By  on October 23, 2009

Most everyone loves a comeback story — including the salon industry. And Peter Coppola, the Manhattan-born hairstylist with a 40-year hairstyling-salon owning-product manufacturing career under his belt, does not disappoint.

It seems best when talking about Coppola, 63, a resident of Boca Raton, Fla., where he operates his salon, the 37th in his career, to get to the heart of the matter. It involved unpaid taxes before his latest reinvention. He has, among other things, helped establish unisex salons in the Northeast during the Seventies; owned and operated a successful chain of salons in Florida in the Eighties and Nineties; founded a business in 2007 that’s revolutionized hair straightening treatments, and is on track next year to open a 10,000-square-foot salon in Manhattan.

For Coppola, to rehash his tax ordeal is matter-of-fact — it’s a subject he knows he needs to discuss so people will pay attention to what he’s doing now.

In 2005, the State of New York Division of Tax Appeals found Coppola responsible for failure to file sales and use tax returns for an estimated $350,000 on his former Manhattan-based salon, Peter Coppola N.Y.C., for various periods between 1999 and 2000. Coppola, who was first sent notices on the matter in June 2001 by the Department of Taxation and Finance, has appealed the finding several times with no change in the Tax Appeals Tribunal outcome. The most recent appeal, in February 2007, was denied, according to documents. However, on Sept. 30, Coppola filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in the Southern District of Florida. According to the filing, Coppola listed his debts as primarily business-related, with liabilities between $1 million and $10 million. Sources said the bankruptcy filing, in effect, “puts [the collection process] on hold until it’s discharged” by the Bankruptcy Court. The filing, added sources, allows Coppola to proceed with the opening of his new Manhattan salon as it is being established as a corporation, not a sole proprietorship.

The unpaid tax situation (and alleged embezzlement by a former employee) put Coppola near financial ruin and tarnished his reputation. At the end of 2005, he sold the salon’s lease to former employee Oscar Blandi, who was operating a salon at The Plaza.

People familiar with Coppola during the salon’s heyday, such as his former publicist Barbara Kling, said the salon “was accepted as one of the top styling and coloring places in the city that enjoyed healthy client relationships.” Mary Brunetti, director of education for Sally Hershberger and one of the foremost salon industry experts, compares him “to Madonna in the hair industry in that he is brilliant at reinventing himself and goes from success to success. He is someone to be respected.” Others, including several former employees, didn’t give Coppola as glowing a review.

What is inarguable is that much of the success at 746 Madison Avenue was attributable to its star-studded staff, a veritable who’s who in the salon world: the aforementioned Blandi, who went on to start a hair care line and is venturing into a second location; uberstylist Sally Hershberger, who owns and operates three salons as well as her own mass hair care line; editorial superstar Kevin Mancuso, who was the salon’s creative director for nine years, and famed colorist Sharon Dorram, who also operates her own salon.

Hershberger said scheduling conflicts prevented her from commenting, while Mancuso and Blandi declined to comment. Dorram would not comment on the time she worked at Peter Coppola N.Y.C., but said she and Coppola “share a mutual professional respect.”

Fortunately for Coppola, a longtime resident of Boca Raton, as one door closed, another door opened. Soon after he handed over his salon’s lease, he spent a majority of his time on QVC selling his 60-item hair care line, Peter Coppola New York, a partnership that began in 2001. At the time, TV-selling was still new to prestige firms, with only a few hairstylists — Nick Chavez and Ojon among them — competing for the hair care customer.

For Coppola, the business endeavor was life-changing. “It was a tremendous turnaround for me. Reputation-wise, it was win, win, win,” he said.

In 2006, Coppola left QVC and began a partnership with rival HSN, which lasted less than a year. “It couldn’t do the numbers, and rather than jeopardize the brand, I decided to leave,” said Coppola.

Today, Coppola’s products are available on several Web sites, in his salons (the Boca salon and one in Westport, Conn., which is licensed), and in chains such as TJ Maxx and Marshall’s.

That same year, Coppola’s most successful venture to date came about, Keratin Complex Smoothing Therapy, an in-salon hair-straightening treatment designed to rival Brazilian hair straighteners, which often contained formaldehyde but were wildly popular anyway.

“A stylist brought me the product [from Brazil], and I saw the possibilities. We changed the formula of course, made it more safe, brought in a sophisticated chemist who tweaked it for us to where I thought it was good,” said Coppola.

He solicited investors in and out of the beauty community, with Coppola holding a minority interest, and in mid-2007 Keratin Complex Smoothing Therapy began rolling out to salons on Long Island, Coppola’s old stomping ground.

Coppola started his salon business in the Seventies in Great Neck on Long Island, where he opened more than 30 years ago. The salon, called Peter’s Place, showcased the new concept of combining men’s and women’s services in one beauty space. Soon, Coppola built 10 salons throughout Long Island. Gobs of women and men sought out the salons as the unisex concept took hold.

“It was a revolution in the salon industry,” he said. “That was exciting for us.”

At $25 a cut, Peter’s Place generated “a couple million dollars” a year. On most days, Coppola worked from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., he recalled.

With a booming salon chain to finance his next move, Coppola took the plunge into New York City and in 1975 opened a salon at Olympic Towers, located on 52nd Street and Fifth Avenue. But Coppola quickly learned that operating a salon in Manhattan was very different from running one on Long Island.

“It was not successful…a whole new experience….It was a different mentality with hairstylists…a different clientele,” he said. After just two years, Coppola sold the salon.

In 1977, he returned to making Peter’s Place his number-one focus, and soon he established an academy where his staff could be trained.

After about 10 years, Coppola had “made enough money to retire.” It was 1986. He was 39 and had lived a hard-partying life. A more simple life was calling him, he said, and Coppola moved to Boca Raton to do — well, nothing.

But he wasn’t idle for long. In 1987, he opened a salon called Coppola’s on Glades Road — and “in an instant, it was an overnight success.” Apparently many of Boca Raton’s tony residents knew and remembered Peter’s Place from Long Island.

Later that year, he married and opened another salon. Within five years, he was operating seven salons in Palm Beach County.

In 1991, Coppola took the plunge into Manhattan again, and opened Coppola salon 60th Street and Madison Avenue (the locale of the aforementioned window incident). His family — he had two young daughters by this time — remained in Florida, and he spent the next eight years commuting between the two cities, spending time in New York from Monday through Thursday and returning to Boca Raton for the weekend. During this period, he also sold his Florida salon chain and divorced, as the commute “killed my marriage,” he said.

Within two years, “he was busting out of the space,” so he sold his lease to hairstylist Kim Lepine and moved to 746 Madison Avenue, the incubator for the salon industry’s future stars.

Today, Keratin Complex has 42 major distributors selling to more than 4,000 salons, many by the hairdressers he helped nurture. It’s also sold in Italy, Germany, Dubai, France and England. Estimated sales for 2009 are $20 million, Coppola said.

The success of Keratin Complex calls for nothing less than a flagship salon, Coppola said, in no other city than New York. In the past several weeks, Coppola signed off on a 10,000-square-foot space on the 12th floor of the building that houses Barneys New York. “This is the biggest project I have ever done,” said Coppola, who also just bought an apartment on East 61st Street.

The endeavor bucks the boutique salon trend that’s taken over Manhattan the past several years. Perhaps Coppola is leading the pack again?

“It’s funny about the boutique salon concept. From a business standpoint it can’t generate enough money to make any money,” said Coppola.

How the new endeavor will fare remains to be seen. As one former employee of Coppola N.Y.C. said, “I don’t know who will work for him. Maybe it’s been long enough where no one will remember.”

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