Style and substance Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2009

Farouk Shami didn’t intend on working in the hair care industry. His goal was to follow in his father’s footsteps and pursue a career in education.

But, after waiting tables and attending the University of Arkansas, he dropped out of college and enrolled in cosmetology school. Eventually, he became a salon owner, but developed a deadly allergy to ammonia, which is found in hair dye.

Instead of quitting, he did some research and developed the first ammonia-free hair lightener and coloring system. After patenting that product and many others, Shami is now in charge of Farouk Systems Inc., a billion-dollar hair care and spa product company that he started from scratch.

Sure, Shami, founder and chairman of the company, which produces CHI and BioSilk products, had to roll up his sleeves and lead by example, but he gives credit for the company’s growth to his more than 2,000 employees.

“I started from nothing and hired almost everybody,” he says. “You’re adding one employee at a time, and thank God, most of the people that started with us 20 years ago, they are still here.”

By hiring the best people and listening to their opinions, the company has grown to more than $1 billion in revenue.

“Once you have the right people and there are team leaders, life becomes so easy and so pleasant,” he says. “You’re not working on problems, you are working on progress. So, that’s really the difference from where we started and where we are now. When you have the right people, it’s motivating and I can’t wait to wake up in the morning and come to work.

“At the very beginning, it’s the hardest part. When you’re starting and you’re lacking lots of things, then it’s a challenge, but now, really, it’s a piece of cake.”

Hire the best people

As Shami’s business grew, he didn’t have a hard time letting go, because he knew he hired the right people.

While it may have been a lot of work, Shami had the advantage of interviewing all of his employees in the beginning of the company’s existence.

“I didn’t come to a company that already had 2,000 people,” he says. “I came to a company with no employees.”

Your first step in hiring should be letting human resources do its job and remove the candidates who don’t fit a position or don’t have the experience. Shami advises to look for good experience and notes that you get what you pay for when hiring. But, he also cautions to avoid only hiring the person with the best experience. If you feel someone has the passion and drive to succeed in your company, take a chance on him or her.

“We hire people with no experience,” he says. “You can tell someone is motivated, eager to work, eager to learn. I came to this business with no experience myself — I learned on the job, but I was willing to learn.”

You can find the real person in an interview if you are relaxed and open with the candidate, resulting in a more comfortable situation for both of you.

“Once people feel at ease with you and if you talk face to face with people and not down to people, they open their heart and you get their best in the first interview,” he says.

By hiring the best people, you also set yourself up to have a nice farm system to develop talent and move them up through the ranks. Shami is again looking for motivation in the people he promotes, but he also wants people with optimism and who communicate effectively with the entire organization.

“Lots of those people did not come into their position,” he says. “They grew into that position. We try to hire from within (for) management. That makes our lives much easier when a supervisor (becomes) a director to become a vice president and president.”

Be aware you may lose a talented employee if you promote him or her and it doesn’t work out. Some people may excel in one position but not in another. In one instance, Shami gave a recently promoted vice president about a year to adjust to a new role.

“Normally, what happens, and it happened not too long ago with a vice president, that it becomes over their head,” he says. “So, I reduced their job back and sometimes they feel insulted and they quit.”

These days, Shami takes more of a backseat approach to hiring. He’s comfortable letting the team he put in place decide who is a good fit for the company. Shami will meet with candidates for senior positions, such as supervisors and directors, at the end of the process to get a feel of what the person is like and to fill the candidate in on how he views the company. Those talks can be as short as five minutes and normally don’t exceed 30 minutes.

“I just like to interview them to see their personality and just talk to them,” he says. “It’s a gut feeling. Is this a person who is really going to be a team member or who is not? Sometimes you are right; sometimes you are wrong.”


It would be silly to work hard and put a great team in place without empowering team members to make decisions.

Shami is a firm believer in delegation, and he now looks at himself more as a coach whose job it is to make sure departments are communicating with each other.

“Delegation doesn’t happen overnight in my opinion,” he says. “It’s a process. It’s a gut feeling that you would know that this person is capable and you give them responsibility and then a little bit more responsibility. Some people can do more than one job at the same time. Some people can work at one thing at a time. Some people can work at 10 things at a time.”

Unless it’s clear from an employee’s background that he or she is ready for a certain task, you don’t want to start delegating responsibilities right away. For example, if it’s an engineer who was brought in because of a certain skill set, you have to let him or her do the job that he or she was hired for right away.

However, for the most part, waiting 90 days is what has worked best for Shami.

“I never would have somebody who comes to run the operation who did not know the background of the operation,” he says. “You try and get them to the basics and build on it. You’ve got to have a base to build on it. You can’t just meet someone and delegate a job to them.”

For example, if you’ve hired someone in a marketing role, even though he or she may have succeeded in the past, that person isn’t a sure thing to succeed at your company.

“They need time to understand the company,” he says. “Every company has their own culture and their own thinking and their own mission. So, you need to understand, anybody who comes to a company starting to change things, they will never make it and never succeed, because people first are going to be afraid of change and they’re not going to succeed in that. They will not get the support.

“You need to get with the people, know the people, understand the culture, understand the people, understand what they are doing, and it takes 90 days to really understand company culture at a job.”

Once you delegate a task, don’t go behind the employee’s back to monitor progress.

Shami will check in with the new director or supervisor directly to get a read on how they are progressing. While he wants to leave the new supervisor room to work, Shami asks them not to change anything until they are comfortable with the culture. You have to be hones

t and upfront in these conversations if you want the new employee to succeed.

“We try to be as transparent as possible,” he says. “I always give everybody advice, ‘Please don’t go make changes. Monitor the department, know the department and let’s agree what changes we need to do before we get into that.’”

Create an open environment

While having great employees and delegating to them will get you far, you still need to create an open environment where they feel free to express their ideas.

Shami finds that to be especially true when creating a vision. Though he was responsible for creating the company’s vision in the beginning, the process now involves everyone.

“At the beginning, it’s a one-man show,” he says. “After that, it becomes a team, a round-table team — what do you think, and what I think, and what we come out with and what we all agree with.

“A leader does not want everything to come out as, ‘This is my idea, and this is my vision. I, I, I.’ It’s ‘we’ and ‘us.’ That’s how I see it.”

Vision is just one example where involving others will help you succeed. The same can be said for trying to improve a specific part of your business. While you may feel you and your management team know everything there is to know by just observing, you will get more information by talking to the people that work in that area.

“In our company, if we are making a decision, say building a new machine, you need to involve the people who work on the line and the people who really run the machinery,” he says. “Those people understand it more than the leadership.”

It might be a challenge to get employees to be honest with you because they may be a little guarded when speaking to the boss. It’s up to you to be humble and to show them that you are no more vital than they are to the company.

“Everybody is important,” he says. “You need to let everybody know how important they are to the success of the team and to the company.”

Employees are also afraid to come forward with ideas to managers above them because they are worried they might say the wrong thing or present an idea that won’t work. You have to stress at every opportunity that mistakes are acceptable as long as the employee is trying to better the company.

“I tell (employees) I’ve made more mistakes than all of them,” he says. “That’s why I learned my job. It’s OK to make mistakes as long as we learn from these mistakes and as long as we make more right than wrong. The worst thing is to not make decisions or not to do anything. But, let’s make a decision and let’s see if it works. If not, we know that it’s not working and we have learned something from it. Mistakes are acceptable.”

Shami also achieves open communication by making his rounds weekly, shaking hands and talking to employees.

Since his job requires a lot of travel, he always makes rounds as soon as he returns from a trip. If you are on the road a lot, you have to take every opportunity to be seen by your employees. That could be scheduling a walk-through of a nearby plant or office right after a trip or scheduling face time with your employees on a weekly basis.

“Be visible,” Shami says. “Some CEOs, people don’t see and don’t know. It doesn’t work. You never get loyalty, and you never get support.

“When we have a good year, I’m not complimenting only the top management. You’ve got to meet with all the people in different departments and give them a special lunch for the great achievement or a bonus or extra pay. You reach those people, and you get to know them sooner or later.”

Once you are out in front of people, ideas will begin to work their way up the chain. Even if the idea falls short or needs to be delayed to a later date, look on the bright side of the situation.

“I look at the positive out of every idea,” he says. “If you’re going tell people it’s a bad idea, they’re not going to come to you, even with a good idea. You need to encourage ideas.”

How to reach: Farouk Systems Inc. (800) 237-9175 or