Me And My Partner: John Frieda and Gail Federici

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The Independent Online
John Frieda, 48, opened his first hairdressing salon in London at 25, and launched his own product range in the late Eighties, when Gail Federici, an American haircare executive, joined as his business partner. Last year they turned over more than pounds 100m

JOHN FRIEDA: I had no desire to be a hairdresser, though my grandfather was a Fleet Street barber and my dad had a salon in Ealing. I was thinking about being a doctor. I'd done well academically, and took a couple of O-levels early. Then girls appeared on the horizon. I must have stopped working - I failed all my exams. My motivation was to get out of studying; I thought I would go and work for my father.

I'd worked in the salon on Saturdays. When he realised he wasn't going to talk me out of it, he said: "You must go and work for one of the big salons." Off I went to the House of Leonard. After a month, I got the opportunity to be Leonard's assistant. All of a sudden, I was working in the world of British Vogue and Harpers & Queen.

But I get bored quickly. At 25, I was thinking of giving up hairdressing. I needed a new challenge. But I'd spent nine years doing hair and that was my expertise. I decided to open my own salon. I'd never worked for myself because I thought it would affect my creativity. But I needed to attack something new. That was in 1976.

I wanted to expand, but didn't want to open lots of salons. Products were the way to go. The only professional line was Vidal Sassoon's; I knew the products people needed, the ones I used on models, which weren't available to anybody else.

But I didn't have a clue about marketing and distribution. I began trying to do things in a small way. Then I got a letter from Boots the Chemists, saying: "Can we meet you? We've heard your products are good."

And I was approached by an American professional products company, Zotos, whose vice-president of advertising and marketing was Gail. They wanted a hairdresser for a conference in Milan, and Gail asked if I would do seminars.

We worked on this and I began talking about my ideas. Gail had been in the business for years. I think when she saw my work, she thought: "This is what the industry needs." She asked whether I would come to the States and write a book about precision styling with her, which I did.

Gail was thinking of leaving her job, and wanted to open her own agency. My products had gone into Boots in a small way; then I began appearing on TV and the sales boomed. I started in 40 Boots sites and within six months was in more than 1,000. I was running the company out of a basement in my salon; a logistical nightmare. Then I got an order for 1.2m bottles of thickening lotion - it was like having a hit record. And it was the one moment when Gail was available to join me.

One of Gail's great strengths is that she can almost see the future. She mapped out the next five years. In my mind, there had been a vague notion. Suddenly, there was a structure. People tell you they are good, but they don't show you. She was matter-of-fact. She proved herself without asking for anything, and gave advice that was invaluable. She was open, generous and supportive, with confidence in her own ability.

I had an intensive education from Gail in marketing. I couldn't get enough of it. We have had to be innovative to compete against giants such as Procter & Gamble. We look for a need that hasn't been addressed. That's part of Gail's genius. Our product Sheer Blonde came from focus groups she organised. Feedback from blondes was that they don't use gel because they say it dulls their hair. So we came up with a line that targets them.

Gail and I are like family now. When my father met her father, the similarity was uncanny - it was as if they'd known each other all their lives. After my father had his stroke they ended up living in the same house.

With Gail, I don't have to explain. There was a shared vision and goal that was solid. If we decide to do something, even if we don't agree, we're both 100 per cent behind it. We can rely on each other totally when the chips are down.

GAIL FEDERICI: In the late 1980s, I was in England doing a video for Zotos, and went to the Alternative Hair Show. I needed a guest artist for a show in Milan, and watched 20 presentations. I thought John's was the best by far. It was tastefully done. I went to the salon to meet John. He was trendy in a continental way, and articulate, very much in command of his ideas.

Watching his show and seeing his classes, it was clear he had styling skills that most hairdressers didn't have. I thought, nobody since the 1950s has given good tips on styling and how to get different effects. I presented my idea for a book to Zotos, and we started on it.

John was very exact: he's a perfectionist and had systems and short-cuts that I thought invaluable, even though he took them for granted. I would ask questions, and he would talk through ways to attack a problem. What seemed obvious to him seemed brilliant to me. I said: "Let's put it together." I was going to leave my job to set up an advertising agency; I'd been doing hair for so long and thought it might be nice to do hammers or nails for a change, to think up a strategy for a different type of product. I really like the analytical part of advertising, finding a solution and persuading the customer. Then John said: "Maybe you could do some consulting for me."

He needed help on the product side of the business - he'd never been in a corporate environment. I was a bit worried: he wasn't the most organised person, and he knew it. He was well aware something major had to be done. He said: "I don't want to reinvent the wheel and make mistakes that don't need to be made. I'd rather have a partner who's already gone through this. If you can do it, great. If not, I need to do something."

I knew haircare inside out; I also felt John was extremely marketable. He was very clear, he was photogenic. He never waffled and he had definite opinions that made sense. I felt we could do it. I had some ideas I wanted to tackle and thought John would be a great partner.

Ten years ago we launched Frizz-Ease hair serum at pounds 5.99, an extremely high price. It was a different product, and required education. To compete against multi-billion-dollar companies, we had to rely on our salon heritage, to come up with products that were prescriptive, with a compelling proposition that really performed. The most difficult thing was convincing people to go against the conventional price range; we insisted products had to be displayed separately so people could see the "before" and "after" effect.

John also demonstrated the products on television and that was key, particularly in America. John offered something valuable. He never rambled about hair trends next year. On every show, he'd make a lightbulb go off in people's heads. The presenters would say he could come back any time.

We didn't try to launch in every site; we took a slower approach, giving three chains an exclusive deal. In the US, we went on major media tours, and at the end, we'd drive to a drugstore and I'd ask: "Do you have this John Frieda product?" They'd say: "There's been a run on it since that English guy appeared on TV." It was great to hear, and it happened continually.

We've never felt we were on Easy Street, even when our product was voted No 1. We were never complacent. John always says I'm the most paranoid - I'm just a worrier. If something can go wrong, it will, so just be prepared.

It's a nice balance. Sometimes I say: "John, you are crazed, we can't do this all at once," because he's pushing, maybe overly so. But he makes me move from being too cautious.