Headmasters: Sam Brocato

Sam Brocato talks about his Louisiana roots, building his New York City empire and his A-team at Studio B.

Hairstyling heavyweight Sam Brocato knew early on that he wanted to be in beauty. His mother was a bookkeeper at a small beauty school in Baton Rouge, LA. “It was just this beehive of excitement filled with 60 girls running around twirling each other’s hair,” he says. “I just loved the energy.” Brocato admits he’s “always had a bit of a creative propensity.” So at 17, before graduating high school, he enrolled in cosmetology school. Afterward, in the ’70s, he went to London—“New York was still the fashion world, but London was creating the geometry of a new hair thought,” he says—and took a few one-month courses at Sassoon Academy. He returned to Baton Rouge, and spent three years working for what was considered the nicest salon in town. In 1976, still in his early 20s, he opened a salon of his own.

It was an 80-hour workweek, and everything was consumed by work. Brocato says he had a knack for business; his father, an architect, had an office near his first salon, and was a mentor in ways beyond parental obligations. “We talked a lot about what it’s like to run and grow a business,” Brocato says. “And although he stayed very small in his practice, I kept wanting to figure out how to grow.”

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In 1979, Brocato joined Intercoiffure, where he found people who inspired and helped him. Around this time, he met Edwin Neill, founder of The Neill Corp., who was his distributor, but also a mentor. Neill introduced him to the BBSI (before it became the PBA), and Brocato, still in his 20s, found himself speaking at their annual conference. “I didn’t have a clue who they were,” he says. “All I know is Edwin said, ‘I want you to talk to them about what you’re thinking,’ because I was selling a lot of retail, cutting a lot of hair and doing a lot of education.”

In 1989, he decided to explore product development. He was close with Paul Mitchell and Horst Rechelbacher, who supported the idea. (Mitchell also encouraged him to write a book, Beautiful Business: Retailing for the Hairdresser, which became a best-seller.) Brocato fought to make the line work, but says he was spreading his efforts too thin between salons, schools and his family. “I could never seem to get it as big as I wanted it to be,” he says, “but I kept it going along. That’s one of my curses: I try to do so much. I really work hard and work a lot.”

And work hard he does: Fast-forward to 2008, when Brocato started from scratch in New York City, where he now owns three successful salons. He still owns the buildings in Louisiana where he had his first salons, but doesn’t manage or own the Aveda Concept salon and school they house. “If you own the property, then you have a long-term, built-in asset in your business when you’re ready to retire or move on,”
he says.

About a year ago, he separated from his product company, but not before he was on to something new: Studio B. “Beth Minardi and I started talking about working together,” he says. “One day she called me and said, ‘I’m looking up at a huge For Rent sign, and I would love for it to be our future home.’” What excited them, he says, was combining his styling experience with her world-class coloring.

“It’s not like we’re sitting around thinking, ‘We’re gonna get rich,’” Brocato says. “What we do is enrich. It’s about the spirit of the love we have for the work. You do someone’s hair and you realize that it really made them happy. It’s like the perfect kiss, in a way. A big part of it is we just love what we do.” ✂ —Kristen Heinzinger

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