Interview: Jim Markham, from 60’s Star Stylist to CEO

Tress legend Jim Markham knows a secret or two about success. From his rockin’ role as 60’s star stylist to that of CEO and founder of five iconic hair-care brands, the pioneer has never stopped pushing beauty industry boundaries. Here, he shares personal life anecdotes, plus highlights from an extraordinarily accomplished career, to help fellow stylists and budding entrepreneurs in search of pro advice. [pagebreak]

Beauty Launchpad: How did you get started in the industry?

Jim Markham: I grew up in a small town in New Mexico, and by age 15 I was a married father. By 17, I had two kids. I dropped out of high school, because I needed a way to support my family. So early on I learned to depend on myself. My destiny was in my own hands, and I was required to seek out opportunities and work extremely hard. My mother first suggested I consider barbering. I went to school, only to find I was quite good at cutting hair.

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BL: What initial steps did you take to advance in your profession?

JM: I began entering various hair competitions—the New Mexico Championship, Colorado Championship, Southwest Championship, New York Championship, National Championship—and kept winning. I even got a silver medal in the Hair Olympics. Along the way, I started teaching others my method for cutting and styling, and realized that the combination of correct technique with superior products yielded top results. At the time, I was earning $1.50 per cut. One day I read about celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring in Playboy magazine. He was charging $50 a haircut and had a product line for men. I was intrigued. I flew to L.A. and became his protégé.

BL: How would you describe that transition from New Mexico to Hollywood?

JM: It was stressful, awkward, difficult and exhilarating all at once! I had to adapt quickly to fit in with Jay’s celebrity circle. That was hard—but, boy, was it a fun journey, and the most exciting time of my life. Following Jay’s untimely death in the Manson Family murders, I was the only one primed to run his company. His were very big shoes to fill, and stepping into them was no small feat. [pagebreak]

BL: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Johnny Carson, Frank Sinatra and Steve McQueen count among the stars whose tresses you styled. How did this involvement affect your career trajectory?

JM: Cutting their hair lent me an insider’s view of their lavish lifestyles, and ultimately raised the bar for what I considered high performance. This started me on the path of using only superior products, inspiring my passion for product development. Having famous customers also enabled me to get a ton of publicity on television, radio and in print, which built my credibility and eventually made it easier to sell more products.

BL: You said, “Paul Newman was my life role model.” Why?

JM: Paul taught me that people either had big luck, medium luck or little luck. He always felt he had big luck, as do I. Paul believed that because he was thus blessed, it was his obligation to give to those less fortunate. I’ve always aimed to model that behavior.

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BL: Does philanthropy still remain important?

JM: I wholeheartedly believe that success without recompense is not success. I’ve been extremely fortunate, and with that comes an obligation to pay it forward. My wife Cheryl and I contribute to a number of organizations, like City of Hope, which raises funds for cancer research and treatment. Anyone can spread goodwill. You can change peoples’ attitudes or livelihoods through unobtrusive acts of kindness and generosity. [pagebreak]

BL: How and when did you first transition from snipping strands to inventing new serums?

JM: While still President of Sebring, I began experimenting with ways to improve existing products. I was always looking for “a better mousetrap.” If something I desired didn’t yet exist, I would make it myself. I’ve continued this practice with each of my companies, which is how I became a serial entrepreneur. I’ve always had the opportunity to exceed what was done before.

BL: You’ve had five famed brands under your belt: Sebring, Markham, ABBA Pure and Natural, PureOlogy and, most recently, ColorProof. What specific niche did each fill?

JM: Beginning with Sebring, Jay and I created the men’s wash-and-wear category. From there I launched Markham Products, which further evolved the male brand while simultaneously expanding into styling techniques for women. I later recognized a big opportunity with plant-derived products, and that became the basis for ABBA Pure and Natural. Next I pioneered color care by introducing PureOlogy as the first sulfate-free luxury line designed exclusively for color-treated manes. Most recently with ColorProof, we are filling a need for ingredient innovations.

BL: What prompted you each time to leave behind what you’d created and embark on something new?

JM: Opportunities always presented themselves, and I couldn’t turn them down. I occasionally considered retiring, but my love of beauty kept bringing me back.[pagebreak]

BL: From creative developer to marketing guru to CEO, you’ve played multiple roles. What’s the most intriguing facet of your work?

JM: I’ve been fortunate to wear many different hats. The most beloved aspect probably lies in managing and guiding my companies, as well as creating novel merchandise. I also love helping fellow hairstylists achieve career success.  

BL: Vidal Sassoon is your other role model. In what ways did he shape your character?

JM: Vidal was talented, kind, generous and overall one of the most exceptional human beings I’ve ever known. He went from struggling as an orphan during World War II, to unrivaled success. Creatively, he was brilliant, to say the least. He had an incredible zest for life, exuding joy and eloquence. His desire to do good was infectious. You couldn’t be around him and not feel motivated to help someone else. From Vidal I learned how to be a leader who promotes positive change.

BL: You’ve never failed at any company you launched. To what do you attribute that remarkable accomplishment?

JM: Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends & Influence People, wrote that if you are in a place doing something you don’t like, pack up and move today. When I read that, I was a barber in New Mexico. I thought, “He’s absolutely right.” So I went to L.A. It was the best advice I could have received. I’m also persistent, focused, and I refuse to lose. Never let your past hold you up. With dedication and hard work, any dream can be realized.

BL: You’ve openly discussed your lack of formal education, as well as the emphasis you now place on stylists’ training. Why is education important?

JM: I was definitely not proud of the fact that I had to drop out of high school. I often felt self-conscious around people I considered smarter, but I don’t feel unschooled anymore. I got my GED when I was 19, and learned a tremendous amount from observing successful business leaders. I watched their mannerisms and was incredibly inquisitive, always asking how to do things and why. I read numerous biographies, about everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Alexander Graham Bell to Henry Ford to Steve Jobs. Biographies provide incredible insight into the various avenues people took to attain fulfillment. I still enjoy self-improvement books, including those by Norman Vincent Peale and Dale Carnegie. Of course, on-the-job training is in an invaluable resource. I truly believe knowledge is of paramount importance. It gives you a foundation from which to work, and provides a roadmap of how to advance towards your dreams.

BL: What are your proudest professional achievements to date?

JM: I’m very proud of developing five successful companies and founding four, and for being recognized Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst & Young for consumer retail products. I take heart in the fact that I was able create luxurious lines that make both women and men feel better, as well as giving hairdressers the means by which to be more lucrative. It’s so rewarding to be thanked by my peers.

BL: What about personal accomplishments?

JM: My first marriage ended when I was 19, but my wife Cheryl and I have been married for over 30 years. When we met, I was running Sebring International and dating lots of actresses and models. Cheryl’s dad was also in the film industry. He owned a titles and opticals company, where she worked for him as a receptionist while in college. So we had acquaintances in common, and were part of a tennis group that played weekly at Poinsettia Park in West Hollywood. After games, we’d all go out for breakfast. Cheryl and I got to know each other slowly. The key to our happy marriage is being friends first. We respect each other. We also laugh a lot, give each other space to be ourselves and try to never go to bed angry. In addition to our fabulous daughter, we have two outstanding sons. Bob and Jay work with me at ColorProof in sales and distribution, respectively. We’ve been blessed with three amazing grandchildren, Chandler, Leslie and Tyson. I am very proud of the transformation my life took from that small town in New Mexico to where I am now.

BL: You juggle so much! How do you manage your time?

JM: Finding balance can be tricky. When you’re passionate about what you do, it’s hard to separate work from play. Sometimes Cheryl and I will go away for the weekend and try not to work, but because it’s so integrated in our lives, we end up talking shop anyway. The lines do get blurred.

BL: How have you always managed to remain at the forefront of your industry?

JM: The key is to stay involved, observe and always look ahead. You need to take risks, be a leader, anticipate and don’t wait. It’s like the pitcher Satchel Paige once said, “Don’t look back. Someone is gaining on you.”

BL: What can we expect next, from the man responsible for so many revolutionary firsts?

JM: Technological advancements are making this the most exciting time for beauty. Breakthrough ingredients that will work better, faster and deliver superior results are being identified in nearly every category. We are thrilled to have several revolutionary products coming out this year. I can promise extraordinary results!

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