Early Start on a Fast Track - The New York Times - Hair Club for Men & Women

By Fraser Clarke, CEO of Hair Club as told to Patricia R. Olsen. 

January 21, 2007 

I GREW up in a small middle-class neighborhood of St. John’s in Newfoundland. My first job, at 16, was working at Tim Horton’s, which is like Dunkin’ Donuts in the United States. I had to be there at 5 a.m. The franchise owner had two locations. One store made doughnuts and the other made muffins. I carried the baked goods between the two, made coffee and waited on customers. I made minimum wage, which was $4.75 Canadian at the time. 

My business degree program at Memorial University in Newfoundland was a cooperative program. For three sessions, I attended university for four months and then worked at Ernst & Young in Toronto for four months.

I had never been to Toronto and I was frightened. I remember arriving on Sunday night of my first work term and going to work that Monday morning. At 20, I was about four years younger than most new hires. The company usually accepted M.B.A. co-op students or graduates with accounting degrees. I was assigned to a group headed by a woman who knew I was young. As we approached each other in the hall for the first time, she said, “Hello, my son,” and I said, “Mom!” I opened my arms, we hugged and it broke the ice. She was one of my mentors from that day on.


Accounting firms get a bad rap but I wouldn’t change my first real job one bit. I got an excellent background for the business world, and the culture was great. There was a balance between hard work and social activities. I also met my wife there.


Three years later I took a job with a boutique investment bank in Canada. One of the first projects I worked on was helping a Canadian investor buy the original Hair Club for Men from its founder, Sy Sperling. After the sale, I worked with the company as an intermediary between the board and company management and became valuable in the board’s eyes. In 2002, Steve Hudson and Edgestone, a private equity company, purchased control and named me chief financial officer. In 2005 I became president and chief executive.

I had a big learning curve, but I joke that my actual job responsibilities decreased. It’s different from what I expected. I have less project ownership now but I’m more responsible for strategic direction and staff management. I had no problem being fairly young because I had proved myself as chief financial officer. I overcame my insecurities and became comfortable managing older people. I made a mistake in getting too close to one or two members of the management team, which made it difficult to jump between my professional and personal relationship with them. It’s important to have a good relationship with your managers and be able to socialize with them, but you have to keep a distance.


One of my greatest successes was positioning the company for sale when we were owned by Edgestone. You manage differently when that’s the goal. Since the Regis Corporation bought it in 2004, I can think long term. I’m able to invest in training and development and improve communication. I started a company newsletter in which I make fun of myself and other senior managers to demystify our positions. Many of the companies we may be interested in acquiring see us as the 800-pound gorilla in the industry. They resist providing the information we need to properly value their business. It’s a Catch-22 for them. The more they tell us about what has made them successful, the more we will pay for their business. However, they raise their risk if the transaction is not completed.


Recently I flew across the country to learn that one company was not prepared to give us information on their finances or their clients. A four-hour scheduled meeting turned into a 40-minute cup of coffee that cost me $500 and six hours of flying.


I hired six of the eight doctors in our network. It’s especially rewarding helping kids suffering from hair loss. We carry on the founder’s program of donating hairpieces to them. I get letters from parents and grandparents thanking us for raising the children’s self-esteem as they wait for their hair to grow back. They don’t have to put on a wig every day. They get a custom-made hairpiece that can stay attached for four to six weeks.