The CEO of John Paul Mitchell Systems has spent the past three decades building the company's Paul Mitchell brand into a business that grosses about $900 million annually. At the same time, he's taken been an activist for causes ranging from pediatric medical treatment to AIDS awareness. More recently, he has focused his efforts on helping eliminate hunger and improve health among the people of America's Appalachian region.
DeJoria, a Los Angeles native who will turn 67 in April, worked as a janitor, encyclopedia salesman, tow truck driver and even had a stint in the Navy before taking on a marketing position with Time magazine, and eventually moving into the hair-care industry. In 1980, DeJoria and hairdresser-friend Cyril Mitchell started selling products under the Paul Mitchell brand (Mitchell, who took on the name "Paul" as his professional moniker, died of pancreatic cancer in 1989) with a promise to salon-owner customers that the brand would be sold exclusively through professional salons, and would never be found on retailers' shelves.
DailyFinance talked with DeJoria, who signs off phone conversations with a wish of "peace, love and happiness," about his businesses -- he also co-founded Patron tequila in 1989 -- and his causes.
DailyFinance: Tell me about Grow Appalachia?
DeJoria: We're trying to help the people of Appalachia help themselves. When you don't have any money, it's poverty eating -- people are shoving all of the wrong foods into their stomachs. So we planted 100 gardens, paid for tools, seeds, fertilizer and full-time people to show these people how to feed themselves on all different kinds of terrains. With the gardens we planted last year, 2,700 will eat this year. Our goal is to end hunger in 50% of Appalachia, and we may feed close to 10,000 people.
You come from modest means, yet you've taken a philanthropic approach since founding your company. What has been the philosophy behind that?
When I was a kid in the early 1950s, my mother, brother and I would take the streetcar to downtown L.A. for a nickel to see all of the Christmas decorations at stores like the May Company, Bullocks and the Broadway. My mom would take a dime, which was a lot of money for us at the time, and make each of us hold half the dime and put it in the Salvation Army Bucket. The lesson was that, no matter how bad you have it, someone's worse off than you. So that impregnated something, and I started with so little, so I feel so blessed with the success I've had. Success not shared is failure. When you get enough, you bring the rest of the world along.
A company I used to work for tested its products on marmosets, and I really felt sorry for the marmosets in that cage. They kept injecting them with stuff. So I said, 'Let's experiment on ourselves.' Everything we make, we experiment in our own eyes. Some of the big companies like Sebastian and L'Oreal attacked us on it, saying, 'We would never stoop so low' (to test on humans). Now, the rest of the industry doesn't want to be known for animal testing.
Some would call a visit to a hair salon a luxury item of sorts. How has your company fared during the recent economic downturn?
A lot of salons have gone out of business, but we've grown each year. Last year, we had double-digit growth. We're the only major company in the professional beauty industry that's only in the professional beauty industry. My competitors are bigger in the retail industry. So the salons have been more supportive of us because they know we're only in this industry for them. If you ever see Paul Mitchell in a drug store or supermarket, it's counterfeit.
Have you ever considered branching out into retail or going public?
No. If Paul Mitchell went open market, I'd double my business overnight. But I always said (to salon owner-customers) that if we were lucky enough to make it, we'll be the only ones that never sold you out. And companies like Jhirmack, Nexxus -- people fell out left and right for the money. But the people who brought me to the dance deserve to stay at the dance.
What made you start Patron tequila?
We started Patron in 1989. I told (Patron Co-Founder and DeJoria home architect) Martin Crowley to go down to Mexico and bring back the tequila that the aristocrats drink. It was very mellow, and I said that if we could do it in recycled glass and label it with recycled paper so it would be environmentally friendly, and if we could make it a little smoother than what we'd brought back, I'd pay for a thousand cases, or 12,000 bottles. We started to sell it in the U.S. for $38 a bottle, so it took off slowly. But people want to treat themselves.