Tag Archives: tattoos

Big Brain Productions

February 22, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Joe “Smitty” Smith runs a seemingly typical tattoo parlor Downtown, complete with 13 staff members and regular clients. But it’s what Big Brain Productions, located in the Old Market, also provides for employees (401(k) benefits, paid vacations, and a holiday trip to Costa Rica) that makes it stand out.

“I just try to do what’s right for people who take their careers as seriously as the people I have working for me. I try to live up to the standards that they set in their careers as a shop owner,” Smitty says.

As the company has grown over its last 14 years, so have its employee benefits. For example, Big Brain has been offering health insurance for eight years.

Smitty says he had many ideas about what he wanted his tattoo business to be when he was “young and hungry” but struggles to find new ideas moving forward. This drive has led to the parlor’s most recent changes.

“I don’t think you can stand still ever in business,” Smitty says. “I felt like I was at that point where I was kind of standing still, so I said we need to shake it up a little bit, and that’s why we’re doing that big remodel out there.”

Renovations include taking out a space-monopolizing desk and moving iPads that previously hung on a wall to a new area, where they showcase each of the artists’ portfolios.

One such artist, David Brown, has been piercing at Big Brain for five years. He says he joined the parlor because it was a “good fit.” Brown had worked in restaurant management and found the transition to be natural, thanks to a shared business mindset with Smitty.

“We’re both very customer oriented. The customer experience goes above our personal needs,” Brown says. “It’s taking care of the client, making sure that their experience here is the best one they can possibly have.”

Brown credits the large success of Big Brain to the little things that the company emphasizes.

“You don’t get Best of Omaha™ 10 years in a row without doing all the little things right,” he says. “It’s sanitation, it’s stock, it’s ordering; it’s the staff we surround ourselves with. Smitty has done an amazing job of finding nine like-minded tattoo artists who excel at nine different things.”

Despite a good business plan and staff, Big Brain has suffered its share of hardships in years past. In 2007, the company was selected for a tax audit after the IRS looked into how Big Brain’s accountant was amortizing a construction project. Thanks to incorrectly following an amortization schedule, Big Brain received a large audit bill, which triggered years of extra auditing and working closely with lawyers. “My lawyers said I was doing it right, their lawyers said I was doing it wrong, and, you know, you end up somewhere in the middle.”

But with that experience in the past, “I sleep well at night knowing I don’t have skeletons in my closet,” Smitty says. “To have them in your business, and deep in your business, what’s left? Now it’s like, come in any time. I push two buttons and make a phone call, and they have all my financial records. Nothing to hide.”

As a self-taught businessman, Smitty learned a lot from this experience and has put that knowledge toward running Big Brain. He handles payroll as well as tax deposits, and over the last few years, the company has grossed over $1 million per year. Despite running the business as well as piercing at the parlor, Smitty says he gets the most job satisfaction out of seeing his employees succeed.

“There comes a point where you’re more happy when your subordinates do something well than you ever were when you were,” he says. “When my kids do something good, it makes me feel way better than when I did it, and it’s the same thing with your employees. When you have somebody else accomplish what used to be your goal, you really take pride in that.”

The Troy Davis Story

December 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Leading Omaha hairdresser Troy Davis long ago showed an educational and entrepreneurial knack for his craft and for building the Edgeworthy brand at Fringes Salon & Spa in the Old Market. Now that his mentor and longtime business partner, Fringes founder Carol Cole, has sold her interest in the location, he has a new partner and a new focus on managing costs. The result is record profitability.

“Fringes of the Old Market is the busiest and healthiest it’s ever been,” says Davis, who’s made Fringes an Omaha Fashion Week fixture.

“Troy and Fringes have been a very important part of Omaha Fashion Week, as they style many of our veteran designers and constantly impress with their ability to interpret the latest hair and makeup trends on our runway,” says OFW producer Brook Hudson.

Davis is glad to share in the success. He’s lately seen members of the Fringes team represent well in a recent competition and awards show. Never content to stay put, his Clear Salon Services business is a new generation, grassroots distributorship for independent hair-care brands.20121130_bs_6230 copy

These professional triumphs have been happening as Davis addresses personal problems that “came to a head” last August but that have their roots in the past. Growing up in Blair, Neb., he began drinking and using drugs to mask the sexual identity issues he confronted as a gay teen in an environment devoid of alternative lifestyles.

“I felt so completely isolated. I lived in fear so badly that I hid it with drinking and weed,” he says.

A healthier form of self-expression he excelled in, speech and drama, seemed a likely direction to pursue out of high school. But first he moved to Omaha to experience the diversity he craved back home. He briefly attended Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, even landing the lead in the school’s fall production, before dropping out to attend beauty school in Omaha.

From their first meeting, Davis and Cole knew they’d found a new best friend they could grow in their chosen field alongside. She says she immediately responded to his “passion and energy and drive,” adding, “Troy Davis has definitely made me a better person and stylist and leader.”

Within four years, he’d proven to be such a trusted asset that Cole partnered with him in opening the Old Market shop.

“I’ve always been a very honest and open person. I’ve actually shared publicly via Facebook some of my bottoms and what I’ve learned.”

“He earned that,” she says. “He just really wanted to be downtown. His heart was there. I finally said, ‘Look, if you want to be a partner, I’ll do it, but you’re going to have to step it up and find a location.’ And he did. I have to give him a lot of credit because he put a lot of grunt work into it to get it started.”

The rest is history, as Fringes became a presence in the Old Market for its ultra-contemporary, urban styles and high-end hair care and beauty services. Cole let him run things there so she could concentrate on Fringes’ West Dodge site.

For Davis, Cole’s been more than just a business partner.

“Carol and I are so close. We just absolutely click,” he says. “She’s a very intelligent, very professional business woman. There’s not a lot of partnerships that make it. In a lot of ways, our relationship is like a marriage, only platonic. I think it’s healthier or better than most marriages I know of. We are able to communicate in a way that most people are not. We can say anything to each other, and even if it’s something that ends up hurting each other, we know that’s not our intention. Usually, it’s one of us misunderstanding something, and we’re always able to go back and clean it up.”20121130_bs_6095 copy

Davis has moved fast within the industry. While still in his 20s, he became one of 10 international creative team members for Rusk, a role that saw him flown all over the world to teach other hairdressers the use of the international distributor’s haircare products. He worked in the Omaha salon during the week and jetted around on weekends. It gave him the stage, the lights, the theatrics he felt called to. It also meant lots of money and partying.

All the while, his addictions progressed.

He was prepping for the always-stressful Omaha Fashion Week last summer when he and his life partner split for good. Amidst the breakup, the all-nighters, running his businesses, and leading an online advocacy campaign for a Fringes team that showed well in the national Battle of the Strands competition, Davis crashed.

“By the time I hit bottom, I was drinking every day and drinking to black out three days a week and, you know, it just had to end. I finally realized I am an alcoholic. It was a real wake-up call.”

He’s now actively working a 12-step program. “It’s definitely helped me get sober. I definitely thank my Higher Power for the strength I’ve had to get where I am today.”

He’s not shy sharing his ups and downs. “I’ve always been a very honest and open person. I’ve actually shared publicly via Facebook some of my bottoms and what I’ve learned in my treatment. In order to achieve something you need support in your life, and there is a connection through Facebook with family and friends that I think is very useful. I see it as an opportunity to share with them what I’m going through and the choices I’m making for myself.”20121130_bs_6028 copy

He calls his 12-step group “a new addition to my family,” adding, “They’re great people.” Like many addicts, he’s replaced his former addictions for a couple new, blessedly benign ones—Twitter and tattoos.

As his recovery’s progressed, he’s grown in other ways, too, including taking charge of his Fringes store’s finances. “It’s absolutely the best thing that could have happened for this business. It’s given me a whole new level of accountability. I see things more clearly and because of that, we’ve broken through a plateau we were never able to get past.”

He credits new business partner Sarah Pithan, a former assistant, for helping increase business by more than $4,000 a week. He also credits the “amazing team” he and Pithan have cultivated, including Omar Rodriguez, Kristina Lee, and Teresa Chaffin, for taking Fringes and Clear Salon Services to new levels.

For more information about Fringes Salon & Spa, visit www.fringessalon.com.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.