One on One With Tony Cuccio of Cuccio International

The company’s founder and CEO gets down to business.

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Tony Cuccio has always been both a visionary and a pragmatist. Born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised on Long Island, he was part of the only Sicilian family in an otherwise Jewish neighborhood. His father died of a heart attack at 46, which gave the 16-year-old Cuccio an early lesson in the harsh realities of life.

Surprisingly, given his now-legendary status, Cuccio didn’t set out to forge a career in beauty. He originally trained in neonatal respiratory therapy while working in a medical center. After marrying at age 25, he resolved to make more money, and began selling infant safety monitors.

Before long, Cuccio had set his sights on warmer, sunnier climes, and packed up and headed clear across the country to California. Partnering with his younger brother Steven and wife Roberta, he launched Star Nail (“Star” is for “Steven, Tony And Roberta”). The fledgling “company” positioned itself right in the thick of things, selling nail polish and cosmetics out of a suitcase on Venice Beach. Later, Cuccio moved the operation into a brick-and-mortar facility as it segued into the wholesale business.

By 1983, concerned that the beauty industry was becoming too competitive, Cuccio turned his attention to the booming artificial nails business. Then, as the new millennium drew near and the salon industry evolved, so did company strategy. “I knew that ‘spa’ would be next step in the beauty business,” he explains. “I saw the social change in women, that what they really needed was some ‘me’ time. So, everything we did grew out of the necessity to change the perceived value not only of the place they were visiting, but also how the technician treated the customer.”

In 1999, the astute entrepreneur developed and launched luxury brand Cuccio Naturalé, manufacturer of hand, feet and body products. “These were high-end products to be used in high-end services,” says Cuccio. “So, instead of charging $12 for pedicures, estheticians could charge $50.”

In the intervening years, parent company Cuccio International has gone from strength to strength. As one of only a few privately held nailcare companies, it’s a rare breed. Cuccio reminds spa owners that this is an important factor to consider when choosing a vendor. “Companies bought by huge conglomerates need to go retail to recoup their investments, whereas companies that only sell to spas and salons grow their businesses slowly, and don’t have to pay anybody back,” he points out. “I encourage readers to support people who support them.”

DAYSPA spoke with the charismatic CEO to glean more of his industry insight.

What has the most challenging part of your job?
Adapting and changing while growing my business from zero to 260 employees in 110 countries. It’s hard to accept that it’s not the same business it was five or 10 years ago. Every year I have to make adjustments: buy new buildings, invest in new infrastructure and hire new people. It’s so important to invest in people—they’re our No. 1 asset.

What advice would you give to people entering the nailcare industry today?
Never underestimate the power of perceived value. In my seminars, I offer the real-world example of women clamoring for designer pocketbooks that cost tens of thousands of dollars. They get on waiting lists for them. They buy them in three different colors. Companies do a phenomenal job of marketing to these women. Perception is reality. That’s the real meaning of ‘luxury brand’. So, I advise hair stylists, estheticians and spa owners to raise the perceived value of their businesses and themselves. They should think about how they dress, how they talk, what services they offer and, most importantly, what products they use.

You’ve lasted longer than many others in the industry. What’s your secret?
I never think, ‘I’ve made it.’ Making it isn’t a destination, it’s the trip along the way. Wanting to come to work at 4:30 a.m. every day for 35 years when I don’t have to—that’s a tribute to what I do. I’m 60 and I still travel. I sometimes work 16 days in a row. Yet none of it feels like work to me, because I love the beauty business and the people business. It’s a happy, fun industry, in which we take care of people and make them happy by making them look better. Also, I love the fact that you can be eccentric in this industry. I haven’t won a suit and tie in 36 years. I can go to a meeting in sweatpants, flip-flops and a T-shirt. It’s not a formal, standardized business where everyone has to look or act the same—you can be yourself.

How do you find a work-life balance?
Horse racing is my hobby and my passion. When I’m not traveling, I go to the race track every day. Being involved in the thoroughbred industry is my mind yoga: it gives me five or six hours where I’m not thinking about work. Also, I’m in bed every night by 8 p.m., and I take no phone calls after 6 p.m. I give myself those two hours to wind down.

You travel a lot for business, but what’s your ideal vacation destination?
I’ve not had a real vacation in 25 years. A vacation for me is 2,000 women in a seminar paying to hear me speak. When I’m out of the office, that’s my vacation. It’s all business, even when I travel. If I could live my life all over again I’d add some vacation time to the end of work trips, but I was too driven for success. It’s important to me to make time to see my family [back on the east coast.] I have to have balance now that I’m older. I realize that if I don’t start doing it now the only person who’ll lose out is me.

What’s your personal philosophy?
Act unto others as you wish they’d act unto you. I’m a firm believer in karma. Everybody is equal. I can’t stand it when people are treated badly. The other thing is that money really doesn’t matter. It makes life a little easier, and takes away everyday stress, but you still have to worry about your health.

Tell us something most people don’t know about you.
The biggest thing that people would never guess is that I have a tremendously big heart.

Which famous person, dead or alive, would you love to spend one hour with?
Steve Jobs. I’d pay $5 million to be able to ask him how he changed so many industries: music, computers and phones. It would be interesting to question him on his thought processes and what led him to his discoveries. When you think about it, what’s really the difference between Jobs and the average guy on the street? We’re all made the same. It’s the brain that makes the difference.

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