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Hair connoisseur Ray Civello’s five top tips for success

After 25 years, Civello’s empire includes 14 salons, 15 retail stores and five Aveda teaching academies across North America.

ANTHONY JENKINS/The Globe and Mail

It's been a quarter-century since Ray Civello launched his first eponymous hair salon along with the Aveda product line. Today his empire includes 14 salons, 15 retail stores and five Aveda teaching academies across North America. Along with innovative tress-taming techniques, Civello has been a pioneer in the field of Earth-friendly business practices. This month the Aveda brand celebrates Earth Month with a limited-edition candle, a national Walk for Water and a global cut-a-thon to raise money for clean-water initiatives. Here, the man behind the mantra shares his secrets for success (including why difficult customers are the best kind).

Success isn't your bank statement

Capitalism and spiritualism don't always go hand in hand, but as the leader of an organization, I do have a choice. Caring about the planet is at the core of Aveda's philosophy. We make our products using ingredients that are sourced all over the world in partnership with indigenous people and farm organically. It costs us more money, it's more difficult, we're more vulnerable to weather conditions, and sure – we could have just gone into a lab in New Jersey and created the same aromas synthetically, but that's not the kind of business I want to run. Someone like Kevin O'Leary wakes up every day to make a profit. I wake up to make a difference. It's not that I don't care about profit, it's just that running a business with a conscience is part of how I define success.

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A difficult customer is a gift

People often have complicated relationships with their hair, which is why customers sometimes get labelled as "difficult." I guess some stylists want to avoid these types, but back when I was doing more hair cutting, I always used to say, "Send me the difficult ones." To me difficult is another way of saying challenge, which is a good thing. The difficult clients are usually the most interesting ones, and almost always it's just of case of actually listening to them. Listening is a skill that often gets forgotten in this world. After you listen, you want to validate people, to let them know that they are being heard. If you can do that, the haircut is almost always successful. The best part of a difficult client is that if you make them happy, he or she is going to be one of the most loyal clients you have ever had. They will tell way more people, they will become your best advertising and they will never leave you.

The project you start is almost never the project you finish

As an entrepreneur, the best advice I offer is to pay attention. It seems pretty obvious, but it's amazing how many people aren't able to do it. When you have a vision or an idea, you have to stay focused – not just on the desired outcome, but also on what is happening and what could happen. When you're focused, the unexpected will reveal itself and that might be the bigger prize. Pretty much everything I do follows that pattern. You start with an idea, but the end result is almost always altered or different. Right now we're working on creating a digital curriculum for hairdressing. What started out as a few videos has now evolved into a huge, digital project that will be available to students 24/7. It's going to be a game changer, and really it was about being focused enough to see the bigger picture.

The tortoise wins every time

Failure is an interesting word because it implies a negative right out of the gate. I try to remember that just because an outcome isn't what you wanted doesn't mean the experience and the process can't be positive. Any entrepreneur has had their fair share of ventures that didn't work out, but there are always lessons. I had the Civello salon in Rosedale and it was so successful that I decided to launch two more locations within just a few months of each other. I was ambitious and so excited by the success that I moved ahead without making proper considerations about infrastructure, human resources. You need to be set up for success and we just weren't. In the end we squeaked by, but just barely. It's certainly not a mistake I would ever repeat. Ambition is great, expansion should be slow and steady.

The wisdom of imperfect perfectionEastern philosophy is a big part of my life and my belief system. I love the idea that everything is imperfect, which means that everything is perfect. This has an impact on how I do business, because I don't get weighed down with doubt. People will stand in front of opportunity and they'll question whether or not they can do it, but the fact is they wouldn't be in that situation if they couldn't. I first learned this lesson about 25 years ago. I was about to get on stage to give a presentation on entrepreneurship. This guy walked up to me and said, "Don't question it." I didn't know him at the time, but I took the advice to heart. This is where I was supposed to be. It turns out he was one of these sage gurus. We are still in touch.

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This interview has been condensed and edited.

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