Totally Male staff (from left) Michelle Medley, aesthician beauty therapist; Jacqueline O’Connor, barber; Ruth-Ann Forbes, barber; Sandra Samuels, CEO, Totally Male Spa; Aneka Jackson, administrator; Melissa Amos, beauty therapist; Dinia Morris, beauty therapist; Doloreen Blake, ancillary, and Carol Gibson, barber (Photo: Naphtali Junior)
EACH week in Corporate Profile, the Jamaica Observer brings you stories about businesses, their genesis, growth and course for the future. The stories are diverse, but all show the remarkable resilience of entrepreneurs determined to succeed against all the odds. This week we feature Totally Male Ltd, a spa and salon for men started in 1994 by the current Chief Executive Officer Sandra Samuels. Here is her story about a brand she has built among the discerning males in Kingston and the plans to take it to another level after 28 years.
“TOTALLY Male started in 1991,” Sandra Samuels, chief executive officer of Totally Male Limited, told the Jamaica Observer in the opening line of the story of a business she admits was built from a side hustle while she worked on the now-defunct Air Jamaica as an air hostess in the early 1990s.
The divergence between the 1991 year in which Samuels said she started Totally Male and the 1994 year highlighted above is due to when she started the side hustle and when it evolved into what we know today as Totally Male.
“I used to be a flight attendant with Air Jamaica,” Samuels continued. She said she worked with the airline from 1986 to 1994, but left when it was acquired by a group of investors led by the late Gordon “Butch” Stewart.
Samuels said then she had a room-mate who was doing a side hustle, selling women’s clothing. “So, I decided to do clothes for the spouses so that’s actually the genesis [of Totally Male] — and that was like ’91,” she recalled.
The decision, she said, to sell clothes for the spouses or men was because she was not intent on competing with her room-mate in the market for women’s clothing.
In time, she said, men began to depend on her to buy shirts, pants, colognes, socks and other items in cities which Air Jamaica flew to, for resale to them. “So it was like I was a personal shopper for them initially.”
Having that side hustle would come in handy for Samuels who decided that it would become her main source of income following a redundancy exercise at Air Jamaica in 1994.
“Once I saw the writing on the wall I got myself ready for my exit. My Plan A was to open a store to sell male clothing,” Samuels told the Business Observer while adding, “I had Totally Male on paper for like about two years because of the instability at Air Jamaica.”
That instability, she said, arose from the frequent rumours that the airline could fold at any time given the burden the State-owned entity was placing on the national budget each year.
Declaring, “I can’t live and don’t work because I am allergic to poverty,” Samuels said she started looking for locations to open her Totally Male clothing store ahead of the redundancy exercise and found a place that was locked up for “about three or four months” in the affluent Upper Montrose Road area of Kingston’s golden triangle. During the search for the location Samuels said she was also doing an informal feasibility study, and was told by most people that the business wouldn’t survive because men don’t spend a lot of money on clothing.
“And so it dawned on me that I had to find something that would have men coming in on a regular basis. And when I looked around the landscape I noticed men had to go to unisex salons to get their nails and massages and facials done. So I said, ‘Hmmm, well if I had a salon…’Cause you know the barbering was the key because men go to the barber like literally every week or every other week and they are loyal to their barbers, so in my mind I said, ‘Okay, if I had a spa there that did everything for men only, that could work to bring them in,” she reflected.
But she said she was discouraged from having a salon for males only, with many telling her that men would shy away from having manicures, facials or massages out of fear of being labelled homosexual in a society which, at the time, had a low tolerance for non-heterosexual relationships.
But Samuels said she was not daunted. From her time as an air hostess she said she noted the men, especially those travelling in first class, were always well-groomed. So, she targeted the men who bought clothes from her over the preceding years.
“Then I heard of my girlfriend relocating. She had a spa that she just closed down in Ocho Rios; she was relocating to Kingston. So I said to her, ‘Come and work with me in my space, but under the Totally Male name,’ because she didn’t have a presence in Kingston.”
Samuels said her friend came and did the spa services. A barber was hired, and another individual to do manicure and pedicure.
“At that time I didn’t know how to do the services. I didn’t know how to do nails, I didn’t know how to do hair — nothing.”
She said the knowledge deficit meant she couldn’t check on standards and fill in when people didn’t turn up for work.
“You’re stuck. So I learnt very early in the first year that I need to go and learn to do these services.” The training was done at the Face Place.
During that time Samuels said she had male barbers but when she learnt to cut hair, “The man dem say, no more man to dem head,” she said, repeating the latter part while counting her words.
The experience also led her to change the company’s slogan from “Be pampered, you deserve it” to “A woman’s touch for the exceptional man.” The barbers from thenceforth were all females. In fact, all staff were female.
“And I also changed [the slogan] too, because with the name of the company being Totally Male, the whole homophobic thing kinda reared its head with people calling to ask, ‘So who doing the massage?’ Cause you know, once it said Totally Male, they were thinking the employees were males.”
This was still 1994 when Totally Male was located at Upper Montrose Road with other businesses at the location. But she was forced to move in 1995 after the Kingston and St Andrew Corporation gave a cease and desist order to the landlord on the businesses for operating in a community that was not zoned for commercial activity.
“So one day a customer came in and I just said to him, ‘You know anywhere that is renting?’ ” and he introduced her to a location on Braemar Avenue in New Kingston, St Andrew.
Samuels said though the location was small, she took it, but quickly outgrew the space and didn’t find another location until 1998. At that time her employees numbered four. But outgrowing the space, she had to move again to a bigger space in what was known then as Island Life Mall in New Kingston (now the Courtleigh Corporate Centre).
She said after 18 months it was bought and a notice was issued to tenants that the maintenance fees that were charged were too late and they were backbilled to make up the difference, some in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and others up to $1 million.
That backbilling, she said, forced most tenants to move out with just a few remaining, including herself and the headquarters of the CashPlus ponzi scheme.
In a few years Samuels said she had to move again, returning to Braemar Avenue but at a different and bigger location than the first. From her time in the Island Life Mall in New Kingston she attracted many male clients of CashPlus. When that entity folded it affected her clientele. The sliding of the dollar also impacted her rent, which was in US dollars. But the landlord would not forego annual increases.
“So I told them I couldn’t [afford it], so I had to move again. So I moved now to Yellow Pages building on Constant Spring Road [St Andrew]. Now, you must understand that everytime I move I have to find $3 million to $5 million just to set up the place and have to be constantly taking loans to do so because you have to fix up the place to a certain standard.”
Samuels said though she was not keen on the location, having a preference for the business being located in New Kingston, she took it while continuing her search. That search was not to come easy and Totally Male ended up being in the Yellow Pages building for four years. The next move came when she got a place to rent at Spartan Health Club in New Kingston
“However, when that opportunity first came for Spartan I didn’t leave the Constant Spring Road location because I had developed a clientele that side of the world. So,I decided to keep the Constant Spring location and open Spartan at the same time.”
But she said it was not a good decision because she did not have sufficient funds to run the two locations at the same time, and she also found that the businesses were cannibalising each other. Also, being the sole owner and operator was placing a strain on her time and resources and the stress was getting to her. At the same time she was trying to take it easy after surviving breast cancer.
“I said, ‘No, this is going to send me to an early grave.’ So I went to the bank and I told them about my situation. Spartan was picking up as well so the bank advised me to close the Constant Spring Road location, focus on the Spartan location and cut down my expenses, and that’s what I did.” This was 2014.
During that first 20 years Samuels said, despite moving a lot, her clientele remained steady except for when the ponzi schemes collapsed and recently in the COVID-19 period.
But after five years at Spartan, Samuels had to move again in October 2019, six months before the pandemic, after the building she was in was sold to develop a medical complex.
“But when the pandemic hit, only a few customers stopped coming — mostly my older customers and those with underlying conditions. We put in COVID protocols. The only challenges that we had during COVID was the early lockdown days, but we worked around it by opening earlier and closing earlier.”
That opening period established at the height of the pandemic continues to this day, even though the restrictions have been lifted for almost nine months.
Now from the original three employees, Totally Male has 15, and though Samuels is proud of her achievement to date, she said she wished she didn’t have to change locations as frequently as she has. The achievements, though, don’t stop there.
“[The year] 2009 was a very good year for us in that we won two competitions. We won the Pioneers of Prosperity — the Jamaican leg — and the NCB Nation Builders Award as well, and we have just been constantly getting better and better and better.”
Now, 28 years on from the start, Samuels looks to the future. Though she points to challenges, such as expensive money and being the sole owner, she has no regrets.
“Totally Male is bigger than me, to be honest,” she readily admits. “So I’m now looking to see what next we are going to do. Totally Male, I see it as extremely franchisable, but that has to be sorted out and then I may put it on the market so that’s where my mindset is,” she reels off.
Samuels said she has been approached by investors but said it is not just about making money, but something she is passionate about, which means she scrutinises everyone who wants to put money in the business. Financial advisors have also encouraged her to list on the Junior Market of the Jamaica Stock Exchange and she said she is warming to that idea to ensure the entity lives beyond her, but even that decision won’t be rushed. She said she is also open to selling a portion of the company.
“I’m looking at what is the best for Totally Male because me alone cannot take it to the next level. To be honest, I think I’ve brought it to as far as I can but I have to find like-minded people who buy into the concept of Totally Male because I have had conversations with persons who the first thing them say is, ‘Why don’t you cater to women?’ Clearly they don’t buy into the concept because they’re going for low-hanging fruits and the truth is, I have barely scraped the surface of people in Kingston alone.”
She said she also wants to expand to Montego Bay, either through direct investment or a franchise. At her current location at Windsor Avenue in Kingston she says she is expanding by putting in more rooms. Looking out for her staff’s future is also top of her mind, having women who have been working with her from between 5 to 20 years.
“At the end of the day I want the women who I work with to have some kind of ownership as well so that if my eye closes they’re not thrown to the wolves, so that is something I am looking to do next year.”
Samuels said she also wants to do Totally Male-branded products and to expand into a full-scale wellness centre.
“I want a place where a man can go to get his services done, including having a urologist and dermatologist for males.”
“One thing I have found out about men that flies in the face of everything I was told when I was starting Totally Male is that men are extremely loyal. What men like is convenience. They want to get everything in one place — and I want to provide that,” she concluded.
Sandra Samuels, CEO, Totally Male (Photo: Naphtali Junior)
Samuels started Totally Male in 1994 (Photo: Naphtali Junior)
Sandra Samuels, CEO, Totally Male Spa, lines up West Indies cricketer Rovman Powell. (Photo: Naphtali Junior)
Totally Male location on Windsor Avenue in Kingston (Photo: Naphtali Junior)
West Indies cricketer Rovman Powell gets a manicure service from Michelle Medley, aesthician/beauty therapist. (Photo: Naphtali Junior)
Alwayne Johnson gets a trim from barber Ruth-Ann Forbes at Totally Male. (Photo: Naphtali Junior)
Barber Jacqueline O’Connor gives Major (ret’d) Norman Beckles a trim. (Photo: Naphtali Junior)
Jamaica cricketer Rovman Powell gets a manicure from Michelle Medley, Aesthician/beauty therapist at Totally Male (Photo: Naphtali Junior)