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DESPITE HIS ALTERNATIVE leanings, Horst Rechelbacher — the eco-visionary who founded Aveda — is an accomplished business man by traditional measures of success.
This story first appeared in the August 29, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
After all, he sold his botanical-based beauty enterprise to the Estée Lauder Cos. in 1997 for $300 million.
Rechelbacher does not subscribe to buttoned-up corporate culture, and instead relies on meditation and visualization in lieu of market research reports and focus groups.
So it’s not terribly surprising that his latest book, “Minding Your Business: Profits That Restore the Planet” (Earth Aware Editions), is more Deepak Chopra than Jack Welsh in tone.
In fact, Rechelbacher does not begin to delve into his business approach until the eighth chapter of the 14-chapter book, and even then it’s more theory and ideology than actionable advice. For those readers bound to grow impatient, as they scan for practical approaches to developing sustainable, planet-friendly businesses, the author likely would charge that they are missing the point.
Rechelbacher tacitly acknowledges his roundabout approach by recalling a lecture he gave at the Learning Annex in New York City, on “How to Start a Sustainable Business.” He writes, “For the first half of the lecture, I did not talk about the steps to starting a business, which many people had expected, but instead I spoke about the ‘business of being.’” He recalls that a woman in the audience, who identified herself as a nurse who felt at odds with the poorly managed hospital system, asked midlecture: “What does this have to do with starting a sustainable business?”
He writes that he told her, “Crisis equals opportunity,” and suggested that she find niches to fill in her current profession, such as formulating healing ointments, becoming a midwife or developing a program to train holistic nurses.
Rechelbacher’s greatest strength, as revealed by the book, is his ability to turn roadblocks into stepping stones. As a student, he struggled in school — only years later discovering that he was dyslexic — prompting his teacher to encourage him to enroll in an apprenticeship program rather than college. Feeling devalued in the classroom, by the age of 12 he had already decided what to do with his life. Entranced with the salon across the street from his home in Austria, he decided he was going to become a famous hairstylist. He reached that goal by 20, and then the next crisis hit. He totaled his brand-new Jaguar convertible while on a joyride in Minneapolis, landing him in the hospital with no insurance and a mountain of debt in hospital bills. To whittle away his debt, he found work in a Minneapolis salon and soon after befriended a client with whom he opened his own salon, called Horst. During a visit from his mother, an herbalist, Rechelbacher became ill and, after some thought, attributed his sickness to the chemical-laden products used in hair salons. The pair began to formulate a botanical-based hair care line, later adding jojoba oil to the formulas.
The hairstylist-turned-natural foods and beauty activist now spends much of his time toiling on his 600-acre organic farm in Wisconsin, cultivating his latest beauty enterprise: a range of natural hair care products called Intelligent Nutrients that bear the USDA Organic seal.
In Rechelbacher’s view, all personal and corporate goals should fulfill a larger purpose than profits. “It must offer something of value to the world, be it a contribution to the lives of others or to the planet.”
Frequently referring to himself as an “eco-preneur,” the hairstylist calls on business leaders to “rewrite the laws of business to reflect our genuine stewardship responsibilities, not only to our company and to our human shareholders, but to the larger human community, and our greatest shareholder: nature itself.”
He chides companies for promoting consumption for consumption’s sake and, true to form, chastises beauty firms that employ glitzy advertising campaigns to sell products that in his view are toxic to the consumer and the overall environment.
His message is that sustainable businesses, at their cores, are enterprises that better consumers’ lives and the planet.