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Alberto-Culver Founder Leonard Lavin Dies at 97

Those who knew Lavin professionally remember him as a generous man who never lost his entrepreneurial spirit.

Leonard Lavin, who created beauty supply firm Alberto-Culver and turned it into a billion-dollar company now owned by Unilever, died on Aug. 2 in his River Forest, Ill., home, from complications from pneumonia. He was 97.

Lavin founded Alberto Culver Co. in 1955 after borrowing money to buy Alberto V05 Hairdressing, a small, West Coast-based professional beauty supply company that was selling one product, an all-purpose hair conditioner — called Alberto V05 Hairdressing — to movie studios. He expanded the line to include more products under the V05 name, and grew the portfolio to include personal-care brands such as TREsemmé, Nexxus, St. Ives, Noxzema and Simple.

The business was sold to Unilever plc in 2011 for $3.7 billion. At the time, Alberto-Culver reported sales of $1.5 billion, employed 3,500 people and sold its products in more than 100 countries.

“Leonard’s legacy lives on in the people and brands that his life impacted. Unilever is proud to have taken over custodianship of many wonderful brands that Leonard conceived and built,” said Alan Jope, Unilever’s president of personal care. In fact, these now represent a key part of Unilever’s leading global portfolio and are going from strength to strength in countries all around the world. We all owe a lot to the business that Leonard built and handed over.”

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Alberto-Culver also owned Sally Beauty until it was spun off as a separate company in 2006. Sally Beauty was acquired by Alberto-Culver in the late Sixties — Lavin grew the professional beauty supply chain from less than a dozen stores to over 3,200 doors.

Those who knew Lavin professionally remember him as a generous man who never lost his entrepreneurial spirit and drive.

“He was a true entrepreneur with amazing instincts,” said Tom Monaghan, vice president of marketing at Unilever-owned Tigi, who worked closely with Lavin. “Leonard was one of the first marketing men who really understood the power of television and he in fact pioneered the use of 30-second time slots. He was always keen to visit customers and to check the market for new ideas and innovations and knew how to turn ideas into actions fast.”

Many remembered Lavin for his keen marketing sense. “He had a special interest and passion for it,” said Cecil Booth, cofounder and president of skin-care line VENeffect, who worked for 20 years in various marketing and communications roles at Alberto-Culver. “He was a hands-on leader and didn’t suffer fools, but gave great encouragement and experience to young, up-and-coming marketers…he delved down into the details and really pushed us.”

Many described Lavin as a mentor.

Said Gina Boswell, executive vice president of customer development for Unilever in the U.S: “Leonard was such a generous man and I learned so much from him. He would schedule private lunches to pass on gems of wisdom from his decades of business experience. Not only was he an innovative leader, way ahead of his time, but he cared deeply about the business. I loved his sense of humor and above all he was a real family man. He would often say ‘Winners make it happen’…for sure, the world lost a real winner.”

In fact, that expression ultimately became the title of Lavin’s memoir: “Winners Make It Happen: Reflections of a Self-Made Man,” which was published by Bonus Books in 2003.

“Leonard was a visionary and one of the true merchants in our business, ” said Jerry Dowell, president of the Dowell Group and a former drugstore merchandise manager and buyer. “Leonard created the art of the deal before it become in vogue. He built a firm that competed, and won, against the giants in CPG.”

Jim Mastrian, considered by many as one of the best merchants in the drugstore business, recalled his first appointment with Lavin.  “I first met Leonard about 45 years ago when I was a buyer for cosmetics and toiletries for Peoples Drug Store. I was new to the business and there I was meeting with the owner of one of our largest suppliers. I remember him to be a very quiet but determined man. The company had tremendous success with products like V05,” recalled Mastrian who retired from a top executive role at Rite Aid in 2008.

“I have a lot of stories about Leonard and they all lead to success,” said Bill Geary, former divisional merchandise manager and 27-year veteran of Walgreens. “He built a tremendously strong relationship with the Walgreens company.” Like many who recalled Lavin, Geary said he “always saw the big picture.” He could be tough, but in a good, strong business way and always had a vision for building the retailers’ business as well as Alberto-Culver, Geary said.

Added Monaghan, “Leonard went to work every day with energy and the desire to win, he knew the power of people and brands in building a sustainable and healthy business. He said to me that three things were most important to him — his family, having a healthy life and having a great job with purpose. He was a driver for success and a great example of the founder’s mentality.”

Lavin also had a passion for breeding thoroughbred racing horses — he founded Glen Hill Farm in Ocala, Fla., a thoroughbred breeding and racing operation, in 1966. Booth recalled that Lavin often included Alberto-Culver employees in his racing empire, inviting them to submit names for horses born at Glen Hill, resulting in horse names such as “Media Plan” and “Marketing Mix.”

“He lived this way and wanted the folks who worked for him to do the same. Mr. Lavin was a hell of a man. Built a great company and loved it and his people,” said Al DeChellis, who worked at Alberto-Culver from 2000 to 2012.

Lavin was born in Chicago in 1919 and served in the U.S. Navy during World War II.

He is survived by his two children, Carol Lavin Bernick and Karen Lavin; four grandchildren, and six great grand-children. He was preceded in death by his wife and business partner Bernice Lavin and a son, Scott.