Editor’s note: Art Mealer is the principal of Role Model Consulting. Mealer has more than 20 years experience working in privately held business and a broad range of experience gained while successfully serving as COO, division general manager and sales and marketing manager. This column is part of the Entrepreneurial Spirit series produced in partnership between the Council for Entrepreneurial Development and WRAL Local Tech Wire.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – An artist, Larry found an outlet for his aesthetic passions as a hair stylist and colorist. He was fortunate to have found mentors along the way who helped him develop both his talents and some business skills, and Larry excelled as an artisan. The business end seemed simple enough. So, with 10 years experience and nine statewide awards, he decided to start his own salon.

His artistic, technical skills and hard work kept his new salon afloat for two and a half years. Still, the business side struggled from so many small things done wrong or not done at all—business things, people things—and the doors were finally closed. Larry-the award-winning-artist was broke, but Larry-the-entrepreneur was just getting started.

Like most successful entrepreneurs, Larry Dunlap lost his life savings and failed in his first venture. Larry’s artistic expertise alone wasn’t enough to forge a successful business, a lesson almost always learned the hard way by product-oriented, technical experts. But combining this expertise with business skills and people skills makes all the difference.

Today, in his third year as a co-owner of two successful salons, Larry has become an ardent student of business. He reads the trade journals, listens to top experts in the field, and stays current with the research provided by key industry suppliers. He can recite the well-defined sales and performance metrics on his business from the past week, month, and quarter, and can compare them to industry best practices and standards.

Larry has also become a student of people, both employees and customers. Becoming people-centered involves learning to listen to people’s desires and needs, to genuinely care about their well-being, and to become accessible and accountable to them.

Developing these talents has led Larry to become personally involved in hiring every new employee, and making sure they have both strong technical skills and relationship building skills that provide the foundation for superior service to their customers.

“Our employees are our secret to excelling with our customers,” Larry explained. “If you want to provide quality service, you need to start with quality people.”

Quality remains a top priority. The staff is offered free, on site training every month to develop their talents, customer orientation, and expertise. Everyone is kept current on the numbers for the business overall, and about business in general, as the books remain open to all employees. A consummate mentor himself these days, Larry is always available to answer questions, offer explanations, and get into the details. Learning, in fact, is part of the culture here. Internal contests are held weekly, monthly, and quarterly among the stylists and between the two locations to keep employees excited and focused on key performance metrics. As you might guess, the biggest awards involve training: like all expenses paid seminars to Los Angeles or New York. Awards also include cash and gift cards for local restaurants and shops.

Larry also works with clients three days a week, alternating salons, which allows him to set an example, to provide coaching, and to keep in touch with the pulse of the salons. Customers experience an attentive staff focused on providing exceptional service, and they notice the difference from the first offer of coffee to the rose given them on leaving.

Tammy Cordes, co-manager with a background in customer service at United Air Lines, says, “This is a woman’s time to take care of herself, two special hours just for her.”

Larry has proven himself up to the entrepreneurial challenges and possibilities facing the expert with a great technical skills and a great product idea.