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Plus, The Gents Place, Massage Heights’ newest step-sibling, elbows in


The Gents Place offers high-end services to what its founder insists on calling clients—say “customer” and you get fined.

Photos by Mark Ford

Teach a man to shave and he’ll end up buying a cheap eight-pack of Bic razors to use at his bathroom sink. But give a man a straight-razor shave, and you’ll have him all lathered up—and in your barber chair for a lifetime.

At least that’s the premise behind The Gents Place’s social media campaign giving away free services in order to attract men to its upscale salon. This is not a shave-and-a-haircut-two-bits kind of place. It sports a complimentary premium liquor bar in the lobby and employs barbers/cosmetologists who know how to bring out the best in a man’s grooming—and his ego.  

The offer on Facebook for a free haircut and hot towel treatment enticed the tech/culture writer from Forbes magazine to write about the experience in a blog praising the services. But even more impressive, giving football great Emmitt Smith a free straight-razor shave on the golf course netted the fledgling franchise a celebrity partner with vast real estate investments and construction expertise.

Smith was talked into a free shave at his annual charity golf tournament, where The Gents Place was one of the vendors. “The experience was phenomenal; I became a customer,” he says.

During his visits to The Gents Place, Smith started talking to the owner, Ben Davis, about his business and offered to help. “Eight to nine months ago we signed an agreement and I became a user and part owner,” Smith says. “I like to get involved with things I believe in.”  

Apparently, he’s not the only one who believes in it. The Gents Place, with four open locations and nine franchised locations in the works, was acquired last April in a 50-50 partnership by The Elevated Brands, a holding company for Massage Heights franchising.

Ben Davis

“When you look and feel your best, you do your best,” says Ben Davis, founder of The Gents Place.

The philosophy of the Gents business is that “when you look and feel your best, you do your best,” says Davis, who opened the first location in December 2008—unorthodox timing to open a luxury concept.

Smith is more than just a celebrity name. The former Dallas Cowboy all-star running back is the National Football League’s all-time leading rusher, owner of three Super Bowl championship rings and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010. He’s been a football analyst for ESPN, but one of his TV career highlights will always be winning season three of TV’s Dancing With The Stars.

It took three asks before he agreed to be in the dance competition, Smith says, adding it was watching fellow football great Jerry Rice and rapper, Master P, perform that convinced him. “I felt like I couldn’t do any worse,” he says, laughing. Master P “set the bar low,” he says, adding quickly that he means no disrespect to the rapper, he’s just kidding around.

He approached dancing the same way he approached football (and business): Work hard, don’t take shortcuts, be on time and rely on your team to help elevate your performance. “Performance is key,” he says. “If you perform, you stay around. I once had a coach tell me, ‘We don’t fire you, you fire yourself.’”

Hard work aside, Smith also concedes that natural athletic talent, plus a healthy lifestyle aids in making him a standout. “Notoriety’s just an asset and a tool I have,” he says. “It can get me into a meeting, but it can’t close the deal.”

For instance, he points out, the Cowboys may be the most visible football team in America, but that doesn’t mean the competition will just lie down and roll over. “Football taught me a lot,” Smith says. “If your team can’t beat the other team, it doesn’t matter” how good you think you are.

He’s built a successful business along the lines of his contemporaries, legendary quarterback Roger Staubach and basketball phenom Ervin “Magic” Johnson. “I do talk to them about business,” he contends. “They’re my two most trusted resources. I lean on them.”

Smith’s real estate business includes “three major arms”: development and asset management; construction and general contracting; and a national commercial real estate services company that is both broker and tenant rep. He and his wife, Pat (who was a runner-up of the 1994 Miss USA Pageant), also run a charity that helps underserved youngsters.

“He’s the epitome of a gentleman,” says The Gents Place’s Davis. What Smith can do for the brand is more than just lend his name, although especially in Dallas, that’s gold. “He’s helped us get to a national presence quicker than most new franchises can,” Davis says. Smith also introduced the concept to a number of his athlete buddies, who may be future franchisees.

As the brand continues to add units, Smith will be a motivational speaker at their conventions and help cut a few grand-opening ribbons. Busy as he is, Smith isn’t sitting on the sidelines of The Gents Place. “Business is only limited to your capacity,” he says. “As you grow and get better resources, then it’s all about the services you provide. When you have satisfied customers, they come back.”

Emmitt Smith

Pro football great Emmitt Smith invested in The Gents Place last year, after trying a free shave and loving it.

Davis has built a system to ensure that’s the case. Some clients “set a year’s worth of appointments at a time,” he says. And then there’s the client (employees are fined $1 if they refer to clients as customers, which implies a transactional approach rather than a relationship one) whose membership fee is $8,000 a year. “He comes in two or three times a week,” Davis says, for shoe shines, manicures and a shave, plus haircuts. “He said we’re part of his success story.”

Part of the success story for The Gents Place is Davis’ proprietary training that takes “someone where they are emotionally to where we want them to be.” If that sounds a bit like self-help guru Tony Robbins, it is.

Davis says their service providers ask empowering questions. For instance, instead of asking the bland, “what are you doing this weekend?” stylists ask, “what’s something fun you’re looking forward to doing this weekend?” If a client says he’s a lawyer, the follow-up question would be along the lines of: “What’s your finest moment as a lawyer?”

“It’s elevating the conversation,” Davis says—leaving the client “feeling amazing.”

While they hire experienced stylists, they are more concerned about personality. “We had a girl who actually wrote the book on how to give the best haircut,” Davis says, but she “was focused on herself,” not the client. She didn’t last long.

Training is ongoing. They have an educator on staff, plus barbers and cosmetologists (different licenses) attend trade shows to learn the latest techniques and trends. In an industry known for its revolving door, employee retention at The Gents Place is around 70 percent, he says.

For the décor he wanted for his manly salon, he studied ski cabins in Aspen—dark woods, a stone fireplace and a “timeless, vacation feel.” “You don’t see barber chairs when you walk in,” he says. Instead the receptionist is focused on greeting guests and fetching a top-shelf drink. The fireplace is roaring, there are seating areas to promote camaraderie, and there are no ringing phones. Reservations are handled off-site, out of earshot of clients.

Services are not inexpensive. About 50 percent of revenue comes from memberships, but depending on the location it can be as high as 85 percent, Davis says.

Straight-razor shaves are around $65. Even though it’s a high-end service, Davis says using social media to get men in the door has worked. “We’re giving away the first service to prove we’re different,” he says. “We’re rolling out the red carpet.”

Davis got into the grooming industry not because he liked getting haircuts, but because he dreaded them. “I managed my day by my calendar and every minute was accounted for,” he says. At walk-in places, he’d inevitably have to wait; at his wife’s salon, he had to smell chemicals.

All entrepreneurs are risk takers, but Davis takes it to the extreme. He secured an SBA loan two weeks before Lehman Brothers collapsed. “My banker called and said, ‘hurry up and spend your money before we have to take it back,’” Davis says. “He encouraged me to hurry and send in a construction bill.”

And then he had to tell his supervisor—“who up until that point had thought I was a smart businessman”—that although he was 25 and had no money, he was quitting to pursue his dream of business ownership. Oh, yes, and his 6-month-old son was just about to have his second open-heart surgery.

 “My wife’s brain must be wired like mine,” he says. “She knew it was hopeless” to talk him out of it, “and I think secretly she wanted me to.” When we tell him that’s what all the men say, he has the good grace to laugh. So far, it’s been so good.

Davis will keep ownership of the four salons he opened, two in the Dallas market and two in Kansas. His partnership with Elevated Brands has allowed him to tap into their franchise experience. “I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel,” he says. “For me, I wanted to leverage their expertise.” The two concepts, massage and grooming, also have synergy that benefits them both.

Add Emmitt Smith to that team, continually perform, and a two-bit shave and a haircut might just add up to some real money.

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