raymond’s in Guildford, Surrey – a salon outlet of the infamous ‘Mr Teasy-Weasy’, who had a strict, old-school dedication to discipline. How diligently you scrubbed the toilets was the manager’s benchmark for quality in your work. A commitment to small details would translate to how well you cut hair. Even today, it’s a philosophy I live by. 

There’s nothing I would ask anyone to do that I don’t do myself. I sweep floors, shampoo hair and make the tea. If you ever think you’re too important or too powerful to do the little jobs, you’ve lost it. Now, I don’t want this to sound like I’m being dismissive of the ‘youth of today’. I have a policy of recruiting new talent from grass roots and trust me, there is plenty of talent out there. But I have the same frustrations as you when I have to stop and ask, ‘where is the ambition?’ The things I’ve learnt to deal with this, are as follows:


I’m flattered if my team are inspired by me but I also believe in creating role models to look up to. Every salon needs a hero to emulate. I work in partnership with my wife Louise Smith’s TONI&GUY salon in Salisbury and we share resources and invest heavily in finding and nurturing talent. Both of our children have joined the respective companies and I’m proud to say that this approach had led to award-winning success. It’s not just our children we’re supporting, we have team members outside of our family who we’ve happily given opportunities to and who are establishing notable reputations in the hairdressing world. 

I have to say, this has sparked huge ambition in almost all of our other team members, They see how hard work and determination can pay off with big rewards and it make them hungry to follow.


I believe in involving everyone in the business so there is a feeling of ownership. Being open and trusting of others is how you get the best from them. It is equally important to celebrate and motivate the individuals around you. I’m hugely grateful to those who gave me the opportunity to build my career and proud that at least 40 people who have worked with me have gone on to open their own salons. 

I never sugar coat the reality of running a salon – it’s hard work and success does not come easily. But I also make a point of showing the rewards it can bring. Hairdressing is a wonderful career and it’s within anyone’s reach to make it to the top. But there is no short cut – you have to put in the work. I think if someone can see a route map to success, they’re more likely to want to follow it.


The future of our industry relies on new stylists and technicians emerging from school leavers. This is the main reason I continue to be a strictly employed salon and I’m a firm advocate of recognising and training talent. The only way to survive is to educate.

I wonder, what sort of educational opportunities do you offer? I tend to see my team most fired up when they’ve learnt something new. They’ll bring their excitement back to the salon and it feeds the whole team, not just one individual.  Equally, I make sure that as a team, we travel to industry events as much as possible, such as awards, shows, presentation evenings and Salon International so that we can see the work that everyone is producing, get inspired, network and learn new skills. Everyone comes back sparking with ideas. 


I’ve said this before, but for me, For me, talent spotting has never been about who can do the best haircut. The right junior is always the one with the best attitude.

I measure potential in staff by their conversation, work ethic, commitment, enthusiasm and initiative. I’d say you can tell almost instantly whether a recruit has what it takes to make it to the top. Ambition is always in that mix. Who is hungry to succeed? You can tell by the ones who don’t just want the flashy clothes and fast cars, it’s the ones who want awards for their hair and eventually lead glittering careers under their own names.

A vital question to ask at the interview stage is ‘where do you see yourself in 10 years time?’ That should tell you everything you need to know.