Meet The Woman Who Wants To Make MiniLuxe The "Starbucks Of Nail Salons"

With stylish salons featuring bacteria-banishing practices that would make a hospital green with envy and luxe-but-affordable services, Sue Thirlwall is planning to take MiniLuxe to the masses and disrupt the $7.3 billion nail and beauty lounge industry.

Sue Thirlwall believes the American dream is right at your fingertips. By becoming a franchisee of MiniLuxe, a beauty lounge specializing in ultra-hygienic manicures, Thirlwall says anyone (with some previous experience) can fast track one of the “most incredible paths” to owning a business. 

Interested in tapping the potential of a $7.3 billion industry, the new CEO of the Boston-based MiniLuxe wants to “Starbucks the nail salon” and roll out franchises across the country. By scaling the chain’s signature space fitted with blonde wood, optic white surfaces, and candy-colored chairs, as well as its standards of sterilization and affordable prices, Thirlwall aims to elevate the hasty, daub-and-dry experience found at many a corner shop. That includes new level of individual attention, even for walk-ins, and hyper-vigilant hygiene. Customers can have a look-see into MiniLuxe’s hospital-grade bacteria-banishing “Clean Lab” while specially designed jet-free tubs ensure foot-soaking water is never recirculated.  

sue thirlwall minilux

She’s also eyeing expansion of MiniLuxe’s private label line of nail polish, lotion, and scrub. “Nail polish upended lipstick as the most recession-proof item,” Thirlwall says. “Younger women especially just don’t wear as much lipstick as they used to, but they will experiment with nail color.” If history is an indicator, the potential here is just as enormous. Marcia Kilgore grew Bliss Spa from one location and created a line of branded products which eventually sold to LVMH for a reported $30 million. 

To do this, Thirlwall is drawing deeply from years spent branding and building franchises. Beginning at age 15 with a gig at Shakey’s Pizza, Thirwall earned an MBA from Harvard and went on to add executive roles at YUM! Brands/Pizza Hut, where she introduced the Wing Street concept, and at Dunkin’ Brands, where she revitalized the 2,600-location Baskin-Robbins franchise.

Fast Company caught up Thirlwall recently to get her take on the challenges of creating a national brand from a six-location chain, the future of franchising, and her favorite treatments. 

FAST COMPANY: First, we have to know: How are ice cream and pizza like beauty lounge services?

SUE THIRLWALL: To me, beauty service is no different than food service. Cleanliness and sanitation is most important. Most pedicure areas are unhygienic, and the average American doesn’t think about it. But if you go in a restaurant you would expect [the staff] to wash their hands and not pick food up off the floor. 

Also, many food concepts helped pioneer how good an experience can be. That’s why I say we want to “Starbucks” the nail salon. Now we are building awareness. Once you experience our difference, it’s hard to go anywhere else.

So how do you scale such an intimate experience?

You have the character of the existing business and you find partners who will embrace and have a passion for the execution of the brand as we do. It’s about relationship building on a personal level. With manicures and pedicures, it’s impossible to not have connection with the client. You have to have a desire to make a difference in people's lives. 

The recession may be over, but people are still wary of spending. Why do you think the time to build out MiniLuxe is now?

We started in the same time frame as the recession (2007) and we’ve been growing, but we’ve kept the price down. Our luxe 30-minute manicure is $19, and we guarantee it for three days. I believe the time is right because it is definitely affordable but also hygienic. Quality is inherent in a successful business formula. Our service experience is a nice alternative in an industry that competes primarily on price. We know we could charge more, but we choose not to.  

But doesn’t guaranteeing a longer-lasting manicure impact the bottom line when clients don’t return as often?

Business school was a fabulous experience—I’m still on the board at Harvard—but there are a lot of things people can’t teach even through Socratic learning. Relationship building is one. But when you grow up in a world like I did, with older parents and grandparents, it all goes back to quality, character, and integrity. I want to bring alternative to help others have this fabulous experience. Every day is precious and something as simple as a manicure can be heavenly. It’s the only time some people get to relax in their entire week.

The nice thing is they keep coming back for quality services. Many [clients] time treatments like manicures or waxing or a trip to the brow bar so they don’t happen all at once. We are more concerned that everyone has a phenomenal experience and wants to come back. We want them to brag and post on social media how long the nail services last.

What does the future of the beauty lounge franchise look like to you?

It’s not spoken about as much, but franchises are a big driver of jobs in the U.S. There are over 70,000 salons in the country and the industry adds about $7 billion [annually] to the economy. There are global opportunities as well. Already many nail, waxing, and beauty salons have taken to putting signs in their window advertising sanitary practices. It’s incredibly important. 

We put in place a rigorous process to grow the brand, set standards, and attract good partners. MiniLuxe gives women and men an alternative that will elevate the whole industry. 

The beauty service industry is traditionally very female-centric; is there any resistance from the other half to get on board to be franchisees?

This is a segment in the business world that appeals to men because most have a connection through their mothers, sisters, or wives. I don’t see any difference in the interest in becoming a partner from men. They see it as a transformational business that is doing very well. 

Does that mean guys come in to transform their tired feet, too?

There’s definitely a fashion trend. Johnny Depp wears nail polish and Prince Harry was spotted with blue nail polish. But we do have a line of services for less adventurous men without polish.

So what’s your favorite treatment and what would you recommend?

Growing up as the oldest of three sisters I am a total girly-girl. I love the shellac pedi with callous remover because I am hard on my feet. The warm oil treatment which is heated by candle and guaranteed not to burn is extremely hydrating and wonderful.

[Image: Julija Sapic via Shutterstock]

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