After facing a felony charge in his youth, Matthew “Mateo” Savala found himself struggling to hold a steady job as an adult.
“I had done everything, like construction, hands-on work, and everything prior,” he said, “but I got to a point in my life where I was trying to find another career path. The felony over my head was not making it any easier...”
Savala moved to the Springs from Los Angeles at 16, and graduated from Coronado High School. Then he ran into trouble.
It was “about a month after I turned 18 — so it was adult charges, you know,” Savala recalled. But what started as a deferred sentence and community service for criminal trespassing turned into something more serious.
“That was partially my fault because it would have been deferred to where it wasn’t a felony if I were to abide by the stipulations, do my community service, take some classes, stuff like that,” he said. “And being immature and all that, I didn’t follow through with that stuff accordingly. That was the consequence that I faced — the charge was elevated, and I was convicted of a felony as an adult.”
Ironically, it was Savala’s fastidiousness as a teenager that helped him forge a successful career despite his conviction — he’d started cutting his own hair at 13 years old.
“I always wanted a fresh, clean haircut,” he said. “Even if they weren’t always the best quality haircuts, they were fresh ones for myself. At some point, friends and family wanted haircuts, so I started practicing on them, doing a couple bad cuts and good cuts, here and there … but I did it just to do it, you know? I never did it thinking it would be a profession.”
But when Savala made the honor roll for the first time in his life at barber school, he knew there was no looking back.
Today, he has 11 years as a professional barber under his belt and owns two barber shops in Colorado Springs, both under his own brand, Art of Fadez. He employs 12 barbers and has plans for a lot more growth.
Savala spoke with the Business Journal about mentorship, surviving the pandemic, and building a brand.
What did you do between high school and your barbering career?
I had a real close family friend that had a company doing commercial flooring, so I started out with that kind of manual labor — picking up trash, sweeping and all that. As I went on doing that kind of work, I learned how to install commercial floors, more professional jobs ... then that led to construction, which led to other jobs like landscaping. Then my ex-brother-in-law who had just graduated barber school was like, ‘Hey man, you already cut hair, why don’t you go to barber school?’
Right out of barber school, I went and worked at a booth at Benny Boyz Barber Shop for three and a half years. It was hidden in an alley, a little shop, about 600 square feet. There, I finally grew enough in the skill set and clientele base where my business partner at that time was comfortable with the idea of opening up our own location. This was back in 2014. We opened a shop called Legends here in town, and we did everything on the whim. We didn’t even really have a budget or anything — we just split everything as we were going, 50-50. So that was quite the learning experience. I was a part of that shop and that brand as a co-owner for four and a half years before I decided to do my own thing back in 2018.
So Benny — you’d consider him a primary mentor figure in your barbering career?
Absolutely, yeah. From my background of starting as a barber, I hadn’t been to any kind of barbershops for a long time, so I didn’t understand the whole barber culture as it is. Benny was one of the first barbers that I got to know out here. He had been doing it probably 15-plus years at the time I met him, so he was pretty groomed in the barber industry. He taught me the skill sets — people skills, shop management — so he was a mentor figure for me for sure. Still to this day, I give him a lot of credit because he was part of a good foundation for me and my career path. He taught me the ropes of the industry that you need as a young barber to grow and be successful.
How did you get started with your own business? Did you take out loans, did you use savings?
So the benefit I had with being the co-owner of the first shop was that essentially, I got to work at no cost to myself. What that meant was I didn’t have to pay booth rent or bills to an owner because we shared those costs amongst all the barbers. What it allowed me to do was save quite a bit of money for my future career, and I learned [to save like this] from educating myself and attending barber seminars, by learning from other barbers that have been doing this for years, and by networking with other people like accountants. They taught me things like how to adjust my price menu, how to create a budget, and how to build the savings to initially invest in my brand. From 2014 to 2018, I had this savings account, and I just constantly funded it. I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do with it at the time, but eventually it did get built up enough to where when the time was right, I’d found a location where I felt like I wanted to branch out to a second shop.
With that first shop that I co-owned, I didn’t plan on doing a shop without that brand. I knew that I wanted to do a shop of my own under that brand, but my co-owner at the time didn’t feel the same way. I had to basically cut ties for my own business, so I had to release all that. I had to fly alone. I didn’t have any help financially — it was just off of my sweat equity and the clientele that I had built. The way that it worked out, I had to create something totally new, which is Art of Fadez.
It just so happened that the co-owner allowed two barbers and a couple barber chairs to come with me, so I got to start right off the bat with the whole new brand.
How long did it take for you to start turning a profit?
Honestly, I don’t see profit as necessarily where I’m taking it as income because it’s constantly being reinvested into what I’m trying to build. I take a little bit of the budget that’s been created from our revenue, and I pay myself for my time and my skill set to do this and build it the way that I want. But [that profit] is always growing, and it wasn’t necessarily like I had a loan to pay back, you know what I mean? It’s just constantly growing, and my savings account is being refunded. I guess if I looked at it like that, I’d probably say it took about a good year for us to start to be comfortable and [pay myself back] after the initial costs.
You built the Art of Fadez brand yourself. What makes it special?
It’s the camaraderie we have amongst my team. I pride myself on the team atmosphere here because I’ve been in the atmosphere of other barber shops where it’s like, everybody’s a competitor. Every barber that I get that’s new to my brand, I try to train them up and polish their skill set, which I feel builds loyalty to the brand because of the investment I put in them.
What kind of barbers do you hire?
Initially, I tried to recruit all the best barbers around town. I wanted them to be a part of my brand, but I found that that was a recipe for disaster. What ended up happening was I hired a bunch of people with big egos, and it turned into everybody competing against each other, which makes for a really unhealthy environment.
Now what I look for in a hire is a quality work ethic. They don’t have to necessarily be the best barber, but they have to have the desire to be a better barber. As long as they want to learn, we can train them up, and this gets back to the whole team environment that we have.
How many barbers do you employ?
We have 12 at the moment. ... With both shops, I have 18 chairs. We just got started one month ago with the second location, so to project, what I want eventually is about 18 to 20 full-time barbers, then having some barbers float around and share a station. ... Within the next four years, we’re going to try to open up another two locations, and potentially start a franchise for barbers that have been with the brand for a while to create more opportunities for growth.
What makes you passionate about this job?
Well, initially, it was the financial freedom to step away a little bit more and often and spend time with my family. The first few years, I couldn’t even step away on a Saturday because those are the busiest days, but now I can and don’t feel so bad about not working. That was the initial drive, but now it’s not necessarily just the financial part about barbering; it’s about building a platform for other people to be successful. And I’m really digging that. One of our newest barbers, he just shows so much gratitude for the opportunity to work with such a popular brand and use this platform to build his career from. I take pride in that.