Getting There: A Book of Mentors (2015)




I grew up in downtown Los Angeles. My parents divorced when I was two, and from that point on, it was just my mother, my brother, and I. We had almost no money. I remember a time when all we had was twenty-seven cents.

My mother assured us, “We are just fine. We have food in the refrigerator, we have our little garden around back, and next week more money will be coming in. We are actually rich because we are as happy as can be.” She taught us that being rich and successful is a result of how happy you are and how well you do your job, not how much money you make.

As a kid, I thought it would be really cool to work so I could contribute to the family. I entered into my first entrepreneurial venture with my brother when I was seven years old. We would buy wood from the Variety Boys Club for twenty-five cents, use it to make flower boxes, then sell them for fifty cents each. We made a twenty-five-cent profit and thought it was amazing. At nine years old I sold Christmas cards, and when I was eleven I got my first morning paper route. To me, having a job was a privilege. My brother and I gave everything we earned to our mother so we could afford new sheets and things like that.

I graduated high school when I was seventeen. I didn’t have the money to go to college, so I immediately enlisted in the United States Navy, where I remained on active duty for three years. When I got out, I worked a variety of jobs—from driving a tow truck to selling Collier’s Encyclopedia door-to-door, which was a formative experience for me. If that job existed today I would make every one of my kids do it. It was all cold-calling, convincing people to let me make a presentation. The goal was to get them, in an hour or less, to buy a set of encyclopedias for their family. I had to learn to overcome rejection, because after you’ve had fifteen doors slammed in your face, you need to be as enthusiastic at door number sixteen as you were at the first door if you want to make a sale. The average life of an encyclopedia salesman was three days, but I did it for three years! I was able to last so long because I truly believed that everyone needed a set of these books and that I was doing something good for my customers. If you don’t believe in what you are selling, then you are just a salesman. I saw myself as somebody who helped people make the right decision. From there, I went on to vend everything from life insurance to medical linen to dictating equipment.

Eventually, when I was twenty-six, I got a job working at Time, Inc. as a circulation manager. I asked my boss what I had to do to become a vice president, and he said, “Well, you don’t have a college degree, so come back and ask me when you are thirty-five.” I knew I didn’t want to tread water for nine years, so I went looking for another job. A friend of mine was an employment counselor and told me about Redken, a company in the beauty industry that was hiring salesmen. The pay wasn’t very good, but he said, “There is no limit to where you can go in that industry.” He was right! I took the job at Redken and moved up the ladder very fast. Within a year and a half, I was the national manager of two of their divisions (chain salons and scientific schools) and doing extremely well.

Both of my divisions grew every year, but one day the vice president of the company fired me. He said, “You and your team are messing up the way we run a corporation. You visit our businesses then immediately leave. You don’t hang out with the regional managers enough.” I said, “That’s because we don’t have to. We go in, do our job really well, then leave.” I didn’t want to socialize with them on the weekends. I was going to love-ins in Griffith Park instead. Apparently, I didn’t fit into Redken’s corporate picture.

I then went to work for Fermodyl Hair Care, training their management and sales force on how to sell. I was with them for one year, and during that time, the company grew from $8 million to $12 million in sales. But, once again, I was fired by the vice president for not fitting in. He said, “This company is run by people who are Jewish—and you are not. On the weekends you go to your love-ins or whatever you do with your biker friends, and you don’t hang out with us.” I couldn’t believe my ears! Today that would be called discrimination. He added, “I don’t really like you anyway, so you’re fired.” He was a pretty mean guy. I left, sales plummeted, and within a year the vice president and his top two guys got fired.

My next job was working for the Institute of Trichology as the vice president of sales and marketing. Because they didn’t have a lot of money, I agreed to work for $3,000 a month plus six percent of any new sales I created. In about a year I tripled the company’s sales—but, once again, I was fired. This time it was because I made too much money. One of the owners said, “We can get someone to do your job for about one-third of what you are making.” His reasoning was as stupid as can be; I left and the company went downhill fast.

Tired of being at the mercy of others, I decided to go out on my own as a consultant for people who wanted to join the beauty industry. I was good at it, but my clients were such small companies that they were always behind on the paychecks. So that didn’t last very long.

Around that time, in 1980, my friend Paul Mitchell (that was his hairdressing name, his real name was Cyril T. Mitchell) was having some real challenges financially while he was trying to get a product line off the ground. Unfortunately, the quality and marketing weren’t there. I suggested we start a business together. We decided to create a line of hair-care products for professional stylists. The plan was that Paul would own thirty percent of the company, I’d own thirty percent, and a European investor who was going to contribute $500,000 would own forty percent.

Things weren’t going well with my former wife, so the day the money from our investor was supposed to come in I gave her almost everything we had and moved out. With just a few hundred bucks in my pocket, I planned to withdraw some of the investor’s money and check into a hotel. Paul was in a similarly precarious financial situation. Unfortunately, the investor changed his mind at the last minute and the money never came in.

I said to Paul, “What are we going to do? How much can you put toward this business?” He said, “I can only spare $350.” I knew I needed a couple of hundred bucks to live off of, so I borrowed $350 from my mom to match Paul’s contribution. John Paul Mitchell Systems was started with only $700.

Too proud to tell anyone about my situation, I moved into my car and figured out how to get by on two dollars and fifty cents a day. I would wake up in the morning and shower at the Griffith Park tennis courts. For breakfast I’d get the Trucker’s Special at the Freeway Café: An egg, a piece of toast, and a piece of bacon or one sausage, plus your choice of coffee or orange juice, all for ninety-nine cents. I ate as late as possible because breakfast had to last me till four-thirty p.m. when Mexican restaurants like El Torito would begin their margarita specials. For ninety-nine cents you got a margarita plus all you can eat salsa, chicken wings, mini tostadas, and other little munchies. Twenty chicken wings later, with the salsa serving as my vegetable, I was full for the night. I would leave a quarter tip at each place. I was a big tipper!

I parked my car on Mulholland Drive because it was safe. After a couple of weeks, Joanna Pettet, an actress I had known from years past, walked by and saw me. She said, “You’re living in your car?! I can’t believe it! I have an extra room I can let you have for a couple of months to give you a helping hand.” So I stayed with her. She was a good lady. I got some business cards printed up for John Paul Mitchell Systems with her home phone number on it. When you called, you’d hear her English accent on the answering machine. I also got a post office box with a Universal City address for fifteen bucks. Little things like having a fancy address and someone else’s voice on your outgoing message can make your business look a lot bigger and more official.

To start, Paul and I made a sample run of two shampoos and a conditioner. I relied on the skills I developed selling encyclopedias and went from beauty salon to beauty salon, cold-calling. To say the least, we didn’t have enough money for advertising, but we felt we had a product so good that once people used it they would reorder and recommend it. That was our entire philosophy. We even said, “If you are not completely happy with our product line, we will take back every single bottle you have left and give you your money back.” At least four out of every five salons we approached turned us down, but when one did buy our products, we would show them how to use them, how to market them, and how to make sales to their patrons. We helped our customers become successful.

It was literally hand-to-mouth for the first eighteen months to two years. By all business laws, we should have folded every day during that period but about two years in we were finally able to pay our bills on time and even had $4,000 in the bank. We were, like, “Oh, my God, we made it!” That was a huge turning point. From then on, business improved bit by bit. By the third year things really started taking off, and we’ve grown ever since.

In 1989 Paul Mitchell died, and I started another business, the Patrón Spirits Company, with my friend Martin Crowley. Martin had been spending some time in Mexico for a separate business that we had started the year prior. Before he headed down on one of his trips, I told him, “Bring me back a couple of bottles of tequila. Buy whatever the aristocrats drink.” He returned with two plain-looking bottles of the smoothest stuff I had ever tasted. We figured that if we hired a master tequila distiller to make it even smoother and found a nicer way to package it, we could be onto something. It was very expensive to produce so to make the venture worthwhile we had to sell it for thirty-seven dollars a bottle, which was unheard of back then (the really good tequilas were going for about fourteen dollars a bottle and normal ones were at about five or six dollars per bottle). But we believed that the world was ready for a high-end product and we established the category “ultra premium tequila.” We manufactured a thousand cases (twelve thousand bottles) to start. I figured that if no one bought it I would keep the tequila and for the next ten years everybody I knew would get a bottle on his or her birthday, christening, bar mitzvah, or any other kind of occasion you could think of.

Business was slow at first, but once people got over the shock of the price and tasted our product, they wanted more. Clint Eastwood put Patrón in his movie In the Line of Fire, and Wolfgang Puck turned all his friends on to it. At Paul Mitchell, we gave it free to people at events. And there are now more than two hundred songs that mention Patrón in their lyrics!

I have started so many businesses over the years, from diamonds to solar energy to manufacturing boats and pet supplies. The common thread among them is that they were each exciting to me at the time. The key is to be passionate about what you are doing—and then meticulous about the quality of what you produce.

You don’t always know what you want to do in life, but you sure know when something isn’t right. My advice is that once you realize you don’t want to pursue something get out. The sooner you exit a situation that’s not meant to be, the sooner you can move toward your ultimate destiny.

Throughout my twenties and up until the second year of John Paul Mitchell Systems, there were many nights that I couldn’t sleep because I had no money to pay my bills. I remember feeling so down that I thought, I could look up and see an ant crawling above me. But I’ve come to realize that things that appear to be setbacks at the time often end up being for the best. For example, it would have been impossible for me to start John Paul Mitchell Systems had I not learned what I did and made the connections I did from every one of my prior beauty industry jobs. Each experience equipped me with something essential to my ultimate success and put me on a path where I could make a difference in the world. Whether it’s helping the homeless find jobs in America, feeding needy people all over the world, or protecting our waterways, I wouldn’t be in a position to do any of it had I not gone through some really rough patches.


Images Success unshared is failure. If you’ve “made it” and don’t help others out along the way—if you don’t do something to make the planet a better place—you’re not successful at all; you are a failure. But remember that you can’t help everybody out. You have to focus and contribute in ways that you think are most beneficial.

My mom instilled this philosophy in me. She always encouraged my brother and me to do good. She had us give to the Salvation Army when we had no more than a dime and taught us that no matter how much someone has or doesn’t have there is always somebody who is worse off.

Images The difference between successful people and unsuccessful people is that successful people do all the things unsuccessful people don’t want to do. Most people don’t want to work more than they have to. They do the minimum they are paid to do. That’s not the way to get ahead. Always do the best you can, not the least you can get away with. When you do your job, even if its just cleaning an office, do it as if somebody you want to impress is watching your every step.

Images You don’t have to be good at everything to be successful. Do what you do best and try to find others who can fill in by doing the things you are not good at. For instance, I am terrible at details—accounting especially, so I hire accountants to help me. This frees me up to focus on the things I do excel at and I can run a more efficient operation.

Images The biggest hurdle people face in almost any business is rejection. If you know this in advance and are mentally prepared for it, you’ll have a much easier time staying upbeat and eventually succeeding.