"Don't look at my nails," cries Helga Surratt, the president of About Faces. "I never make an appointment! I only get a [beauty] service when someone can fit me in easily enough—and most of the time they are booked."
Of course, since About Faces employs 400 staffers, it doesn't take a beauty-school graduate to know that there must be an opening somewhere on the books (especially for the company president). Truth be told, Surratt, who typically puts in a 65-hour week, has a work ethic that doesn't allow for such luxuries in life.
And even she admits that maybe it's time to ease up a little.
"I probably don't have to work that many hours anymore," says Surratt. "It's such a habit, but I feel like I have to be here. I feel guilty if I take a day off."
Surratt's friend (and About Faces publicist) Edie Brown offers this insight: "Helga knows you can't coast in this business. She works such long hours that if you look in the trunk of her car, you'd see she has changes of clothes, shoes, and bags. At home, she doesn't even have a live plant."
Surratt smiles and corrects her friend: "That's not true," she says, her German accent only slightly dulled by her 40 years in America. "I love my two plants!"
With a database of more than 150,000 clients (Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Kelly Ripken among them) and six locations in four counties, About Faces is a rare phenomenon—a salon with staying power—in the peripatetic business of beauty.
Salons open and close in the time it takes a manicure to dry, but About Faces—which celebrated 40 years in the business last year—is one of the longest-running salon/day spas in the country. And it's an ongoing success story. Last year alone, while the country was still in the midst of a recession, the company grossed $17 million in revenue. In a typical week, thousands of clients will have undergone manicures, massages, waxes, lash extensions, facials, and various other services for a grand total of 6,300 appointments.
So it's no wonder that the blonde, green-eyed Helga Surratt, the company's most visible face (today adorned with Smashbox shadow and foundation and mineral-based blush by Jane Iredale) never takes a breather.
Surratt, 65, says that her work ethic is the result of a childhood that was anything but glamorous. She was born in 1946 in blighted Kissing, Germany, a year after the war ended. Her father Josef, who served in the German Army, was a war veteran; her mother, Luise, worked as a maid.
"My father was disabled," says Surratt, tearing up at the memory. "He had a spinal -cord injury from the war. He was paralyzed for two years and when he regained feeling in his legs, he was in pain every day. That was the only father I ever knew. My mom did all the physical labor. She helped lay the mortar to build our little house and worked as a maid for doctors, dentists, and lawyers."
After the war, Surratt's family struggled to make ends meet. "I grew up hearing, 'There's no money, there's no money,'" she recalls. "And I can remember at age four being left alone to watch my brother, who was one at the time, while my mother went to work."
Her teen years, she says, were "a total horror."
"My father started to drink and was on 30 painkillers a day," she says. "My mother tried to commit suicide twice, committed herself to a mental institution, and was gone for seven months when I was 17. I cried myself to sleep at night, but in those days, I couldn't talk to anyone. It's a sad story, but it shaped who I am today."
Surratt vowed to move up in the world—to "move beyond," as she says—and heeded her mother's monitions to work hard in school.
"She wanted me to do better," says Surratt, "and she sent me to the next town to the better school, so I could get a good education. She told me never to envy anyone. She knew that everyone had their own cross to bear."
One of Surratt's first jobs after graduating high school was with a German manufacturer that had an office in Cleveland.
"While I was still in Germany, this guy was supposed to come in and test my English-speaking capabilities," says Surratt, who admits that, while she read at a fairly fluent rate, she spoke little English. "But, thank God, he never showed up, and I got the job anyway. When I told my mother they wanted to send me to America, she told me to go. She said it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance."
In 1969, Surratt took her first airplane ride for her maiden trip to the United States. She worked in Cleveland for a year before being transferred to Aberdeen, then returned to Munich for a bit, and, eventually, settled back in the Baltimore area and got married.
At 24, and between jobs, a friend suggested Surratt pursue a career in modeling. Still not confident with her English-speaking skills, she loved the idea.
"Having seen one runway fashion show in Germany, my first thought was that I wouldn't have to talk!" she says. "I called the Barbizon School of Modeling and asked them if I was too old to model, and they said, 'Of course not,' and the next thing I knew I had signed up for a course."
After completing her coursework, she taught at Barbizon for a few years. Then, in 1974, Surratt signed on with World of Faces Modeling School in Baltimore, which had been founded by Patrick Brennan and his then-wife Gloria. It was here that Surratt's modeling career took off, and she did runway and print work for area department stores such as Hutzler's and Saks Fifth Avenue.
By 1977, Surratt was the director of the agency. Meanwhile, the Brennans were growing their beauty business, opening the first About Faces in Mt. Washington and later moving it to the Pikesville Hilton. It was the first day spa in the area. With her savings, Surratt became an early investor when About Faces moved to the Kenilworth Mall in 1978.
"I had no major expectations," says Surratt.
On the other hand, Patrick Brennan, a successful area businessman and MIT-trained aerospace engineer, immediately sensed the spa was filling a void. "Even when we were in the Pikesville Hilton," he says, "it didn't take more than six months or so before our book was full. It was clear there was a need for these services. We had some cases, especially for waxing and makeup, where we had to turn people away."
Surratt went back to school to become an aesthetician and joined About Faces to do skincare in 1982. Along the way, both Surratt's and Brennan's marriages dissolved, and they became life partners, eventually having a son, Eric, now 30, who works for the company as vice president of operations.
Though there were a few lean years, the company pioneered the day spa concept in Baltimore. (They even banned smoking in the space long before it was trendy to do so.)
"Patrick was a visionary," says Surratt. "No one even knew the words 'day spa' back then."
Surratt and Brennan learned by trial and error. "There were no guidelines for skincare, hair, or makeup," says Surratt. "We even added on exercise lessons. If we had a big aerobics exercise class, products would be flying off the shelves from all the shaking!"
Fortunately, that idea quickly went by the wayside. By 1990, Surratt became president of the company, and immediately saw the limitations of booking clients by hand in a ledger. So she traveled all over the country to see salons that were using fully computerized booking. "By 1992, we were on the forefront—booking appointments and checking out appointments by computer."
From there, the growth was rapid.
"We opened Salisbury in 2001 and went from 2,000- to 8,000-square feet in a year," says Surratt. "Timonium came next in 2002. In 2003, we acquired Paul's in Pikesville, opened Canton in 2006, and Annapolis in 2010."
With her natural people skills, Surratt was the perfect person to have at the helm.
"Helga is a very good leader," says Brennan. "She's very good with customer service as well as with staff members. She creates a lot of trust and is great at building a team. She also pays great attention to her clients."
Early on, the duo developed a philosophy of business that has never wavered. "We learned a lot about the substance of the business," says Surratt. "We go with trends but only the trends that make sense."
Another important early lesson: "Give the clients great customer service, plus proven and innovative services, and products that give results, not fluff," she says.
That credo has kept client Nancy Lattmann, the owner of clothing store L'Apparenza, coming to the Kenilworth location for more than 30 years.
"I get everything done there," gushes Lattmann, "from my hair to my manicures and makeup. I love their products, I love their services, and they are very, very professional. It's my home away from home. My family knows that if they don't know where I am, I'm at About Faces."
Away from the hustle and bustle, past a hallway of Zen-like treatment rooms, is Surratt's own inner sanctum—her office, bathed in buttery hues and warm woods. It's time for her weekly Thursday meeting with her assistant manager Elizabeth Miller and her son, Eric, in his role as VP of operations.
Over the course of an hour, the team discusses everything from a Hurricane Irene-related leak in Timonium; to the gratis services offered to police officers, fire fighters, and military personnel on 9/11; to a recent visit by a famous New York stylist who showed her staff cutting-edge techniques. "There are always new products, new ways of educating ourselves," comments Surratt.
Surratt continues to hold court with a new aesthetician Peggy Giannakis who has only been on the job for several weeks.
"How is it going?" Surratt asks, genuinely concerned. "Are you enjoying it?"
"I'm loving it," Giannakis says. "I'm really happy here."
Next up is stylist and salon educator Christian Holmes, who shows Surratt a video of a new razor-cutting technique he wants to introduce to the salon. "Can you use it in conjunction with the scissors?" she asks. "I think that's the best way to introduce it."
Though she is still going strong and is rarely at her Towson or Silo Point homes, Surratt is starting to think about winding down sometime soon.
"In the next couple of years, I need to give myself more time," she says. "I won't be as in the trenches and will find more ways to have fun. Looking back, I just worked hard and did what was right—and nothing was ever as bad as what I came from. I went beyond—that's the only way to go through life."
And just maybe, there's a manicure in her future.