It’s safe to say that Modern Beauty Supplies’ founder, Mike Jomaa, did not expect to find himself standing in the basement of his Calgary bungalow, knee-deep in boxes of hair gel and shampoo. But he had been working in the real estate business, and in early 1980s Alberta, business was bad. In the first half of the decade, Calgary housing prices slid by almost a third: “Everything had collapsed,” Jomaa says. “I had no choice but to do something else.” So when an acquaintance in the States suggested he try distributing beauty supplies—even though he admittedly knew nothing about hair—Jomaa shrugged, stacked the boxes in his basement and started hand-selling products salon by salon.
Then in 1986, just months after building up enough clients to move the business out of his house and into a showroom, Modern Beauty Supplies caught a break when salon titans Toni & Guy agreed to send a team of hairdressers to Calgary to take part in the company’s very first event. “People were blown away that we could get these artists out of London demonstrating their hairdressing skills,” Jomaa says. And when the team arrived, they brought with them another lucky break: a brand-new line of products, TIGI, which Modern Beauty then sold in Canada before anyone else.
Three-and-a-half decades later, Modern Beauty is the largest family-owned beauty supplier in the country, providing not just products, tools and events but also advanced hair training, business seminars, social media workshops and even salon-design guidance to haircare professionals. More than 200 employees in Western Canada are scattered across 26 locations, four education centres and one 150,000-sq.-foot warehouse. It’s growth that Jomaa’s son Amer, the company’s COO, attributes to a laser focus on what’s new and exciting in the industry. “Hair trends change constantly and there are always innovative products coming out, so you have to keep your ear to the ground and have good relationships with people who know what’s buzzing,” he says.
To do that, Modern Beauty dispatches teams of specialists to stay informed. Four full-time staffers, for example, study new trends in cuts and colour, then plan classes where artists demonstrate those techniques. Another half-dozen dedicated managers focus on Modern’s relationships with beauty brands. These relationships enabled the company to launch its “Beauty of Giving” campaign in 2013, after the death of employee Byron Thompson from ALS. “We partner with one of our biggest brands every two months and donate the full profits of a featured product to a charity,” Amer says. In its first year, the program raised roughly $85,000 for ALS; in total, the campaign has donated more than $250,000 to causes that include mental health, breast cancer, food banks and the War Amps of Canada.
But Modern Beauty’s interest in innovation doesn’t stop at what’s in vogue in the industry; as Amer explains, “I almost feel like we’re a tech company that sells shampoo.” When out-of-the-box software failed to include all the bells and whistles the Jomaas wanted, they hired in-house computer programmers to design something custom instead. “We built our own point- of-sale system, our own warehouse management system and our own software for our sales consultants, so they could have access to all the data they need,” Amer says. “We try to develop everything ourselves so it all runs efficiently.”
This means that while the company’s vision for its future involves the sort of goals one might expect of a beauty supplier—an expanded portfolio of brands to distribute; heftier online sales; new store locations in markets like Toronto and Montreal—Modern Beauty’s big plan for 2020 is getting into the robotics game. It has recently inked a multi-million-dollar deal with Calgary-based start-up Attabotics to introduce robot-centred storage and retrieval systems, so that its warehouse can be fully automated this year. For now, the Jomaas are keeping tight-lipped about the details, but they say it’s a crucial move. “Some manufacturers think we’re crazy, but this is our secret sauce,” Amer says. “We’re making the investment because we plan on being here for the next 50 or 100 years.”