Three generations of Nelsen men openly admit that it was a day they didn’t see coming two years ago.
Louis Nelsen has been working as a barber with his son, Brent, for the past 30 years. The two are an inseparable father-son and business duo as the owners of Barbers of the Lowcountry. Now, there is a new Nelsen with scissors at the ready at the iconic Sheridan Park shop.
Anthony Nelsen recently graduated from the Lowcountry Barber College and is now working as an intermediate barber at the shop.
All parents dream of seeing their kids find their passion in life. Both Louis and Brent found that calling, but Brent never imagined he’d get this chance with Anthony.
“I am just honored that my son wanted to do this,” Brent said. “I have so enjoyed working with my Dad for the last 30 years, it’s just flown by. And now to get this chance to train and work with Anthony, it’s truly a blessing.”
The Nelsen empire started to form in the early 1990s, when the elder Nelsens worked together at Brent’s cousin’s shop on Mathews Drive on Hilton Head Island. Finally, Dad and son scraped together the funds to open their own shop and chose Bluffton as their home.
“To be able to establish the culture we want, a fun atmosphere where staff is appreciated, where we have an old-school work ethic and appreciation for the craft, that was always the dream,” Brent said. “I give all the credit to my Dad. He is such an easy-going person, he has let me run things the way I feel it should be run. When he does add in his two cents, it’s always something worth listening to and pursuing.”
For the first decade, the Nelsens focused on Sheridan Park, perfecting the culture, their leadership of staff and their relationships with customers. Brent said that it wasn’t until 2009 when he started to see a greater opportunity with the shop.
“The customer is always first, it’s our way of operating. For many years, I saw this as the dream, but I’m not sure I saw it as a true business opportunity,” Brent said. “My eyes truly started to open as the town expanded and we started to see a bit beyond the walls of the shop.”
Nelsen has established a reputation as a constant business innovator over the past decade. He said that began with a visit from an influential customer.
“He asked about the music we played in the shop, whether we had a license to play it. He told me that Wild Wing had been fined for it and changed their system,” Nelsen said. “So we decided to create our own in-house radio network.”
Nelsen has a number of local businesses who buy ad space that is heard in the shop between music playing. He said that the sponsorships now pay for the monthly license to play the music in the shop.
The shop also features a keg with rotating local brews available for customers while they wait or to sip during their cut. The keg cooler is filled with stickers of local businesses – a prime word-of-mouth marketing coup to be seen by the 2,500 people that go through the shop each month.
BOTL also offers family memberships and individual and kids memberships, a way to save on future visits by paying ahead. They were also one of the first barbers to offer online reservations.
Barbers added a Beaufort location in 2020 and are in the middle of construction of a Pooler location that Nelsen said they hope to open this fall.
“None of this is possible without our local customers. We’re just always trying to listen to them, they lead the way in terms of the products and the atmosphere we serve up here,” Brent said. “My Dad and I have worked hard to build a team of top-notch barbers that represent the shop well. The team truly makes it fun to be in here every day.”
Having Anthony as part of that team first came up when he was a senior at Bluffton High School. The Bobcats football star had been so focused on schoolwork and playing middle linebacker that he had never really considered the family business.
That is, until a conversation with his dad and his mom, Cary.
“I just presented the opportunity to him, laid out the schooling he would need to do, but above all, I wanted to make sure this was what he wanted, that he wasn’t just doing this to please me,” Brent said.
Anthony said the talk was definitely a revelation.
“I love my Dad and our relationship, I see what he and Pop have and it’s really something special,” Anthony said. “The more I thought about it, the more I was all in and made it clear that this was for me, not him.”
Brent said he may have gone overboard in giving Anthony all the plusses and minuses of the life decision.
“Cary just kept saying to me, ‘Will you stop trying to talk him out of it already!’,” Brent said. “I finally realized that this was what he wanted. And man, I could not be prouder.”
Anthony has spent the past year going through the Lowcountry Barber College curriculum, a program created by the Nelsens that has created a feeder system for their shops. He said that there have been plenty of times where he thought he might not make the cut.
“This is a craft, there is so much muscle memory and just learning techniques, and when I saw Dad and Pop making corrections on my cuts so often, I wondered if I had what it takes,” Anthony said. “I thought I was letting them down, but they both just kept telling me that this is all part of the learning. They drilled it into me that it all comes with repetition, and they were right.”
Anthony said he is feeling more and more comfortable that he can live up to the family name. He hopes to keep moving forward and earn next-level titles over the next three to four years. Next up is associate barber, followed by senior barber status.
As the population continues to grow in the Lowcountry, Brent and Louis have been busy trying to capitalize on the growth. The plan is to open 20 to 25 franchise locations around the region in the coming years.
The Nelsens are also looking to expanding their hair replacement system business, an innovation they have not marketed as much as they’ve continued to perfect the product – a revolutionary way to give men with thinning hair a new hope of a full mane.
“We have so many things in the pipeline, but it’s been great to really celebrate family – both in honoring our staff and the third generation entering the business,” Brent said.
Anthony said he is focused on soaking in every bit of mentorship from his Dad and Pop and the entire BOTL crew. He hopes to have mastered enough leadership and barber skills in the next five years to be worthy of leading his own BOTL shop.
“It’s exciting to have a path, to plant roots, to know I can make Bluffton my adult home,” Anthony said. “And to do all this with my Dad and my Pop, I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. Contact him at email@example.com.