Todd Christopher’s great-grandfather was a hairdresser. So was his grandfather, father and brother, along with his six cousins and seven uncles. His own future seemed so inevitable that he dropped out of high school at age 17 to begin work at a cousin’s salon.
“I was very eager to start out on my own,” Christopher says. “But I was so naïve. I went to the school of hard knocks for 20 years before I saw really any meaningful success.”
It was time well spent. Christopher has snipped and cut his way into The Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans with a net worth of $2.1 billion. He started selling hair-care products in the mid-80s out of the trunk of his car and grew it into Vogue International, a beauty powerhouse, releasing brands such as FX Styling, Proganix, Maui Moisture and his biggest hit, the monochromatic bottles of OGX. He sold a 49% minority stake to private equity firm The Carlyle Group in 2014. Two years later in July 2016, Christopher and Carlyle sold the entire company to Johnson & Johnson for $3.3 billion. Not bad for a high school dropout, only one of two in The Forbes 400.
He eventually saved up enough money to open his first salon at 22, an age when most of his 400 peers along with the rest of America were graduating from college. “It was a bit underfunded,” he says. “Within the first year, we found it difficult to pay rent. I slept in my salon to save money.”
As things got more desperate, Christopher came up with a scheme to avoid eviction, at least momentarily. He sold his salon’s Redken professional hair products to the drugstore across the street. “That’s what opened my eyes and gave me the vision of starting Vogue International,” he says.
Christopher observed that up until then, there were few, high quality choices of shampoos that everyday consumers could buy at drugstores. But there were plenty marketed to professional hairdressers. Christopher was convinced consumers would shell out for the pricier product.
However, this meant going up against the largest and most dominant corporations in the beauty industry. “The mass market is a tougher category to enter because the competitors that you’re up against are the L’Oreals, the B&G’s, the big guys,” Christopher says. “But they’re also a little vulnerable. They’re so big, they’re not nimble and quick enough to bring a product to marketplace.”
Like David and Goliath before him, Christopher began an odds-defying battle for the ultimate real estate: shelf space at drugstores. “That shelf space is incredibly valuable,” he says. “And L’Oreal doesn’t want to give any of that up.”
From the founding of Vogue International in 1987 until the mid-2000s, Christopher released at least a dozen hair-care brands, all with minimal success. “Some of them were just plain losses, period,” he says.
After a two decade-long game of trial-and-error, Christopher finally released OGX in 2006. Without a multi-million dollar budget or access to famous spokesmodels, Christopher focused on the point-of-sale moment, as he calls it. That meant attracting buyers at the shelves, when they are making the split-second decision on a purchase. “Our bottle needed to speak to and catch the attention of our consumers.”
The OGX bottles are short and squat, boldly-colored in matte tones. The front has curly text to the brim, richly describing its ingredients in a story-like narrative. A few ingredients include coconut milk, Brazilian keratin therapy, argan oil of Morocco and soft & smooth shea.
“The first response from our retailers was what an odd-shaped bottle, it takes up too much space on our shelves,” he recalls. “What’s with all this writing on the front? Nobody reads any of that, can you clean this up?”
Despite the initial feedback, Christopher kept to his vision. It paid off, in a multi-billion dollar kind of fashion.
It hasn’t been all soft and smooth for Christopher. In 2011 when OGX was still called Organix, Vogue International was sued by Center for Environmental Health, a California-based anti-chemicals nonprofit. They claimed the Organix name was misleading as it purported its products were organic when they did not meet California’s required standards to warrant such a label.
“It was a lawsuit in California based on a piece of legislation primarily geared towards orange juice,” Christopher says. “It was a very tough two years for me.” They settled the case and rebranded the line to OGX in 2013 as a result.
Since the Johnson & Johnson sale a little over a year ago, Christopher has been keeping a low-profile. He is contemplating his next business moves as he spends time with his family in Clearwater, Fla., where it all began and where he still lives. One idea: to start a private investment fund to mentor young entrepreneurs just starting out in hair and beauty business.
One piece of advice he might pass to future mentees goes back to his schooling. “I regret not getting a formal education, but what did I learn from that? Don’t be afraid to hire somebody smarter than yourself.”
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