Turning hairdressers into business people and building a chain of 1,157 salons took -- well, it took the titanic will of Sam Ross, the founder of Fantastic Sams Hair Salons.
"I used to hear him on the telephone, screaming at the franchisees," recalls Jannie Holland, a training supervisor Ross hired in the late 1970s to help build his Memphis-based chain. "I'd get up and close my door so I didn't have to listen. I knew they'd just mortgaged their house, and Sam wanted them to open another salon."
Ross's mighty determination wasn't made entirely of stick, though. The carrot included his often lending new franchisees a good part of the fee to buy the business and a combative charm that made doubters into believers. A veteran stylist when she encountered Fantastic Sams and its then-cutting-edge unisex approach, "I pooh-poohed it," Holland says. "The concept of taking care of the whole family seemed ridiculous."
But then she went to a Fantastic Sams in Atlanta, when the boss was visiting, and Ross turned the salon into a revival meeting. "I was just blown away," she says. "He just whipped these people up into a frenzy." Ross referred to the rest of the salon world as "consistent mediocrity" and promised something better.
He pushed companywide training, even if the stylists were experienced, so that a Fantastic Sams cut in Phoenix was the same as one in Pensacola, Florida. He demanded spotless salons and memorable service.
Ross died July 19 of pneumonia. He was 81 and spent his last days at the Ave Maria Home, an assisted-living facility in Memphis, offering its executive director, Frank Gattuso, unsolicited business advice. "Every day," Gattuso says with a chuckle.
A New Yorker, Ross served in the Navy, ran a Boston delicatessen, managed real estate in New York and Chicago, and in 1970 moved to Memphis. There, he attended barber school, got a job at a barbershop, and soon bought the place, turning it into Fantastic Sams. In 1976, he started franchising across the country.
Hell-bent on growth and willing to forgo upfront cash from some new franchisees, Ross was at times cash strapped. "They thought they were going to shut the company down early on," Holland says. "He offered people relief on their debt to stay. I took stock in lieu of a raise, probably more than one time.
"I learned from him," Holland says. "You learn to be fearless."
Ross sold the company in 1990. A private equity firm now owns the chain. "Sam's fundamental business model is still in effect," says the CEO, Scott Colabuono. "There was Sam's way or the highway."