A culture that values personal development of employees in service and empowerment.

Some parents might struggle with a child's decision to grow up and become a cosmetologist.

The career often calls for long hours, low pay and few benefits. But, exceptions exist, and in this case Kenneth's Hair Salons & Day Spas in Columbus falls under that caption.

Company founder Kenneth Anders understands the rap beauty salons take, which is one reason he went in a different direction. His employees earn generous vacation, health and retirement benefits, including stock ownership. They also get ample discounts for the company's products and services

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"When you tell people you want to go to beauty school, they want to take you in the woods and shoot you," Anders jokingly says. "But we teach people to create beyond what they can imagine."

That insight has paid dividends. Kenneth's is rated in the top 1 percent of hair salons in the world, Anders says. Among other accolades, Elle magazine rated it "the best place in Ohio for a makeover," Vogue said it has the "best colorists" and Columbus Alive has called it the best hair salon in Columbus.

Quality control is Kenneth's top-of-the pyramid goal, and that is achieved by some serious training, like "going through Marine boot camp," Anders says.

"We all speak the same common language, and everybody goes through the same thing," he says. "If Vidal Sassoon walked in here, he would have to go through the same program."

With about 380 employees, Kenneth's operates salons in 11 Columbus neighborhoods. Of those, three are day spas, in Mill Run, New Albany and Polaris. Anders didn't initially plan for this growth when he opened his first salon with four employees in 1977 at Bethel and Reed roads, which is now the corporate headquarters.

"My goal was to be good, not big, but we got big in spite of it," he says. Anders opened the first salon in an office building, which he now says was probably "not the world's greatest decision." A better and current theory is for salons to open close to where women shop. Nonetheless, the gamble worked for other reasons.

"People came to us because of reputation and word of mouth," Anders says. "To be first class you have to spend millions and work hard, and I've been fortunate to surround myself with people who believed in what I believed in."

And those people form a solid bond that creates a foundation for the company, says Jody Achatz, vice president of Kenneth's.

"We view employees as family members; this is their company," Achatz says. "They have a voice, and we care what they have to say. If they don't like something, we change it quickly. They are owners."

Employees do own 100 percent of the company's stock, says Tonya McDade, the company's operation manager.

"Kenneth sold the company back to us a few years ago," McDade says. "Many of us have been here a very long time, and we've had success under his leadership. He is grateful to the team he has so it made sense to sell the company back to us."

It's one element of the glue that cements employees together.

"It changes the way you think about what's going on," McDade says. "And in this industry, that's unheard of."

Having a piece of the action is just one benefit. Achatz runs "Club Jody," an every-two-month gathering that celebrates the entire staff and opens a platform for employees to talk about company-related issues. And it's a time when management hands out staff bonuses.

"It's for peer recognition, and it's a way to touch base and provide training, and a lot of the times we open the floor to get their ideas," Achatz says. "I want their participation, and I want to know how they feel about things."

That involvement is geared and taught in a way to ensure that all of the salons are coordinated so each customer receives a consistent experience no matter which location is visited, Achatz says.

"We have 'Kenneth's Journey,'" she says. "It's taught to all departments, and it's a promise of our brand. We try to recognize the 'wow' factor . . . and finding that in our industry is tough."

Kenneth's focuses on developing close relationships with its clients, says McDade. "It's much more personal than hair care and beauty products; it's about clients' lives," she says. "We share all the intimate moments, whether they are getting engaged, married or having a baby. Yes, they want to look good, but it's much more than hair care service."

At times that hospitality is used to comfort, too.

"We call them 'impactful moments' if a guest is having a bad day," Achatz says. "We give all salons a budget that they can do something special for these people."

Helping others throughout the community is an underlying mission at Kenneth's.

"One thing about hair dressers and massage therapists is that they like giving back and making people feel good," Achatz says. "They like to have fun but more than anything they like to give back, and they do it selflessly, jumping at opportunities to volunteer."

Among other things, last year employees volunteered to style all the models for Goodwill's Fashionable Fundraiser, and they donated more than $1,300 to the Ohio State University's Kick-It for Childhood Cancer kickball tournament. They also hosted the first annual Kennenth's Beauty Benefit, offering discounted hair and spa services, with all proceeds earmarked to the Make It Fit Foundation, an autism services organization that used the money to buy 50 iPads for local children affected by the disease.

"We get hundreds of donation requests every month, and we have a compassionate group of employees who want to be involved," McDade says. "It's an amazing place to work. It's very honest and very real and very personal. I can't imagine being anywhere else."

TC Brown is a freelance writer.