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Not Only the Hair Club For Men President

With baldness looming, I turn to you, Sy Sperling

Jonathan Zalman
April 30, 2015
(Sy Sperling)
(Sy Sperling)

My barber, Joseph, a Bukharian Jew who works at East 6 Street Barber Shop in the East Village (he doesn’t cut on Shabbos, FYI), is the best in the business. He’s so good—so essential—that one customer gave him a painting of a skeleton cutting another skeleton’s hair, which hangs near his mirror for all to see. Why? Because the relationship between a barber and a client is, as he says, “to the death.”

I’d like to believe him; but both he and I know that in time—probably shorter than I would like—I’ll be as bald as a button. Which sucks, because I have incredible hair, but, whatever.

Here’s one option: join the Hair Club for Men.

In 1969, Sy Sperling, the Jewish son of a Bronx plumber, opened his first hair restoration salon in New York City by taking out a $10,000 credit line. Thirty-one years later, Sperling sold his company for $45 million to a private-equity firm, which then flipped it five years later for nearly five times as much. In 2011, he sat down with the Wall Street Journal to talk about his career.

His motivation for beginning the business, it appears, was to combat his own hair loss, which was causing him anxiety—as it does for millions of men around the world:

I got in the business because of my own personal needs. I had thinning hair and it affected my self esteem. I tried [a natural hair-restoration process called weaving] because I didn’t want to do a toupee. If you’re dating and going to be having special moments, how do you explain, I got to take my hair off now?

In 1976, Sperling relaunched the company and convinced Ron Blomberg, the first designated hitter in Major League Baseball history, to become a spokesman, for $5,000.

I thought [Blomberg would] laugh at it but he said OK. I couldn’t believe it. I hired a PR firm and told them to promote the heck out of him coming to get his hair done. I got massive coverage. It was an epiphany for my business. At the time, I was just making a living, that’s it. I decided to take the business to another level. I went from a small location in Manhattan to a place around five times [larger]. It was growth, growth, growth from there on in.

By 1990, about 85 Hair Club For Men salons had opened around the country.

So how does the Hair Club system work? In 1992, Sperling told the Orlando Sentinel:

The Hair Club system, originally called the strand-by-strand method, uses human hair (there are women in this world who sell their hair to replacement companies) to ”polyfuse” bald heads back to their original studliness.

”We put the hair in one strand at a time,” Sperling says, ”so that it looks like it’s growing from the scalp.”

That year, Sperling was charging $2,000-$3,500 per scalp.

In 2011, 11 years after Sperling sold his company, a Hair Club franchise owner, Steven Barth, said that Sperling was living in Boca Raton, Florida, as a private investor, marketing consultant, and philanthropist. He and his wife, Susan, also opened a Hebrew School at a temple in Ft. Lauderdale.

When asked if Sperling still had a full head of hair, Barth replied, “He does.”

Sperling’s legacy?

Other than those incredible commercials, perhaps it’s this quote from 1992, which rings truer than most: “Some have God-given hair, and others can have hair anyway, thank God.”

Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.