John Heffner was charged with two principal efforts when he joined Drybar as CEO in November 2013. One was to establish a strategic platform for which to run the product and retail business. The other was to hire a great team. Along with the company’s founders, Alli Webb and Michael Landau, John believes he has accomplished both. Known in the industry as the Founder Whisperer, John joined Drybar after successfully working with the entrepreneurs of OPI and CND, both of which he helped grow and would later sell to Coty and Revlon, respectfully. John, who established his business acumen at companies including Procter & Gamble and Unilever, was able to lend five minutes to Beauty News to talk about a number of things, including what he refers to as the Drybar effect, what keeps him up at night and his passions outside of the beauty industry.
BN: What are some of the fundamentals of the business the industry should know about?
JH: We have two parts to the business, our products and our shops, which represents a key point of differentiation because both underscore and reinforce the consumer experience. Every single one of our products that are distributed to retailers are the exact same products we use in our shops. They’re designed with our customer in mind; the process of developing them stems from direct customer interaction. We currently have 140 stores nationwide, we are growing at a rate of about 20% per year in terms of store count. We’ll open another 30 or so shops in 2020. Our plan is to continue that ongoing cadence. I’m very pleased to say that we’ve never closed a shop. We really try to find a unique blend of locations that have been needing and wanting a shop for some time, and developing entirely new markets.
BN: Drybar is all about styling, no cut or color. But other fast-service retailers are popping up and delivering on these services. What are your thoughts on that?
JH: We find it flattering. But we believe firmly that we should do one thing exceedingly well and do it better than anybody else. Just blowouts. We believe at our core that if we execute and exceed our customers’ expectations every day, our model does not require changes. We don’t feel the need to add additional services. That has been the case for 10 years.
BN: What is co-founder Alli Webb’s role today?
JH: Ali is the inspiration for our brand. She is the visionary. She really is charged with ensuring that we hold the standards that she and [co-founder] Michael [Landau] established 10 years ago. We work very closely with one another and she still plays an instrumental part in the creation of our innovation. And, she’s the standard bearer; she ensures that our standards remain best-in-class. We have a partnership in every sense of the word.
BN: What is Drybar’s philosophy on pricing?
JH: I would consider us the standard. Typically the industry will follow us. There are infrequent price increases.
BN: Has the growth of Drybar impacted the way the company can respond to industry opportunities?
JH: Despite our size we still consider ourselves nimble and we are not at all hesitant to try new things. And when we find a partner, like Nordstrom, who shares our very customer-centric philosophy, we try to find ways to exploit the opportunity. Our partnership with them started a few years ago with a shop-in-shop in Vancouver, as a test, and we were both so pleased with the results that we looked to find more opportunities. Clearly the Nordstrom flagship in Columbus Circle, which we got to see in action when we visited NYC for the grand opening in October, was a great opportunity. We’re very pleased they gave us the high-profile space they did. This will be the standard model for experiential retail partners. While we don’t typically do services outside of our stores, we do have a tremendous retail partnership with Ulta Beauty, Sephora and Nordstrom. And also very recently Macy’s.
BN: How would you describe your expansion strategy?
JH: I would say we embrace a methodical, conservative presence expansion strategy. We could cast a much wider net if we chose to, but we don’t want that to effect quality, both in product and services. So we take our time, ensure that what we are going to do will be successful.
BN: What are Drybar’s key markets?
JH: Long ago we set out to establish a strong presence in Los Angeles and New York and I would say today we have a very strong hold in those markets. That really helps to reinforce the brand. About 30% of our store base is represented in those two markets.
BN: What retailers do you admire?
JH: I’ve long admired Nordstrom. I think in the beauty sector there’s nobody that does it better than Sephora and Ulta. Some relative newcomers, such as Warby Parker, are really impressive and aspirational.
BN: Talk about product sales, in retailers and in Drybar stores.
JH: The majority of our sales are done through our partners–as a function of scale. We also have strong omnipresence, representation in our shops, and ecommerce is critical in having an overriding strategy. These points of sale, coupled with our social media strategy, make for a very comprehensive and compelling messaging.
BN: What keeps you up at night?
JH: I’d say that as we scale, it would be maintaining a very high level of customer service, and staffing the company. We have implemented mechanisms to make sure the experience stays the same, including but not limited to secret shopping programs. And we have quality control on staff to ensure a customer can get the same service at Flatiron that she can in Denver, Phoenix or Union Square in San Francisco.
BN: Hairstylists tend to move around from salon to salon. How do you manage loyalty?
JH: That’s true. But I’d like to think that Drybar offers a safe haven for creative expression and a great career start. We’ve got a wonderful culture that embraces individual artistry, but we also teach them the skills required to build a career in styling. We offer a full benefits package, which not all salons do. And, we continue to do trainings throughout their career. It’s a tough job but I believe we’ve created an environment that they enjoy. Our turnover ratio is substantially lower than the industry average
BN: How do you choose franchise locations?
JH: It’s very methodical. We have a very robust regimen that’s required in order to be awarded a franchise at Drybar. There’s an entire team that discovers, approves and trains all of our franchise partners. And I’m very proud to say they are partners in every sense of the word. To my earlier point, we can expand much faster than we are. Our number of inbound inquiries for franchises is impressive. We say ‘no’ more often than we say ‘yes’. The partner has to have the DNA, the spirit of passion and knowledge that we demand.
BN: What are the biggest challenges to expanding the retail side of the business?
JH: Lease rates are always an issue, but fortunately for us, we have created what I’ll call the Drybar effect. Among landlords, it’s fairly common that if you have a Drybar as one of your co-tenants or anchor properties, it is known that draw the contingent that they’re looking for, which is the discretionary income female who will likely spend in the other properties within the setting. So, we’re highly attractive to landlords nationwide. A great case in point is Las Vegas. For years, we couldn’t get our phone calls returned from landlords in Las Vegas. Finally, we were fortunate enough to get into the Miracle Mile and that really opened the door. And when other property owners or hotel operators saw the lines out the Drybar door, they said maybe there’s something to this. That’s what I call the Drybar effect.
BN: And the founders are free to start other endeavors, like Squeeze, which is Alli’s retail massage concept?
JH: Yes, they’re non-competitive to Drybar. And among their many skills, Michael and Alli are true visionaries.
BN: Would you say social media has taken over marketing for brands?
JH: I wouldn’t say that social has taken over, I would say it compliments because I do think traditional media still works. But there’s been a shift, a mix and a balance. It’s absolutely essential that a company, regardless of size, embrace a very well thought-out digital strategy. Now, while I don’t personally partake in social media in a meaningful way, that’s by design. I’m on Facebook for my high school friends. I have an Instagram page that my son created.
BN: Do you have a mantra?
JH: My greatest mentor ever was my dad. He was an incredible human being and an incredible business person. Dad always embraced the golden rule: Treat others as you would have them treat you. I think if I have a mantra, it’s just two words: Be nice. If you follow that golden rule the rest takes care of itself.
BN: What would the inside of your fortune cookie say?
JH: Be good and good things will happen.
BN: What may others not know about you, outside of your business life?
JH: From a very early age I have had a profound appreciate for music and the artist. And over the years I have established some really important relationships in my life. I’ve mentored a number of artists, really none of whom I will name, but some of my closest friends are pretty high profile artists. I have mentored them on life. They are amazing at managing their artistry but sometimes struggled with their personal affairs or their financial acumen. And so I kind of established a reputation as the guy who is trustworthy, knowledgeable and uh, free. It’s become an important part of my life. And I have a very wonderful and tolerant wife of 28 years, she allows me to play in this world.