Debra Penzone began her cosmetology career shampooing hair and sweeping floors. But her artistic passion and business savvy led her to the top of the Charles Penzone Family of Salons
As a young beauty school graduate, Debra Penzone doubted she was worthy of landing a job at a Charles Penzone salon.
The company's prestigious reputation intimidated her-as did stories from friends at school about how they only hired gorgeous girls. She had been head cheerleader and prom queen in high school, but put an extra 30 pounds on her petite frame while immersed in classes at the Ohio State School of Cosmetology.
"I never even dreamed I could get in," Debra said. "So I never went to apply, which is so sad."
Now 44, Debra is the poised and polished president of the local salon empire-and wife of the company's founder-leading a team of 520 employees at six salons and giving generously to the community. And she does it with the same perky personality she's had since childhood.
"She is the most positive, enthusiastic individual that I've ever known," said her husband, Charles Penzone, chairman of the salon chain. "It never changes. It is the way she is, the minute she awakens in the morning."
Debra's cosmetology career began in 1986 as an assistant at Tangles, a small salon on Bethel Road on Columbus' Northwest Side. Her positive attitude and finesse with clients impressed veteran hairstylist Marilynn DePalma, who mentoredt the 19-year-old during her first months on the job.
"She was just sweet, and had that twinkle in her eye," DePalma said. "I could see that she was willing to learn and wanted to do well."
Unbeknownst to Debra, DePalma had been one of Charles Penzone's first employees. She married and moved away, and after returning to Columbus, eventually reconnected with her old boss. When he offered her a job at one of his salons, she immediately accepted-with one condition. She wanted to bring along her talented assistant.
Debra vividly remembers the day DePalma took her to lunch and shared the news.
"Me? They would hire me? Are you serious? I could get a job at Charles Penzone?" she gasped. She couldn't have known how it would change her world.
"It was a turning point," Debra said, "in my life and my career."
She started out shampooing hair and sweeping floors like every other assistant, but Debra quickly earned her own styling chair at the Dublin salon.
Charles Penzone admired her professional talent long before they entered into a romantic relationship.
"Debbie was, without question, what I call the fastest starter that we've ever had," he said. "She developed a following and clientele faster than anyone in the 42-year history of our company."
Debra channeled her lifelong passion for art, beauty and fashion into her work.
"Everything that she did was very precise and neat and clean," said Kat Sasfy, Debra's one-time assistant who is now the senior creative director at MAX the Salon in the Short North. "If you looked at her (haircutting) technique from the outside, her posture and the way she moved was very graceful and very put together. It was visually fun to watch."
Clients' reactions to the results gave Debra a sense of purpose.
"Just seeing their face when they loved it, you couldn't even put a dollar amount on that-how good it made me feel," she said.
Still, she sometimes felt out of place in her upscale surroundings. She had grown up in a family of seven children in Springfield, Ohio, where her father owned a financial services business, and her mother worked third shift as a nurse. One day, she expressed her frustration with her dad.
"Sometimes these ladies sit in my chair, and they drive BMWs, and they're all sophisticated, and I don't know what to talk to them about," she said.
He encouraged her to take a Dale Carnegie self-help course that he had enjoyed. "It was the best investment that I made," Debra said. The lessons, along with Carnegie's bestselling book "How to Win Friends and Influence People," lifted her confidence, improved her communication skills and inspired her to set higher goals.
Debra's enthusiasm and growing self-assurance led to a string of promotions, first at the salon and eventually at the corporate headquarters, where she oversaw employee training and community outreach.
"For someone who didn't think she was worthy, she served every role you can serve moving up the ladder," Charles Penzone said.
She gradually transitioned into the business world, working three days at the salon and two days at the office.
"I loved my clients and my guests. Many of them were like family," Debra said. "I'd see them get married; I'd be there for their first baby. It was so hard to give that up."
At the height of the economic crisis in 2008, Debra was named president of the company.
"Growing up one of seven, I h ave no problem going through the line item and cutting the stuff we don't need," she said. But she refused to cut corporate giving to local charities.
And she also generously donates her time, too.
She hosts an annual mother-daughter pampering day for hospitalized teenage girls. She volunteers for an American Cancer Society program that teaches cancer patients how to beautify themselves. And she donates a portion of proceeds from public speaking engagements to her Earth Angels Foundation, which funds cancer research.
She also has served on the boards for Dress for Success, Haven for Hope and The Childhood League Center-among other things.
"She has such a generous, pure heart," said Jeffrey Damron, CEO of A Kid Again, a nonprofit that serves children with life-threatening illnesses. "You can't teach that to people."
In 1997, Damron wrote a letter requesting a donation that made Debra cry. Since then, thousands of young girls have been treated to salon and spa services by the Penzone team. "She is a brilliant leader," Damron said.
"She is a very compassionate person that knows how to advocate for those less fortunate than she is. She knows what it's like to be without, yet she knows what it's like to have great blessings."
Debra gives willingly-and without much fanfare, said Kathleen Gough, a patient navigator with the American Cancer Society. Gough recalled one Christmas Eve when a patient at Ohio State University's Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital wanted to look her best for visiting relatives but needed help. Debra learned of the request through a nurse practitioner and arrived at the hospital with her makeover tools. "It was just very special to the patient," Gough said. "I found out through (the patient's family) that she had done that."
Debra was working as a training director when, while walking out of the office one night, Charles Penzone finally mustered the nerve to ask her out.
Would you like to go to a movie? he asked.
"It looked like someone had hit her with a baseball bat," he said.
They watched "Forrest Gump" that weekend, and, four years later, married in Rome, Italy. It was the second marriage for both, and the couple built their relationship on friendship, love and a mutual respect for each other's career.
"I just really, truly believe that you have to live what you love," Debra said. "And we both live what we love."
Debra even cuts her husband's hair-a favor he jokes will send her directly to heaven because he's so particular about how it's done.
"We're together constantly, and a lot of people say, 'How do you do it?' " Charles Penzone said. "I don't think I could do it any other way."
Choosing his wife to take over daily operations of the company he'd led for nearly 40 years was an easy decision, he said. Ultimately, it came down to business-not their shared last name.
"There's a time when you have to let young, fresh ideas come to the forefront," he said. "She brings a freshness and a newness and a reinvention to a good brand."