How a hair care company went from salon supplier to disinfectant powerhouse

When AG Hair moved into its new, 70,000-square-foot, advanced manufacturing facility in Coquitlam, BC, two years ago, it was part of a plan to increase the expansion of its hair care product line to salons in international markets. Europe was next on the list. Then COVID-19 hit.

Not only was European expansion put on hold, but salons in major markets in Canada and the United States were temporarily closed. Very few bought hair products, so production was stopped in mid-March, leaving most of the company’s 82 employees without work.

AG Hair could have waited for the pandemic, but decided instead to lean into its entrepreneurial culture and make a sharp focal point. It began supplying hand sanitizer products to frontline healthcare professionals, addressing a global shortage.

“We realized there was a massive need for healthcare professionals and we wanted to make a difference and be able to provide them with the products they needed,” says AG Hairs CEO Graham Fraser.

AG Hair received Canadian and U.S. approvals one week after applying for the necessary disinfectant licenses and produced samples to show local authorities within 48 hours.

AG Hair's Coquitlam plant has switched to hand alcohol production (Photo by Alana Paterson)

AG Hair’s Coquitlam plant has switched to hand alcohol production (Photo by Alana Paterson)

“The rapid response time and the fact that we had reviewed all of Health Canada’s regulatory barriers showed [the local health authorities] that we were a partner they could trust and someone they could look to to deliver the products they needed, ”says Fraser.

Within a month, the company began pumping out the products, first to the healthcare industry, then to consumers on its own website and on Amazon. About 10 percent of AG Hair’s hand disinfection production also went to people in need, as identified by organizations like United Way.

The Parallel 49 Brewing Company also uses AG Hair’s Coquitlam production facility to produce its own blend of liquid hand alcohol for frontline health and emergency workers in collaboration with the BC government.

Fraser credits his team for its energy and creativity in getting the spirit spirit production done, and for helping put AG Hair staff back to work.

“We realized we had an opportunity… And then it became this incredible, almost war room mentality and collaboration with our owners, our management and our people to say, ‘How are we going to get through this?’ “I think our success speaks to the type of people we have and the entrepreneurial spirit of pursuing all the paths we have, understanding how we can produce the products and make it happen.”

AG Hair’s commitment to investing in future growth is a big part of what makes it a best managed company, says Nicole Coleman, partner at Deloitte and co-chair of its Best Managed Program in BC

“Competence and innovation come through quite strongly with this company,” says Coleman, who is also AG Hair’s coach at Deloitte. “I do not think they would be able to turn around so quickly if they were not so strategic and had the internal capabilities to do so.”

The production facility was a major investment, but a Coleman says it has already paid dividends.

“They looked forward with a strategic plan in mind about future growth and how they could expand, instead of just focusing on the day-to-day,” she says. “Best-managed companies always push the framework and are conscious of planning for the future.”

AG Hair was founded in Vancouver in 1989 by hairdresser John Davis and graphic designer Lotte Davis. The husband-and-wife team began bottling hair products in their basement and selling them directly to salons from the back of a station wagon.

The company eventually moved its production off-site to a third party. One day John went to see the surgeries and was surprised to see salt being poured into the mixture. Although he was told that salt is often used as a thickener, he did not like the potential side effects of dry hair and skin.

It was at this point that John decided that the company would oversee its own production. “Through that experience, John also became an expert in product development,” says Fraser, who joined the company in 2000 as sales director.

After working for more than two decades at PepsiCo and Kraft Foods, Fraser was eager to work in a smaller, more agile company where he felt he could help make a difference.

“It was perfect because I got a lot of structure and process that I learned in those organizations, but I also learned an incredible amount about being an entrepreneur from John and Lotte: the sense of urgency, the decision-making process, needs to get things done and drive things forward and pursue opportunities, ”he says.

Fraser has helped drive AG Hair’s expansion into the United States and internationally, including Australia, Taiwan and Central and South America. Part of the sale goes to One Girl Can, a charity founded by Lotte that offers schooling, education and mentoring schemes to girls in sub-Saharan Africa.

Fraser also monitors the development of new, trending products, including a new deep-conditioning hair mask made with 98 percent plant-based and natural ingredients. Hand sanitizer spray and gel will be the latest addition to the company’s product range.

“We can not see the demand [for hand-sanitizing products] goes away, ”he says. “As isolation policies begin to be lifted, people will need forms of security and protocols when they return to normal life and work. We see that there will be a need for these types of products in the long run.”

This article appears in print in the June 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline “Coach Crack.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

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