A company like Conair Corporation soars above the typical beauty business, spreading its wings as a multinational giant, a relentless innovator—indeed, a true icon of American culture. But despite a meteoric rise and exponential growth since its 1959 inception, Conair's talented team is not one to rest on its laurels. “Harder, better, faster, stronger” may be the anthem for CEO Leandro Rizzuto, but now he's once again zipping his enterprise into the future with some recent shake-ups that are designed to solidify and enhance its collection of brands, particularly in the professional space.
After the departure of Conair’s top executives Alan Stockman and Ken Russo earlier this year and acquiring haircare company Aquage last September, Rizzuto tapped Aquage founder Luis Alvarez—a top-tier stylist who's intrinsically intimate with the entrepreneurial spirit—to head up Conair's professional division, BaBylissPRO, as vice president of marketing, creative and education. Beauty Store Business recently caught up with Alvarez to discuss the details: how he'll use his extensive creative background and fresh perspective to propel BaBylissPRO, his goals for the future, and what will never change about the iconic company.
A FRESH START
With the recent addition of Alvarez—who assumed the position after his own company, Aquage, was acquired by the corporation—Conair is ushering in a slew of exciting changes. Most notably, the company's professional division (including Aquage, Rusk, BaBylissPro, ConairPro, Satin Smooth and Barberology brands) will now be known as BaBylissPRO to better differentiate pro and consumer products. “After our company merged with Conair, I took over the role of vice president of marketing, creative and education—not just for Aquage, but all of the brands,” Alvarez explains. “We're uniting all of the brands we currently have under the BaBylissPRO umbrella, letting customers know we have one vision: to deliver to professionals all the highest-quality tools, techniques and education they could ever possibly want to do beautiful hair and successfully run their businesses—not just to use them, but to retail them.”
It's no surprise that Alvarez was offered the position; his beauty background reaches back decades. During a 20-year stint as a freelance artist, he styled hair for photo shoots, movies, videos, commercials and magazines, helping brands to best express their esthetic identities. He then joined the corporate world as creative director at Matrix Essentials, until he left to start Aquage from scratch with co-founder Dennis Lubin just before the turn of the millennium. Throughout 17 years of building the company, he often directed the labs to create new products, but his job didn't stop there. “It's something that changes your perspective; when you start at the ground level developing a product and then give it birth, you do everything from creating to packaging and marketing to visuals to education and sales,” Alvarez notes. “You develop a level of ownership that someone who works only in marketing or creative doesn't develop.”
By 2016, merging with Conair became a no-brainer. In Rizzuto, he recognized a kindred spirit: someone whose hair-biz family started from scratch, who'd witnessed (then spearheaded) the inventions of revolutionary products and knew the nature of creation from start to finish, and finally to the end user. “He's so passionate about our industry,” Alvarez marvels, noting that even today Rizzuto sits in meetings brainstorming on how to improve a blow dryer's motor. “It's refreshing to work with him; he doesn't only look at the sale of an item, but is involved every step of the way. That makes a big difference. This gentleman doesn't cut corners, and I love working with someone like that.”
Rizzuto, of course, draws upon a deep well of experience (after all, Conair kicked off when Alvarez was all of two years old) and remains obsessed with delivering products that make the company proud, even if it means outspending the competition, Alvarez notes. Luckily, Rizzuto is a sharer and a hands-on leader, and Alvarez avidly picks up morsels of knowledge from the CEO at every opportunity. “It's exciting to be somewhere where not only can I contribute, but I can also learn,” Alvarez says. “That's what I find so thrilling about being part of the BaBylissPRO organization.”
“That's job No. 1 right now: for appliances, liquid and color to achieve results faster than ever before while maintaining the integrity and health of the hair.”
THE SEAMLESS WHOLE
Conair's professional brands cover a range of needs for the industry. Want thermal tools? BaBylissPRO features well-loved products like the lightweight yet powerful Rapido Hair Dryer and the Prima, which Alvarez calls “the Bentley of flat irons.” Want to cash in on the booming men's grooming market? Barberology boasts clippers, trimmers and scissors. Meanwhile, Rusk includes hair colors and liquids; Aquage offers liquids with a spa-level look and high-performance results; and Satin Smooth tackles skincare needs and hair removal.
Hence, a large part of Alvarez's current task is to unite the brands, playing on their individual strengths while presenting them as parts of a seamless whole. “Instead of thinking of Rusk or Aquage or BaBylissPRO as separate companies, the No. 1 thing I'm going to do is combine them all so the beauty professional knows it's a one-stop shop,” he says. “You can get almost everything you need, whether you have a salon with a hundred employees or whether you run a salon of one, by yourself.”
With his background of molding visuals to fit brands' identities in his decades as a freelance artist, Alvarez's expertise will also initiate a total shift in BaBylissPRO's visuals and approach—an elevated look, enhanced educational videos, and more magazine editorial work. Upgraded eye appeal made a splash at the International Salon and Spa Expo and International Beauty Show trade show earlier this year, where fresh, sharp-looking exhibits wowed show-goers. But it's not just about jaw-dropping images. “It's about expressing each brand, but also connecting them together so everything seamlessly fits into the BaBylissPRO umbrella,” Alvarez explains. “That will be a major difference, going forward. When you walk into our area, you get it—you can get your clippers, flat iron, hairspray, hair color and wax all from one company. I live this day in and day out, getting that message across to everyone!”
Of course, one thing will never change about Conair or its pro division: an unflagging dedication to innovation, especially when it comes to tools. Alvarez relishes working with a company that counts high-quality dryers, curling irons, flat irons and other thermal appliances in its roster. “Being involved with the leader of the appliance business is so exciting for me, coming from a liquids-only company,” Alvarez enthuses. “We were using BaBylissPRO on our stages for years, but now we have the ability to have these precise, incredible tools at our disposal.”
Hence, a focus on technology and quality will continue unabated, but Alvarez is also interested in promoting those tools' benefits—what a pro stylist can do with those tools behind the chair. His goal: to add educational assets that detail all the versatility of those high-performance products. “That's what I've been doing my whole life, exploring how to use the tool and all of the possibilities of what you can create,” Alvarez says. “Whether I was working for the cover of Vogue
or an ad campaign, it's always been about using the right product with the right tool under the right conditions. So, in addition to technology-driven videos that show how well the products are made, we'll add performance advice. Now that you've bought the Ferrari, we'll show you how to drive it.”
To that end, Alvarez is building an in-house studio, allowing the team to create educational videos and other assets on-site, thus allowing the company to raise its profile and boost customer education. Alvarez also brought his entire Aquage team onboard to ensure rigorous product testing—a cornerstone of the company, but one that he wants to bring to the next level to ensure that any product truly meets professional demands. “If you create something a professional will love, the consumer loves it as well,” he explains. “We'll make professional tools with those specifications, so then any consumer can easily use them.”
Indeed, Alvarez calls himself the “hairdresser in-house,” looking at products from their perspective, mulling over their needs for every decision made. He's also “24-7,” he laughs, traveling most weekends of the year (fortunately, his wife serves as makeup artist for the photo shoots). “Our life is our work, and our work is our life,” he says. “We're just totally committed to this industry, and we feel blessed.”
SEEING THE FUTURE
Alvarez believes one of the biggest shifts in the pro arena involves the salon suites that are cropping up coast to coast, where individual professionals are working in a salon of one—leading to a “total change in the dynamics of the industry,” he says. “More and more, people are going to beauty stores to pick up not only tools and products, but information on the tools and products they use.”
That also requires a recalibration from manufacturers like Conair, which are accustomed to communicating with salon owners and employees but now must make those communications available to every individual. For Conair, social media plays a large role in spreading the word, while videos sold at shows make information accessible to all. “Thankfully, technology has leveled the playing field to where you can deliver to one person as easily as to a hundred, but we have to rethink how we deliver education—thinking about the independent as much as the mega-salon,” Alvarez explains. “They're both legitimate customers and represent two important segments of the professional population.”
“Once stores make themselves a resource not just for products, but on how to use those products, they'll see sales increase exponentially.”
To meet the ever-changing demands of those customers, BaBylissPRO plans an aggressive schedule of launches, both tools and liquids, for 2017—almost twice the amount of products than released in 2016. “The lifeblood of our industry is new products as trends change and consumers look for new ways of doing their hair differently,” Alvarez notes. For example, bright hair colors have evolved from messy, quick-fade pigments to long-lasting formulas. Flat irons are constantly evolving to improve plate technology and minimize hair damage. Conair even recently concluded a study with Brown University, using its Rapido Blow Dryer, which boasts an airflow so powerful it displaces water without as much heat, causing virtually no damage.
Ultimately, Alvarez believes, for today's beauty buyers, time is money—an age-old concept to be sure, but more relevant now than ever. Customers seek the in-and-out experience (witness, for example, the rise of the blowout bar), and stylists want to maximize their income. “That's why we're constantly looking for ways to speed up the process, get clients out the door more quickly,” Alvarez says. “Everything we're focusing on revolves around that trend, such as speeding up the drying or color process without damage. That's job No. 1 right now: for appliances, liquid and color to achieve results faster than ever before while maintaining the integrity and health of the hair. And by investing in a higher-end tool or product, professionals make their money back in no time.”
Following his own goals for BaBylissPRO, Alvarez believes that a beauty store's most important point of differentiation can lie in providing access to information for customers. It's not just about snagging a product—customers love access to web-based videos or TV screens in-store to learn more. Staff needn't even know the ins and outs of every product stocked; simply leading customers to those resources on the spot can make the difference in sales. “Once stores make themselves a resource not just for products, but on how to use
those products, they'll see sales increase exponentially,” Alvarez advises. “Some people know what they want, but if they're not sure, they might not even know what's available to them—even if they're standing in front of the shelf. If you can start providing them that information by pointing them to social media or a website, that's huge. It's a massive paradigm shift, and stores that are well-equipped to do it go beyond just a sales center, to a true resource of knowledge.”