As seen in the Los Angeles February and San Diego March 2015 issues of Locale Magazine.
In the 90’s hair was everything. Eazy-E had a tight Jheri Curl, Kurt Cobain’s locks were leading the grunge movement and hadn’t been shampooed in a month, and JTT had this absolutely bomb bowl cut parted right down the middle. (Sorry, the writer still swoons at the thought.)
While Billy Ray was doctoring up his achy breaky mullet, a young Alfonso Anorga had just graduated college, had just gotten hitched, and was volunteering his free time coaching basketball at a local high school in LA with quite the mound of hair himself. Practices were going fine, however, his athletes were dribbling into one small problem—as their bodies heated up, their fly early-90’s hairstyles were melting down.
Anorga, always the entrepreneur, had grown up in the beauty business, and decided he was going to fix the problem and invent a product that would keep his players’ frosted tips and flat tops lookin’ aiiight. He asked the kids two things: what their favorite fragrance was (CK One), and who was their preferred basketball team (The LA Lakers, duh!). And from those two small requirements came a simple, sexy-smelling, Laker-purple pomade. One that would soon change Anorga’s life, and one that yes, could survive a layup.
The original pomade was stronger, cleaner, and easier to wash off than his players were used to. And it worked. When the kids’ parents began to approach Anorga after practices requesting more and complaining that father and son had been fighting over the samples he had previously handed out, he knew he had something.
20 years later Alfonso Anorga is sitting pretty (very pretty—that hair won’t quit) as founder and president of Johnny B. Hair Care, one of thee premier high quality hair care companies for men. His products are sold in over 6,000 retailers throughout North America, and the brand hosts educational events all over the nation aimed at making the stylists who use Johnny B. products the best in the business.
We sat down with Anorga to discuss his favorite hair trends, how he plans to continue to dominate the men’s beauty biz, and just what popular 80’s band influenced the name behind his most successful product.
How did you come up with the name Johnny B.?
Back then it was a real 50’s kind of time in LA. It’s what was inspiring me… people were smoking cigars, recollecting baseballs from their childhood… so I went off that. The most common name in the 50’s was Johnny, so I made the logo and brand with this fictitious character that I named Johnny.
And where did the “B.” come from?
Be who you want to be—there are no limitations to what you can accomplish. I was trying to inspire those young men I was coaching at the time. I was born and raised here in Los Angeles, and growing up Hispanic, there were not a lot of positive role models. It’s kind of interesting to me, that even when there are positive role models like Oscar de la Hoya, kids are almost taught not to like them. So I wanted to change that and create a character that was well taken care of, that was kind of fit—almost like a metrosexual—that would make it cool to take care of yourself. The way I look at life is if you’re really into taking care of yourself, eating right, thinking clearly, you’re not going to be out doing the wrong things. So that was the whole point and the genesis of the brand.
Did you have any idea that that original purple pomade was going to be the start of something so big?
What I share with hairdressers to this day is that my mind was singular in the thought that I just wanted to help and give back to the community. And in return, what I really was getting back from these boys, was this multimillion-dollar brand that was really going to change my life. It allowed me to really reach a lot of goals that I had set for myself. But that wasn’t originally my goal; it wasn’t like I sat there and thought I want to own a men’s product line. I was in the beauty business, I had always been in the beauty business, but that wasn’t my goal. I just realized that this was the path that I could take to get to my goal.
Describe how the brand grew from a small company to where it is now.
I’ve been in the beauty business since I was 12 and I’m an old guy now at 47, so I’ve only done this. I didn’t realize it when I first started, but I’ve had a keen ability to identify what products people are looking for. When I originally launched this pomade what I found was that the barbers and hairdressers really liked it. Once you like something, all of a sudden people start asking, “Where’s the gel? Where’s the extra-hold version of this?” so naturally out of finding that there were those needs in the marketplace, I started creating more and more products. It was a product that became a brand throughout a journey. The journey is the big part of the story.
The original pomade was your first product, would you say that has also been your most successful?
No, our most successful product is a styling gel called Mode. I named it after my favorite rock band in the 80’s, Depeche Mode. It kind of rode the wave of spiking, as the world’s most popular hair style came out in the late 90’s and even progressed to the 2000’s with Jersey Shore. It counts for a good 40% of our business.
You have a couple other fun names, like Dope, Smash, Fuddy…etc. What inspired those names?
Kids are always saying, “That’s dope!” We steer clear of the drug connotation of the word and make sure people know that we’re not trying to use that. If you hashtag the word dope it’s all positive, not negative. Fuddy, growing up, my mama (who brought me into the beauty business) would always call me “Fuddy Duddy,” so I stole the word from her. Smash spray came from me always getting hairspray on my arms… I always felt it on my forearms, and always thought “Ahh, it smashes the hair on my arms,” so it was just natural to name it that. A lot of these names are all part of my world, my inspiration, just a part of me.
How would you describe the Johnny B. guy?
This is a big thing for me. I’ve always used the slogan “Authentic Hair.” The reason I selected that slogan is we always try to make the product for the everyday guy. We’ve seen marketing for other brands where they’ll get a guy who’s 6’4, has a 6-pack of abs, green eyes… you walk down the street in any city in the United States and you’re not going to run into that guy, but you will see the guy who is the barista at the coffee house or the guy that changes your oil or the guy sitting next to you on the plane, and those are the everyday guy. Those guys like to look good as well. So for us, we always try to use that slogan “Authentic Hair” in everything that we do because we try to market it, not for someone who is a model, but for the everyday guy.
You guys target the barbershop crowd, do you have plans to expand in any other direction or genre?
Our marketing for Johnny B. is to go in the professional beauty world. We try to stay only where the product is being used by professionals. We say if they’re doing haircuts it’s a retailer for us. In terms of Johnny B. and where we want to take the line and where we want to see it grow, we feel like there’s so much more room for us in a growth standpoint. The reason I say that is because in salons and even in barbershops there’s not a lot of retailing done—the reason being is that sometimes the price points are off. Our product fits the price point of every place that a guy gets a haircut. What I mean by that is if a product is more expensive than a haircut, it tends not to sell that well. Our price points are all around $15 retail, and most guys haircuts are around $25, so we have that affordability factor with our brand and we find that as long as we’re in the right price point we will always be successful.
That’s the $64,000 question that has been asked since I was a little boy. We make the products with barbers’ high expectations in mind. When you work doing hair for a living, you expect product to rinse off easily, to perform and hold all day long, and most importantly, you want materials and ingredients that are good for the hair. So we’ve tried to make the product unique and to live up to these barber’s standards. When we make product we always feel our standards are so much higher than what a drugstore is selling. It’s what the professionals use.
Are your products tested on animals?
Never, and that is something that is important to us. Obviously we don’t find the redeeming value of putting pomade on a cat so we will never do something like that.
In the years you’ve been in business have you seen a growth in men wanting a more high quality hair product?
Since hair is the signature for our outlook and it’s how people perceive us, I’ve noticed guys being more inclined to do more with their hair than before. Being in the beauty business for a long time, it used to be when you tell a guy to blow-dry his hair first then put a styling product on he would shudder at the idea. Now you tell a guy the importance of blow-drying is scalp stimulation and that it will create more growth for his hair, and he’s willing to do it. They’re willing to do the blow-drying, they’re willing to use more than one styling product. It’s very typical now for most guys to use two or three products. And that’s where we’ve seen the growth. Before, most guys were just going to use minimal product, but now guys are using gel wet, pomade dry, and a finishing spray to finish the look. So yes, we are seeing a big growth in how guys perceive their look.
What is your can’t-leave-home-without-it product?
It’s the Johnny B. Street cream. It’s a fibrous cream, pomade, water-based, and it gives my hair the appearance that I have more hair than I really do.
What hair trends are you noticing now? And what is influencing them?
Right now, and for the past couple years it has been the comb over. The comb over has been very, very popular. It’s a blend between the Mad Men television show and the Sons of Anarchy look where it’s a rocker and a very slick look. Also, we’re still seeing a lot of the high fade, the high shine—a very groomed finished look. In regards to what we see moving forward…we’re seeing in Europe, in particular Ireland, this new kind of haircut coming out, where it’s a long, disconnected length on top and very short and high up on the sides, not a faux hawk but more of a European kind of pompadour.
Do you have any current celebrity hair idols?
Dylan McDermott from The Practice has great hair. Also David Beckham, because he sets trends with his styles. He’s somebody that can change his haircut and create demand for it in salons and barbershops.
Mustache and beards are very fashionable right now. How do you feel about that trend?
They are very popular and it’s interesting because it’s kind of like an un-groomed/groomed look. If you notice, the beard gives off the un-groomed look but the hairstyle is very groomed. It’s kind of a dichotomy going on.
You guys host education events all over for stylists who use your products. Tell me about those.
We’re big on education. Education has been a huge growth for us and we’ve always maintained our roots as educators. We have 17 educators and 12 ambassadors. On any given Monday, Tuesday, or weekend we have pretty much everybody working, either through hair shows, classes, or in-store presentations. We’ve chosen to have our products sold through barbershops and salons as opposed to a drug store, so we feel like we always want to make sure the guy is getting the right product for their hair.
Are there other companies that are doing this with their brands? Making it more educational and hosting these events?
It has been popular with women’s lines. Bumble and Bumble, Paul Mitchell, and Aveda have been three really good examples of what you see on the women’s side, but not enough of it has been done on the men’s side. Things have changed though—before you would give a guy a bottle of gel and send him on his way, but as you’ve seen hair styles develop you’ve seen the popularity of barbers really taking off. So as you see those two things coming along, education for men’s styling has really grown in the last five years, day and night.
Do you think you’ve had something to do with that?
A big impact. The reason I say that is, as a brand we not only put out hair products, but we put out tools for the barbers that we work with. We are on both sides of the chair. We are on the front side with the client, but we are just as committed to the barber who is working with our products. No brand in the world can say that. We have more styling products and tools than any other brand. We have a full range of cutting tools, capes, combs, brushes, razors… it can go on and on. We have a full range of tools for the professional to use our product. Because we want the very best barbers using our products we feel like it’s a brand extension for us to provide tools for them to work with, so we create almost a professional lifestyle for them.
Can you ever see yourself opening a Johnny B. store?
I see us opening a Johnny B. school and barbershops. We’ve explored it and I’ve been approached to possibly franchise the name, but even though we’re 20 years in, there’s so much more that we’re accomplishing so I don’t have that in the very near forefront but I see us doing that eventually. We have a weeklong seminar called the Barber Academy that we hold twice a year here in LA. We bring in barbers from all over the world. That’s how they become ambassadors.
What happens a lot after our education events is a hairdresser will want everything all in one, so the Essentials Box idea was inspired by a to-go Chinese food box. We custom-made it so it would fit all the products, the towel, and the sprays. Grooming Packs are also good for people who don’t want to just try one product, but three products. They’re also good holiday gifts.
The brand’s social media platforms are popular. I saw on your Instagram a kid who had the Johnny B. logo carved into his hair. Your fans are hard-core!
Yea, we’re on it all. We had a contest where we encouraged barbers to create a Johnny B. graphic and we had quite a bit of submissions. We try to host a lot of contests. We hold one at least once a month. We’ll also play Five Questions with them or we’ll give them a task with certain rules because we like the participation.
What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs?
One of my favorite sayings is, “Water finds its own level.” When you find what you love to do you have to pursue it all the way. As long as you’re pursuing what you believe in and what you feel will be success for you, nothing should stop you. And that’s what I’ve done. For me, I love Monday’s as much as I love Friday’s because when you love what you’re doing you’re just ready to jump right back into it. I love what I do and I can’t see myself stopping. I have a great team and I have very little turnover, because if I have an amazing employee I’ll never lose them over money. I’m a firm believer in that. Being a third generation business owner—grandpa was a business owner, my mom was a business owner, and now myself as a business owner—one of the big mistakes that business owners make is that sometimes they will lose an amazing employee over a quarter. So for me, I’ve always made it a priority that if I have a great staff member I’m not losing them. No way.