Homeless Salesman to $4-billion Empire

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Success unshared is failure,” says billionaire philanthropist John Paul DeJoria, co-founder and Chairman of the Board of John Paul Mitchell Hair Systems. The world’s largest privately held salon hair care line, it’s now worth $3.3 billion.

DeJoria is also co-creator of The Patrón Spirits Company (said to be worth $6 billion), which produces the world’s number one ultra- premium tequila. DeJoria’s other businesses include Marquis Yachts, ROK Mobile, a no-contract low-cost mobile carrier, and his latest passion, a natural dermatologist-developed cold sore treatment.

​It’s difficult to believe that Los Angeles-born DeJoria, whose father left when he was two, once collected discarded bottles for cash, was twice homeless, worked as a janitor, paperboy and encyclopaedia salesman among other jobs, and gave all the money he earned to his mother.

A few years later DeJoria, along with his partner, Paul Mitchell, created John Paul Mitchell Hair Systems with just $700; DeJoria first sold the hair products from his car. Now, this pony-tailed 72-year old is among the world’s richest billionaire entrepreneurs, yet he spends most of his time helping others.

DeJoria recently completed Good Fortune, a documentary about his mission to change the world by inspiring others to do good. “You don’t need money to make it,” he says. “You can give back with your time.” His many charitable investments span the core values of his companies: sustainability, social responsibility and animal-friendliness. Among his many philanthropies, he helps create housing and job opportunities for the homeless in Austin, Texas; founded Grow Appalachia to produce nutritious food for disadvantaged Appalachians; and is the major contributor to Food for Africa, protecting children who have lost parents to AIDS.

DeJoria has built schools, supports clean water efforts and helps conserve rainforest reforestation projects. He met with Nelson Mandela to talk about land mines and eradicating HIV, and exchanged ideas on world peace with the Dalai Lama. DeJoria has signed Bill Gates’s and Warren Buffet’s ‘The Giving Pledge’ as a formal promise to give back half his wealth. We caught up with this busy philanthropist entrepreneur at his home in Austin.

​Q: You had many jobs as a teenager, and after you left the Navy. Then, you became homeless. How did that happen?

​A: I was 22 and in between jobs. I came home one day in our only car and my wife said she had to run down to the store. I gave her the car keys and she took off. When I got upstairs, there was my son sitting in the middle of the floor with a little pile of clothes and a note from my wife saying, “Sorry, can’t handle being a mom anymore. He’ll be much better off with you. Good luck. Good bye.” She’d cleaned out what little money we had and she hadn’t paid the rent or utility bill for three months. I was evicted, and ended up getting a car that I slept in with my son. I was too proud to ask my mom for money or for my old bedroom back, so I collected soda pop bottles.

Q: Did you end up raising your son alone?

A: Yes, until he was about 6 years old. Then suddenly his mother showed up out of nowhere and wanted to raise him. I don’t think she wanted to be a mom; I think she wanted the cheque she received for being a dependent person. Anyway, my son wasn’t happy, so I got him back and finished raising him. It wasn’t easy.

Q: What did your mother teach you?

A: She taught me and my brother that we could do anything we wanted if we really applied ourselves. She also taught me the power of giving. One Christmas in the early 1950s, she made my brother and I put our only dime into the Salvation Army bucket and said, “Boys, remember, in life there’s always somebody that needs it more than you do.”

Q: Did you ever have a mentor?

​A: No, but a couple of people, including my 11th-grade teacher, told me and Michelle Gilliam we’d never amount to anything. Michelle Gilliam became Michelle Phillips of The Mamas & the Papas, so we both did okay!

​Q: In 1971, you were working for a hair company as a district sales manager. How’d you end up working for a hair company?

​A: I was bored at my job as a circulation manager at Time Inc. and asked my boss how I could get a promotion. He said, “You’re 26 years old and you have no college education. Ask me when you’re 35.” So I left and went into professional hair care sales.

​Q: And then you met Paul Mitchell, the hairdresser?

A: He was trying to start a company, but his products weren’t that good, so I tried to help him out. It was a disaster and we had to reformulate everything. I suggested starting a company, together with an investor who was going to put up half a million dollars. Inflation in the US was 12.5%, unemployment 10.5% and interest rates, if you could get a loan, were about 17%. The investor backed out, so we each put in $350 – I borrowed some from my mom – and we started the company with $700.

Q: Jean Paul Mitchell is worth at least $3.3 billion. A lot of public corporations have offered to buy your business – why won’t you sell?

A: Paul Mitchell will never be for sale because when I started with nothing, I told hairdressers, “Guys, if you believe in us, we’ll always stay in the professional hair care business to support you and to give advice to customers – we’ll never let you down and I’ll keep my promise to you forever.” I own the majority and put in a 360-year trust, so no matter what happens to me, no one can take it out of the professional salon business. It’s being ethical.

​Q: What was it like finally being a boss?

A: It was wonderful. When I could finally hire one person – obviously, today we have thousands – I could do what I wanted. I could treat people like good human beings, like very important people, not like jerks, the way I was treated.

​Q: How has your rags-to-riches background affected your way of doing business?

A: It’s given me humility for people and the ability to appreciate them. For example, as soon as I could afford it, everyone who worked for me at Paul Mitchell received free lunch and they still do. I remember times when I had 90 cents – you can’t get much for that and I never forgot that. Even our warehouse people get free lunch and I extended that to Mexico, where 1,600 people make and bottle Patrón; everyone gets free lunch. If you work for me on the night shift, you get free dinner.

​Q: I understand your love of tequila brought you to Mexico in 1989. Did you go there in hopes of creating a tequila?

A: No, not at all. I was with my friend Martin, drinking the awful tequila of the day, and we decided to make a tequila you could sip, that didn’t make you crazy or sick the next day. We created the smoothest of tequilas in a hand-blown recycled glass bottle. We sold it for $37.95 a bottle, whereas the average tequila was $4 or $5 a bottle. People were reluctant to spend so much, but after a while they wanted to treat themselves to the best. We never took away from the high quality and now we produce over 3 million cases of spirits a year.

​Q: To what do you attribute your success in this venture?

A: Keeping the product consistent, never taking away cost-wise what it takes to keep it this way, and giving back. Our Patrón employees know we help the world become a better place because of the charity events we do. While many people stopped supporting Katrina years ago, we’re still building houses in New Orleans’ St Bernard Projects. We help people out in Mexico, the US and other parts of the world with charitable events.

​Q: Your company John Paul Pet makes a line of shampoos and conditioners for pets, which are tested on humans first. Are you the first to test products on humans?

​A: When I was a national manager at Redken, there were little marmoset monkeys that just sat in cages all day long because it made the company look as though they experimented with animals for safety. I said, “But we don’t make products for animals, we make them for humans!” I was terminated a couple of months later. When I started my company, I made it a policy never to test on animals. We test all the shampoos and conditioners on ourselves.

​Q: And you have a new service called ROK Mobile?

​A: We’re changing the way people think about cellular phones in their lifestyle. ROK Mobile provides consumers a no-contract mobile carrier delivering nationwide 4G LTE coverage and unlimited voice, text, data and music. It also includes accidental life insurance, burial insurance, roadside car service, and Telemedicine 24/7 (a doctor is on the other end if you’ve got your smartphone), for just $49.95 a month.

​Q: Your newest product is Aubio. When did it go on the market and what is it?

A: Aubio is a plant-based treatment for cold sores. Two-thirds of the world’s population – 3.7 billion people – have the cold sore virus. I believe plants will be the answer to many of our medical challenges and treatments in the future and I’m a big believer in saving plants and water.

​Q: What are you most passionate about right now?

A: On behalf of all the hairdressers in the world I bought the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society a Coast Guard cutter so they could chase down boats involved in the destruction of habitat and the slaughter of wildlife in the world’s oceans. I’m also very passionate about a new programme in Austin called Mobile Loaves and Fishes. We’re building a community of 250 small homes to get the homeless off the streets, into a place where they can live and work in gardens, animal husbandry and the like. We have a metal shop and a wood shop. This could be the answer to the homeless problem in the US, where you give people a home and work to do. They’re not on welfare; they have work, so they can pay the $90 a month rent.

​Q. What are the most important leadership lessons you’ve learned since you’ve been in business?

A: Whenever you criticise somebody, always do it behind closed doors and one-on-one. Secondly, always make sure that the quality of your service or product is so good that people will want to reorder.

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