There are many rags-to-riches stories, but perhaps none so famous as the Rizzuto family and Conair. Lee Rizzuto spoke to Estetica about the family, business, and today’s youth.
Conair, a 3-billion dollar multinational group operating in both the professional and retail sectors in 125 nations, started out as a family business in a garage in Brooklyn, New York with a capital stock of about $100. Estetica had a pleasant chat with Lee Rizzuto about what it took and what it still takes to found and run a successful business.
- What lies behind the remarkable success of Conair?
- “Actually it was a combination of things, but the foundation was that both my mom and dad were hairdressers and understood the business. My father was involved with perfecting the bobby pin, then he perfected the pin curl clip. He created hair rollers and eventually perfected the hair dryer. So having that technology and know-how was the basis of the company then and the same basis of the company now: innovative products to optimise the hairdresser’s work, making it faster and better.”
- What was the original inspiration for combining your Italian roots and hi-tech in hairdressing?
- “Italy is still a fashion country and hairdressers are very much into fashion. They respect products coming out Italy more than they respect products made in other countries. Italy has a certain image. The quality of products coming out of other countries might be pretty good, but for the hairdresser looking for fashion and efficiency, he would prefer to pay a bit more to ensure that he is getting Italian quality.”
- Conair is still considered a “family business”. What advantages or disadvantages does this imply?
- “In a family business you can make quick decisions. You don’t have to wait on outside people giving you a direction. And even today with Conair, we do all our creative an advertising in-house, packaging as well, because we feel we have a sense of the business, and we try to relate that to what the package has to be. I don’t see any disadvantages at all.”
- How does the organizational structure reconcile such diversity and maintain focus?
- “I can’t say it’s easy, but it’s about having the right people in place and staying focussed on what the DNA of the company is from the top down. We have to get consistency and no deviation from the plan. And the first thing we stand for is quality. So it’s quality in the professional appliances, quality in the Conair retail appliances, quality in the Cuisinart side of the equation, and even in the Scünci products, quality is the key issue.”
- What is Conair’s approach to innovation?
- “Our goal is simply to give hairdressers products that last longer – 5000 hours vs. maybe a 1000 hours, products that perform better and faster.”
- What news can we expect from the Conair Group in the near future?
- “The first big, big breakthrough product in appliances was the MiraCurl, which automatically curled hair, taking the place of the curling iron. Now we have a mist feature on it and soon it will be cordless. So I think above all we can expect further improvements on old favorites, increasing efficiency. After the success of the Bravo and the Volare, what we are very excited about is our new Rapido dryers that we introduced at Cosmoprof Bologna in March. I believe this will be the number one professional dryer worldwide, because it has everything the hairdresser is looking for: a brushless motor with 50% faster drying power than any other dryer in the market, up to 60% less noise, and it weighs under 400 grams (less than a pound). It’s life span is 5-10 years, compared to the average professional dryer of less than one year. It also has fewer negative effects on the hair, in terms of hot spots, etc. Such efficiency means that a hairdresser can do maybe up to 20% more clients a day. This translates into more money in his pocket and less physical fatigue. It’s an excellent return on their investment.“
- How long do these type of tools take to develop in your R&D?
- “The motor alone took about 5 years to develop, while its application to the dryer took us another six months. So these are long term projects. Conair was one of the first to enter the Chinese and Russian markets.”
- What is your perspective on these two giants today?
- “The reality is that these two countries have enormous potential, just in terms of their size and population. And you have to work the marketplace, because the demographics are different from other countries in the world. So the key is to deliver to their consumer hairdresser the type of product that they’re looking for. If you’re able to satisfy that appetite, you’re going to do business. In the future I envision them being both competitors and customers. I see China being both: buying from us as well as us buying from them. Russia at this point I just see them as customers, as we probably have the third largest market share just in personal care appliances. We haven’t introduced Cuisinart yet. We want to focus first on getting one category strongly established. It’s a building process.”
- Is it still possible to become a self-made man, to start at the bottom and work your way up?
- “Yes, I definitely see this with kids today, especially those connected to computers or Internet businesses. My grandson Sergio, who just graduated from Villanova, was just nominated the Number 1 Entrepreneur in his graduation class. Four years ago he started his own website covering physical fitness, good eating habits, and targeting young people. From the time he started to the time he graduated, he gained over one million followers and now he makes about $150,000 a year from advertisers. So I’ve hired him now as a consultant with Conair on how to reach young people his age. I encourage any young person to come up with new and innovative ideas. I’m a firm believer that we are limited only by our imagination. Even two of my grandchildren said to me, “Grandpa, I wish we had started with you before we went to university! You taught us more than we learned in school.” But I tell them, “No, the schooling gave you a foundation. Now you have a better understanding of what I say.” An education is never wasted.”
- In addition to the ALS Foundation, what other charities do you support?
- “I’m involved with cancer through St. Jude’s Hospital, a children’s hospital, where I am a contributor. The main reason why I am a founder of the ALS Foundation is that it is a terribly depressing disease that destroys all the muscle tissue in the body. My daughter-in-law was diagnosed with the disease about six years ago. Now this year alone we’ve raised about 33 million dollars to apply to research to hopefully find a cure for it.”
A self-made man
The son of two Sicilian hairdressers who understood the industry’s needs, Lee Rizzuto founded Conair with his parents, a modest capital, and a will to succeed. Today he says, “I work as hard today as I did back in 1959. I’m on the road about 60-70% of my time. I love what I do.” In the tradition of the Italian patriarch, he proudly declares that the third generation is now joining the company and contributing to its future success.
By Marie Scarano