John Paul DeJoria talks to HILuxury about hair care, tequila and helping to change the world

When John Paul DeJoria, chairman and chief executive officer of the John Paul Mitchell Systems hair empire, commits to something, he doesn’t go halfway.

Like when he wanted a Balinese-style, dragon-inspired home on the Big Island. It took three years and 100 workers to build the house in Bali, then another two years and 52 carpenters to finish it on his property fronting Kiholo Bay. The roof boasts 1.3 million shingles to resemble dragon skin.

Or when he committed to going green. Recycling became standard practice, he developed a carbon-neutral product line, and his 32-acre awapuhi ginger farm on the Hamakua Coast is entirely run on solar energy.

Because if he’s going to talk the talk, DeJoria says, “I better walk the walk.”

Or, in his case, take an idea and run.

With his signature look a T-shirt and slicked-back ponytail, DeJoria, with his optimistic outlook on life and booming radio voice, never fit the stereotype of a CEO of two multimillion-dollar companies.

And yet DeJoria – who heads both JPMS and Patron Spirits Co., is more than just a savvy businessman with a talent for selling just about anything.

He’s an entrepreneur, growing JPMS into a hair-care empire with more than 90 products and a successful pet-care line, investing in high-end tequila and the popular nightclub chain House of Blues, and opening salon schools across the country, including one in Kaimuki.

He’s an environmentalist, creating a carbon-neutral hair-care line and reimbursing gas expenses of employees who car-pool to work.

And he’s a philanthropist, donating millions of dollars to charities, serving as patron to a children’s hospital and a nonprofit dedicated to getting rid of land mines, and helping to stop the spread of AIDS in Africa.

All without a college degree, a trust fund or a desperate desire for attention.

In fact, there was nothing simple – or easy – about De-Joria’s meteoric rise. His rags-to-riches biography is the stuff of Lifetime mini-series and Oprah shows.

“It all seems like it very much happened, and I love that,” says the high-energy and part-time Hawaii resident DeJoria, 64. “I’m so thankful for what’s happening today. I’m thankful and blessed.”

HAWAII TIED

DeJoria traces his first connection to Hawaii back to 1962, when he enlisted in the Navy and stepped off the USS Hornet into paradise.

“I thought this was such a super cool place,” DeJoria says, his voice trailing as if recalling that exact moment. “‘Wow,’ I thought, ‘this place is great.'”

The impact Hawaii had on DeJoria was so positive, that DeJoria ultimately bought a 3.7-acre property for a home to be built in a private community on the Big Island. And he – along with his late partner, Paul Mitchell – invested in agriculture land on the slopes of Mauna Kea, which has turned into the company’s ginger farm, producing all the awapuhi for its hair-care line.

And the farm is designed much like DeJoria: There are no perfect rows of ginger plants or industrial equipment; everything just flows organically and parts of it have been left wild.

“It’s really not a farm, per se,” says Harry McDonald, who manages the farm and DeJoria’s home with his wife, Sandy. “It’s more like a giant botanical garden. It’s got every kind of fruit tree, endemic Hawaiian plants, trails to walk along. It’s just big and beautiful.”

DeJoria continues to visit the Islands, checking on the ginger farm a few times and year and finding time to relax here as well.

Sometimes he stops in for dinner at CanoeHouse at the Mauna Lani Resort. Or sometimes he rides his Harley around the island.

But every time he’s here, he feels rejuvenated. “There’s such a great energy there,” he says. “It’s one of the only places in the world where you can find a rain forest, desert, snow, everything. I love that.”

TRESS SUCCESS

It all started with an idea – and $750.

DeJoria was working in the hair-care industry when he met Mitchell, then a budding hairstylist, at a beauty show in Miami, in 1971. They immediately hit it off as friends.

Over the years the two would talk over the phone – DeJoria lived in L.A., Mitchell in New York City – and visit each other, often meeting at the one-bedroom cottage in Waimanalo Mitchell rented for $400 a month. (Mitchell would stay in the “guest room” – a Volkswagon van with four flat tires in the back of the house.)

One of the ideas they had was launching a hair-care line with products created by hairdressers for hairdressers. Only the best products, only endorsed by professional stylists.

Nine years after they first met, with just $750 – that they had to borrow – DeJoria and Mitchell began marketing their products under the name Paul Mitchell, choosing the name of a hairdresser others in the field would recognize and respect.

And it wasn’t easy.

They took their new line door-to-door, providing free training demonstrations and refunding salon owners any unsold products. It was a different, innovative approach to selling hair-care products, and perhaps the main reason John Paul Mitchell Systems became one of the fastest-growing privately held companies in the United States.

“We really believed in our products and in ourselves,” DeJoria says.

Even when the pair couldn’t pay their bills on time, even when the company nearly went bankrupt its first year – they kept going.

Resources were so limited, in fact, that the brand’s now-famous black-and-white packaging was a result not of brilliant marketing but not being able to afford color printing.

To make the business seem credible, DeJoria and Mitchell invested in a post office box and used an answering machine – with a friendly female voice with an English accent – to create the illusion of an office.

Still, despite setbacks and financial woes, they never gave up. “We knew that if we told enough people about it, we were going to stay in business and be a booming success,” DeJoria says. “We believed.”

DeJoria, raised by a single mom in the poor neighborhood of Echo Park, Calif., and voted least likely to succeed in high school, was intimately familiar with hitting rock-bottom and crawling back out.

When he was 23, he found himself fresh out of the military and homeless in L.A. with his 2-year-old son, living in a ’51 Cadillac with a broken water pump.

Then his son’s mother left them – with their car and entire savings account. DeJoria, who had been working as an emcee for the annual sports trade show in Anaheim, Calif., was still waiting for his next paycheck.

“Rent wasn’t paid and we got evicted,” DeJoria says. “I had no money in the bank.”

So to make ends meet, he collected soda bottles and cashed them in at neighborhood liquor and grocery stores – 2 cents for small ones, 5 for big ones. They lived on $3 a day until DeJoria found a job delivering medical supplies.

He wound up homeless again when he and Mitchell, also struggling financially, started JPMS and an investor didn’t come through with the money.

“I said to myself, ‘All right, I have a car and a few hundred bucks. I’ll make it,'” he says.

It didn’t take long for business to pick up, fueled by such innovative products as its moisturizing leave-in conditioner and a protein treatment that prevents damage to hair from blow-drying.

Though Mitchell died of pancreatic cancer in 1989, DeJoria continued to steer JPMS to global success. Today, the company’s annual salon retail sales approach $900 million. It produces more than 90 hair- and skin-care products, all of which are manufactured in the U.S. and sold through 25 distributors across the nation to roughly 90,000 hair salons and schools.

In addition, he began opening Paul Mitchell schools, which provide extensive hands-on and classroom training in everything from haircutting to nail care. Today, there are about 100 schools across the United States, including Ulupono Academy in Kaimuki. (His oldest son, who lived with him in the Cadillac, is now 42 and running a school in Oregon.)

The schools have allowed other budding hairstylists to pursue their dreams – something DeJoria values deeply.

“John Paul has raised the level of education for the beauty industry,” says Sandra Rowland, financial director and admissions leader at Ulupono Academy, which opened in April 2005 and enrolls about 10 to 15 students every six weeks. “He has given many future professionals the opportunity to accomplish their dreams and have a career in the beauty industry.”

But quality hair care shouldn’t be reserved for just humans. A few years ago, DeJoria launched John Paul Pet, an animal-friendly, salon-quality line with products – in that trademark black-and-white packaging, of course – formulated to match the proper pH level for dogs and cats. (He’s even tested the products out on himself.)

DeJoria is so connected to the company – he’s best known for his role in Paul Mitchell’s print and TV ads, dressed entirely in black and sporting his signature ponytail – he’s often mistaken for Mitchell, whom he still misses.

“More than anything, I lost a dear friend, someone I used to hang out with,” DeJoria says, adding there were no plans to cease operation when his partner died. “I believe in reincarnation … and I know that nothing would’ve pleased him more than seeing products with his name on them doing more than $100 million a year. I promised him we’d go far over that amount.”

GIVING BACK

These days DeJoria doesn’t worry much about money. He owns several homes – in Malibu and Austin, aside from Hawaii – boasts five motorcycles and travels via private jet.

But his vastly improved financial state – Patron Spirits Co. alone brings in about $650 million a year in sales – has only bolstered his compassion for others.

DeJoria is a patron-level sponsor of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, which treats seriously ill and injured children regardless of ability to pay. He supports efforts to raise awareness and funds for AIDS education, treatment and prevention, particularly in Africa. And he participates in an annual motorcycle ride to raise money for abused and neglected children.

One of his most recent philanthropic endeavors is the Mine-seeker Foundation, which aims to remove land mines and return liberated land back to food production.

Last year DeJoria took a life-changing trip to Mozambique, one of the world’s poorest countries. Here, thousands of mines lurk beneath the surface, threatening the lives of millions of people who live near them. Since 1975 there have been more than 1 million land mine casualties around the world; every 20 minutes, someone is killed or maimed by one.

On his visit, DeJoria met victims of land mines, including a woman – a hairdresser – who lost both legs to a land mine explosion. He gave her a bag of hair-care products and a promise for prosthetics; she gave him a handmade metal sculpture and a new outlook on our responsibility to help others.

“Being a citizen of the planet Earth, I think all of us have an obligation to make our cities, our states, our countries and the world a better place to live because we are here,” he said in a video for the nonprofit. “And it goes back to the Golden Rule. No matter what race, no matter what religion you are, God wants you to treat people the way you’d want to be treated. You do unto others as you’d have others do unto you. An individual can make a difference. The power of one is amazing. What one person could do if they just put their foot down and put their mind to it. They can do so much.”

THE GOOD LIFE

DeJoria knows how temporary all of this is. He knows that success is fleeting and money can’t solve your problems. He knows that in a split second everything – his business, his multimillion-dollar lifestyle – could come to an abrupt end.

Which is why he doesn’t take any of it for granted. He shows up to charity events. He donates money and products. He visits his salons and stocks products. He returns phone calls.

And whenever he can, he gets on his motorcycle and rides. For him, it puts life – from living in a Cadillac to a sprawling Austin estate – back into perspective.

“That keeps you down to earth,” DeJoria says, his voice dreamy. “It keeps you in touch with the road, with nature. Nothing matters. You just focus (on riding) and everything around you. The wind, the sun in your face. You can’t beat it.”

PAUL MITCHELL ESTATE

There was something about Hawaii that Paul Mitchell couldn’t shake.

When he was working as a hair stylist in New York City – well before his name was plastered on recycled hair care products worldwide – he rented a one-bedroom cottage in Waimanalo.

Then in 1985 he purchased a 1.3-acre property in an exclusive enclave in Lanikai, one of several land purchases – including a 32-acre ginger farm for Paul Mitchell awapuhi on the Hamakua Coast – he made before he died of pancreatic cancer in 1989.

His son, Angus, a rising star in the hair-styling world, now owns the private beachfront home and rents it out to A-list celebrities. (The names of notables guests are kept private.)

The luxury retreat features 11,000-square-feet of living space with seven separate pavilions that total seven bedrooms, nine bathrooms and three kitchens. The impeccably landscaped estate is set amid palms trees and tropical plants, with private tanning areas, a heated swimming pool with a cascading waterfall, a pool cabana with a hot tub, a tranquil koi pond, a sauna and a Japanese-style furo bath.

Each dwelling shares architectural traits: Rounded stucco walls with Indonesian ironwood roof shakes, solid ohia log posts and hand-woven glass fabric ceilings.

Pricing varies upon request, though some Web sites list the cost to rent the entire estate between $5,000 a night during the low season to nearly $9,000 a night during the high. That doesn’t include the $7,000 for security deposit and another $1,100 for cleaning costs.

PATRON TEQUILA

For generations tequila has filled salt-rimmed shot glasses and margaritas.

But it wasn’t until 1989, when the ultra-premium Patron hit shelves, that tequila got a major image – and taste – upgrade.

Patron, which means “the good boss” in Spanish, was the multimillion idea of two entrepreneurs, John Paul DeJoria and Martin Crowley, who discovered a unique tequila distilled in the mountains of Jalisco, Mexico, about 20 years ago.

It was nothing either of them had ever tasted before, and they both realized a high-end tequila was exactly what the world was waiting for.

“I’ve always liked tequila (in drinks),” DeJoria says. “But I didn’t like the taste of it on its own. This is a tequila you don’t have to hold your breath to drink.”

At the time, there were no ultra-premium tequilas on the market, and the pair knew they had to change the perception of this classic Mexican spirit. That meant packaging the liquor in hand-blown bottles festooned with ribbons and topped with a natural roundhead cork. And it came with a nice price tag, too, at $45 a bottle.

“I ordered 1,000 cases to start with,” DeJoria says. “And if nobody bought it, for the next 10 years, everybody I knew was going to get a bottle for birthdays and Christmas.”

Instead, it took off.

The Patron Spirits Co., now based in Las Vegas, started with two tequilas: Patron Anejo and Patron Silver. It quickly became the drink of choice for such celebrities as Clint Eastwood, Peter Fonda, Dan Aykroyd and Fran Drescher.

In 1992 the company began expanding its product line, introducing Patron XO Café, a dry coffee tequila distinct from the sweeter versions. Patron Citronge, an extra-fine liqueur created from Caribbean oranges, followed and quickly became a favorite ingredient in margaritas.

Now, it’s the fastest-growing tequila in the country.

And this brand of tequila arrived at the right time.

Since 2002, sales of ultra-premium and super-premium tequilas have grown at a rate of 28 percent, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. That’s an average growth rate of 8.6 percent a year.

In January 2007 sales for Patron tequila rose 17.5 percent from the year earlier, triple the gains posted by lower-priced brands. Today, it accounts for more than 70 percent of sales in the ultra-premium tequila category.

Patron has even made a mark on pop culture. Last year the company launched the Patron Social Club, an online social networking site for tequila aficionados. So far, it has generated more than 300,000 page views.

“We knew the world was ready to treat themselves to a tequila they could sip,” DeJoria says. “Thankfully, the world agreed.”