Ciao Bella Celebrates 30 Years In Business
Tina Fortebuono turned a $20K investment into a million-dollar beauty empire by catering to an unlikely clientele.
by Melissa Jacobs
Back in 1993, 25-year old Tina Fortebuono dreamed of owning her own salon. Just one would do, but she wanted it to be near King of Prussia, her hometown. Her family was there, as were the loyal clients she garnered working as a stylist in a high-end salon in the King of Prussia Mall.
Still, Fortebuono didn’t have wealthy investors, corporate backing or a trust fund. Other girls at Archbishop John Carroll High School had closets filled with cardigans; Fortebuono had one. She didn’t complain. Fortebuono knew that her parents had immigrated to the US from Italy to provide better lives for their children. When Fortebuono was ready to open her own salon, her parents took out a second mortgage and gave her $20,000 to get started. They wanted to help Fortebuono find her piece of the American dream. She intended to do exactly that.
Tina Fortebuono with her family at the grand opening of the first Ciao Bella.
Thirty years later, Fortebuono owns Ciao Bella, a network of 20 salons in the PA suburbs. The salons are in senior living complexes throughout the Main Line and its suburbs, from Montgomery County to Bucks and Delaware Counties. Fortebuono’s 35 employees perform salon and spa services for more than 3,400 clients who average 29, 425 visits per year. That steady stream of clients has turned Ciao Bello into one of the region’s biggest beauty empires.
Senior citizens may not seem like sought-after clients. There are differences, like working with fine, delicate hair and using suitable products. But for Fortebuono, there’s something deeper at play. “To me, it’s about community and connection,” she said. “Because Ciao Bella is in their building – in their home – we become part of our clients’ lives. To be honest, they are more like family than clients.”
That approach helped Fortebuono get her first salon in a senior living community: Shannondell. Located in Audubon, Shannondell is one of the largest, most high-end senior living developments in the region. Fortebuono first heard about Shannondell in 2003. “They hadn’t broken ground yet, but I put in a call to the CEO Jim Sorom,” Fortebuono said. “There was a salon in the blueprints and I wanted it to be mine.”
Fortebuono educated herself about senior citizens’ special hair and skin needs, and how to care for people with memory deficiencies and cognitive impairment. “I got out the Yellow Pages and found a salon in a senior community,” Fortebuono remembered. “Turns out, the owners came to my King of Prussia salon for special occasion hair styles. I told them that I wanted to learn and they taught me.”
When the owners of that salon retired, they offered Fortebuono their business. It’s one of the 20 salons that Fortebuono now owns in senior living communities from Haverford to Paoli, Valley Forge to Phoenixville, Lansdale to Media. “The way I sell myself – my brand – is that I help with the luxuries of each senior living community,” she explained. “We can make people feel beautiful, pampered and happy no matter what age they are.”
Growing and managing the business required long hours, something Fortebuono wouldn’t have been able to do without the support of her husband Nick. In addition to providing unwavering emotional support, he co-parented as an involved dad so Fortebuono could work some nights and every Saturday. “We lived in a development with a golf course and I don’t think Nick played a single round of golf on it,” she said with a laugh. “He was busy with the kids every weekend.”
Fortebuono’s other family is her staff. She believes they are one of the keys to her success. “It’s not just about styling skills or having a following of clients,” she said. “Working in these communities with these residents requires a humanity, an ability to connect. It’s about loving people and caring about them. That requires a special personality.”
Doing hair and skin care in a senior community is no simple thing. There are rules to follow, both for the health and safety of the residents and the communities’ protocols. Fortebuono trains her staff in client relations, privacy, HIPPA and especially how to work with early-stage dementia patients. “Those patients may not remember details, but they remember feeling safe at Ciao Bella and with their stylist,” Fortebuono explained. “As you get older, being around strangers can trigger you into feeling unsafe. The communities know that my staff and I are taking excellent care of their residents.”
Now, Ciao Bella – the salons, plus a mobile salon and spa that provides on-location services for special events – is worth over $1 million. But Fortebuono waves away compliments, saying that money isn’t a measure of her success. Instead, she thinks about the Ciao Bella clients she’s had over the decades – and her parents, both of whom are in their 80s. “I hope that I’ve made them proud, not just because of the finances but in the way that I conduct my business and the way Ciao Bella cares for people,” she said.
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