When Sydell Miller talks about her almost 30-year marriage with her late husband Arnold, there’s a lovely mixture of nostalgia, excitement and tenderness in her voice. Their story feels like a movie—part romantic comedy, part feel-good family drama and part business biopic. It’s the story of a couple, a company and a community—the community of hairdressers they were so passionate to support.
Love At First Sight
Of all the places that Sydell could have met Arnold, it’s quite fitting that she met him while sitting in his salon chair. She was home from college and a friend suggested she see him to get her hair done. “We had a very interesting conversation and he did my hair fabulously,” says Sydell. They ended up going out every night the following week. “Those big blue eyes were just so irresistible,” says Sydell. “At the end of the week he asked me to marry him.” She found out later that the moment she walked into his salon, Arnold knew she was the one. He must have taken a little longer doing Sydell’s hair, because his next client got really upset. “She started swearing at him,” says Sydell. “And he said, ‘Cookie, slow down. You see that little blonde walking out the door? I’m going to marry her.’”
Working At The Salon
Arnold had quite a successful salon before he met Sydell. And after they got married, he assumed she would stay at home. He was wrong. One day Arnold’s receptionist called in sick, and Sydell walked into the salon and announced she was there to help. Arnold seemed perplexed. “He said, ‘Help with what?’ I said, ‘If nothing else I’ll answer the phones. Don’t worry, if I get into trouble, I’ll call you.’” But she never got in trouble and was a huge hit with the staff. She even parlayed her front-desk work into selling accessories at the salon.
Their First Brand
One of their most-beloved salon accessories was false lashes. Sydell found a way to fashion false lashes with natural hairs, individually cutting and feathering each set. “It took about two hours to make one set of lashes,” says Sydell. “We lost money on them, but the clients loved them.” Investigating how wigs were hand-tied together on a web, the Millers created a faster method for making the lashes, and Ardell, their first company, was born. Arnold dreamed of teaching other hairdressers how to apply and sell the lashes, creating a whole new service for salons. To get the ball rolling, the Millers packed up their lash kits and headed to a beauty show. They applied 100 sets of lashes the first day, and sold every kit the next day. Ardell became very successful very fast, but Arnold’s original intent—giving salons extra business—was lost. “We opened up with 50 distributors. And they opened up another 450 distributors,” says Sydell. “Then the lashes started selling really well in drugstores. We hated what had happened to Ardell, but we couldn’t fix it.” It was an invaluable business lesson. “We knew what the salon owner needed. We knew what the hairdresser needed. But we didn’t know anything about distribution or salespeople,” says Miller. “Ardell was our school of hard knocks. It was the education we needed before Matrix.”
The Making Of Matrix
Arnold Miller didn’t plan on becoming a hairdresser. He actually started out in pharmacy school. But when his brother, a hairdresser himself, suggested that Arnold try hairdressing, he took to it like a duck to water. “Hairdressing was his first love,” says Sydell. “But he hated how hairdressers were treated—like they weren’t educated or professional. We wanted to raise the image of hairdressers. That’s why we created Matrix.” They started with a line of hair care products called Matrix Essentials and a permanent wave called Synerfusion. At the time, the most expensive perm cost salons $2, but Synerfusion cost $5. “All the distributors said, ‘This dog will never hunt.’ But that product kept us alive the first couple of years,” says Sydell. The secret to Synerfusion’s success was a unique ultra-light treatment that was applied after the waving solution and before the neutralizer. The display packaging told the client that the treatment cost a little more, but it was well worth it. “You couldn’t over-process the perm,” says Sydell. “It was foolproof.” Another advantage for Matrix: timing. Arnold always told Sydell that it was pointless to try to break into hair color because a few brands had a lock on the field. But then he started getting calls from his colorists. They were using the same formulas, but not getting the same results. “Arnie figured out what had happened. Some of the dyes that were used originally were now banned by the FDA and companies had to reformulate many of their colors,” says Sydell. “They changed the formulations, but they put them in the market without explaining the difference. You couldn’t get the dark blacks, the rich browns and the hot reds.” Arnold jumped on the opportunity. He found an Italian company that had taken out the dyes five years before the deadline and had already corrected their formulas. Arnold flew to Italy, bought SoColor and added it to the Matrix product line. “SoColor was the first cream-tube hair color in the United States. Everything else was liquid in a bottle,” says Sydell. “Arnie started the hair color boom by making color so easy to use that all his hairdressers—not just colorists—leaned how to apply hair color. He also told hairdressers that they were artists. Instead of applying color with a bottle, he showed them how to use a brush and bowl.” Matrix thrived with Sydell running the operation on the inside and Arnold being the spokesman on the outside. “We had the same size office. We got the same paycheck. Everything was equal between us,” says Sydell. “It was an interesting life with him.”
The year 1992 was a hard one for the Millers. “That’s the year Arnold found out that he had bladder cancer,” says Sydell. And, in the midst of dealing with Arnold’s cancer, Sydell unexpectedly had a health scare of her own. She had hired a summer intern who noticed Sydell occasionally clutching her chest. Her intern made Sydell talk to her father, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic. After lots of coaxing, Sydell and Arnold went in to see him. “My main artery was 100 percent closed. My secondary artery was 99 percent closed. And my third artery was 97 percent closed,” says Sydell. That July she had major heart surgery that saved her life. The following winter, Arnold passed away. On December 29, 1992, the professional beauty industry showed their support by coming out in full force. People from all over the world came to honor Arnold’s memory and comfort Sydell at his funeral.
Sydell Takes Charge
Soon after Arnold’s passing, Sydell was faced with heading the company alone as the new CEO and President of Matrix. A sales conference had been previously scheduled and happened to fall just days after Arnold’s funeral. Sydell was asked to kick off the conference, telling 850 sales managers and educators her intentions for Matrix. “I said, ‘I can’t do that. I can’t say two words without crying.’ But they played a video honoring Arnie and I looked out at their faces. I saw Arnie and I said to him, ‘I know Arnie, you’re right. I can do this.’” She drew on his strength and inspired the team. Matrix never lost a beat. The company grew 80 percent the year after Arnold passed away.
Looking back, Sydell knows that she’s been quite a lucky woman. “I met the love of my life at a hair salon. I survived heart disease and breast cancer. And I have the love of the entire hairdressing community,” says Sydell. When talking about the Beauty Changes Lives Foundation presenting her with the Legacy Award for their support of professional beauty education, Sydell understandably gets emotional. “It’s extremely special to be honored by them. The beauty industry allowed Arnie and I to meet so many wonderful people over the years,” she says. “For everything we did for the industry, we got back 10 times as much in wonderful friendships that still exist today.”
From the April issue, click here for the digital edition.