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San Clemente Journal

Experiencing Success the Old-Fashioned Way - Mary Lee Rizzo Wood

May 01, 2010 09:52PM ● By Don Kindred

by Anne Batty

Sporting beautifully color-blended and expertly coiffed locks, styled in the latest fashion, Mary Lee Rizzo Wood is the perfect example of what her hairstyling business, Salon Incognito, has to offer. An animated personality, her conversation overflows with an enthusiasm and love of what she does, and it doesn’t take long to realize that she is a talented, creative person of vision who knows what she wants and how to get it.

Born and bred in San Clemente, Mary Lee has operated her hairstyling salon in the same location on Avenida Del Mar for over 30 years. A claim to fame realized through long hours, dedication and perseverance. Growing from two stations into four, then eight, she has recently expanded the business to a side-by-side location in the building next door, creating a total of fifteen spots.

Proudly following in the footsteps of her father Vince Rizzo, a veteran barber for 50 years, Mary Lee attributes her success as a business owner to a work ethic she gleaned from him. Barbering first in Italy then traveling on a cruise ship to Venezuela, Vince Rizzo came to the USA to live in San Diego with family. He moved to San Clemente to cut hair on Camp Pendleton, and during that time began purchasing property on Del Mar with the goal of opening a barbershop of his own

“My dad believed that success required hard work,” Mary Lee revealed. “He taught us that if we wanted something we had to work for it. The building my dad bought on Del Mar had three shops, and I started out in business there in the back of his barbershop, store #1. It was a very small work area, so as my clientele grew I moved into #2 and finally #3 which is the original, traditional Salon Incognito. Recently my husband Chris and I have opened a more modern themed salon right next door, in another one of buildings that our families own.”

There is always a story behind success, and Mary Lee’s began with her birth in 1960 at South Coast Hospital in Laguna Beach… a time when there was no hospital in town. In her early years she attended all the local schools, eventually graduating from San Clemente High School in 1978. “Growing up I watched my dad barbering and my mom cooking and decided I definitely did not want to do what my mom was doing,” she joked. “So I decided to go to the Elegante School of Beauty in Dana Point. I originally wanted to get a barbering and cosmetology license, but in those days you could only have one, so I chose cosmetology hair styling.” After graduating from beauty school Mary Lee often did in-home hair styling for a neighbor - local businessman John Rohan of Rohan and Sons - and his family.

“John offered to open a salon for me,” she shared. “I was so impressed that someone would want to do that for me. But when I told my dad about it, he said “no,” that I should come to work in his barbershop. So he had to make some changes, because a cosmetologist and barber could not work together unless they had a partition between them. Later on, John’s daughter Kelly became a stylist, and he opened a salon for her. John’s oldest son, Mark Rohan, still drops into my place for a buzz and just to hang out and chat with all of us.”

Upon obtaining her cosmetology license, Mary Lee gained employment at the Haircuttery Company; a salon on Camino de Estrella run by Jan Wells. From there she went to Command Performance (a quick cut chain salon). Soon tiring of working for others, she decided it was time to try to work with her dad, and she opened her first salon, Mary Lee’s Styling Corner, in the back of his shop. After a few years she took over the next store naming it Salon Incognito.

“When thinking about a name for my present salon I took a trip to Tahoe with some girlfriends,” she recalled. “While talking about opening a shop in San Clemente someone asked … ‘where’s that’... I responded it’s where Nixon has a place, but I guess we’re incognito. Suddenly I realized that was it … the name for my shop … Salon Incognito!”

It would be a while before the business would bear that name and its exotic décor, chosen because of Cleopatra and the Egyptian era - the beginning time of beauty. It happened when the shop grew to eight stations and San Clementeans like Dee Brummett, Barbara Daniel, Dottie Hopper, Joan Dimino, Doris Stephens, Marlene Vleisides, Carolyn McOwen, and Martha Macintosh became patrons. As well as Mary Lee’s sons Kyle and Cameron, family members, friends and their children … who remain constant today.

That kind of longevity is something that flourishes at Salon Incognito, among the stylists as well as the clientele, and Mary Lee says, “We are all about making our patrons feel at home and having fun, but I also demand professionalism from the staff. I am a perfectionist and can be a taskmaster at times, but I try to treat everyone like family. We share information among ourselves and assist each other, and it thrills me to help the girls and see them succeed.”

Although a few customers and stylists have come and gone from Salon Incognito, many eventually return. Among those stylists that have moved on, six have opened their own shops, two on Del Mar, three on El Camino Real and one in San Juan Capistrano. Sharing her experience and expertise with coloring, styling and product, Mary Lee has mentored and trained numerous stylists, continually encouraging them to follow their dreams. Enjoying her work as she does, Mary Lee often drops by the shops on her day off. If she senses that energy is low and things are too quiet she sends out her positive vibe, opening up the front door, turning up the music, saying to her stylists, “let’s get some energy in here.”

“I believe that energy attracts energy, positive-positive, negative-negative,” she shares. “One day I came into the shop and business was kind of slow. I opened things up, increased the volume of the music and before you know it the place was full of clients and the energy was high. The girls were amazed to see that philosophy in action. Sometimes our clients just want to drop by for a chat and if the door is wide open, it invites them in.”

Another of her philosophies states ‘for every mistake there is a new creation.’ Like all things, hairstyling has changed over time, and in Mary Lee’s early years as a stylist, hair had to be perfect, with precision cutting and styling. When coloring there could be no bleeding (paneling or streaking), and hair had to be woven with each strand individually tinted.

“Styles are more casual today, less perfect,” she declares. “Clients want streaking, and healthy, wavy or straight hair is the fashion. Everyone wants their hair to be smooth and frizz free.”

As a victim of extremely frizzy hair herself, Mary Lee was the first stylist in the area to be certified and become an instructor/educator for the inventor of the Brazilian Keratin Treatment. Now she and some of her other stylists have become experts in this process. It is a procedure with no harmful chemicals that straightens up to 90% of the hair and makes it healthier. Lasting for approximately three months it cuts drying time in half, and releases clients with frizzy hair from daily straightening, avoiding tremendous harm to their hair.

Continuing education, experience, and determination have brought Mary Lee a long way in the business of beauty, and she enthusiastically looks forward to more of the same. People often ask her if she is going to retire someday. Her answer, “Why would I retire? I love what I’m doing and can’t think what I would do with myself if I wasn’t doing this.” ‘Love what you do and do what you love,’ is a popular admonition among the life and career coaches of today. It is an admonition that certainly fits hair stylist Mary Lee Rizzo Wood to a “T”, and one that seems to be propelling her and her business into a limitless future. b


Contact Mary Lee at (949)492-1218 or visit