Beauty Store Business magazine - January, 2020

100 Years with Wahl Professional

Men’s grooming brand Wahl looks back at 100 years of history and originality.

Wahl Clipper Corporation celebrates its 100th anniversary this year–and it has a lot to commemorate. With more than 3,500 employees, seven global manufacturing plants and distribution in over 165 countries, it’s come a long way in the last century. Today the company is vertically integrated, meaning it owns every product and component produced in every one of its worldwide plants. It can also lay claim to an impressive 274-plus patents related to the barbering, salon and pet-grooming fields. Yet, it remains humble in its character–perhaps because it started humbly, with one immigrant and a dream.

Run by the Wahl family, this company prefers to keep the spotlight away from any single personality, focusing instead on the innovative, high-performing, stylish products the company has created. As such, Anne Marie Kollias, Wahl’s national sales manager (pictured above), assumed the more public role of telling the Wahl story when Beauty Store Business recently sat down with her. Here is the tale of this unique American brand.

Leo Wahl left his native Germany as a child and moved to the town of Sterling, Illinois, at the turn of the 20th century. While in his junior year at Sterling High School, the natural-born inventor started playing with designs for an electro- magnetic motor. He went on to study engineering at the University of Illinois, where he matured that concept into a vibrating medical massager.

Leo’s uncle Frank soon began manufacturing the gadgets at a local plant. When Leo went out to sell the massagers, he found most success with doctors’ offices and barbershops–both establishments comprising patients and clients with sore joints and aching backs. That’s how he recognized another problem: Barbers of the time were encumbered by the use of large, unwieldy clippers, which were also manually operated as opposed to mechanized. Leo wondered if he could create a smaller, user-friendly tool. “From the start, his goal was to make the cutting process more efficient,” says Kollias.

On October 14, 1919, Wahl applied for his first patent. The electromagnetic hair clipper he introduced was revolutionary as the first to put the motor in a barber’s hand, rather than having it connect via a cable. “Previous motors on clippers had been housed on the outside of the unit,” Kollias explains. “Leo patented the first electromagnetic motor for clippers that was contained inside the machine.” This innovation was an instant hit. By the end of 1920, his family’s factory had produced and distributed thousands of clippers to groomers across the country. A second significant advancement occurred one year later, when Wahl bought 100 percent of the stock and officially incorporated his private company. The stage was set for what would prove to be a century of unimpeded growth.

Post-World War II economic expansion witnessed an increase in both the appetite and production of professional beauty tools, and Wahl was at the forefront of that trend–and, in many respects, driving the innovation. Shears and sharpeners, combs and curling brushes, new clippers and their attachments were all developed in the 1940s. The company intro- duced its own line of hair dryers, which had recently become a national hit. Wahl’s handheld “Silent Dryer” was especially popular–nearly 2,000 were made daily to meet demands. This decade also witnessed the introduction of plastic molding presses, installed by Leo Wahl at the com- pany’s factory to establish more control over the production process.

It soon became clear that barbers around the world also longed to get their hands on pro Wahl clippers, so the group launched its export initiative by adapting frequencies and voltages for international use. The first non-U.S. based manufacturing facility opened in Ontario, Canada, in the early 1950s.

Leo Wahl passed away on May 20, 1957, leaving behind a thriving legacy that included over 100 patents on various inventions. He also left his three sons, Warren, Robert and Jack, in charge. Warren, the eldest, assumed the role of president. Under their guidance, more products were introduced, including the flexible-blade electric razor and vacuum clipper. Warren led the family company until 1977, when he was succeeded by his own son, Jack. Grooming trends continued to evolve, and today, the men’s grooming market is more vibrant and expansive than ever before. Kollias explains that the industry is currently enjoying its most exciting peak so far. “In the ’70s and ’80s, the cycle for men to get their hair cut was roughly once every six weeks,” she shares. “Today’s fashion-forward gents go once or twice a week, depending on length and style.”

Millennials and the younger Gen Z demographic are more tuned into fashion and overall grooming, which directly benefits clipper companies. On the professional side, the workingman’s craft has morphed into a prestigious career requiring advanced training, plus an elaborate arsenal of tools. “Traditionally, a barber would have carried one or two instruments at his station,” Kollias explains. “Now, they’re doing such large volumes of precision work that each kit calls for an average of eight clippers, half a dozen trimmers and several finishers.”

In addition to its innovation, Wahl has long enjoyed a history of solid growth because of its adaptability. In terms of manufacturing, the global giant learned how to successfully ramp up its production capabilities in order to keep steady pace with higher demand for products.

Like his enterprising grandfather, current CEO Greg Wahl (Jack’s son) trained as an engineer before taking charge in 2006. “Because we take pride in our robust engineering department, we’re continuously developing innovations for our tools, and the category as a whole,” Kollias explains. Offerings include both products for pros and at-home personal care, plus pet-grooming items and–coming full circle–advanced therapeutic massagers. The 5-Star Cordless Magic Clip, introduced four years ago, remains the brand’s top-selling creation due to its lightweight ergonomics that reduce arm strain. Most magically of all, its patented, close-cutting surgical blade allows for precision fading minus unwanted lines of demarcation.

Packaging plays a prominent role: 3D printers and a recently expanded graphics department ensure designs look sleek and chic–yet subtle. The goal is to get a consumer to pick up the box, then immediately turn his or her focus to the product itself. “In 2018, we changed the packaging on our most popular 5-Star line by upgrading its design into a more modern look,” shares Kollias. “In the coming year, we plan to give our Sterling line the same type of makeover.”

Wahl also invests heavily in education. It’s a cornerstone of the brand’s success. Teams of roughly 22 instructors disperse into the field each month to gather important information and share tips. “We visit barbershops and cosmetology schools to watch how users manage tools, noting both what’s working and where challenges lie,” Kollias explains. “I think that’s a critically important component for a company with a history like ours because it means staying in tune with how the industry is evolving and what our customers want, which ultimately points us in the right future direction.” Further, the brand is presently undergoing a shift in how learning is disseminated. To build on the successful model of in-person demonstrations, Wahl plans to reach more barbers with live-streaming courses. The company is in the process of introducing these courses over the next few years, so students here in the U.S. and around the world can benefit from the same advanced barbering instruction that happens in person.

Wahl’s experts keep a finger on the pulse of men’s styles. “From catwalks to sidewalks, we notice what’s hot so as to create tools, launches and education connected to those fashion cycles,” Kollias says. Case in point: A recent uptick had been noted among NBA players sporting long, yet nevertheless, well-groomed beards. In response, Wahl innovators crafted specific tools to help achieve those coveted bristles. When “fashion trolls” took over runways, men were seen strutting with what looked like a shellacked Hershey’s Kiss atop their heads, reminiscent of old Troll dolls. “We observed that trend and immediately began thinking about tools that could handle a slightly less extreme version of the new fad,” Kollias says.

Even though the Wahl brand is geared undeniably to men, women are well-represented at the corporate level. Internally, a number of top executives are women who have worked with Wahl for more than 30 years. “I’m grateful to be part of an organization with a thriving heritage, which at the same time refuses to buy into gender bias,” Kollias shares. “The misconception may be that only men can lead a clipper business, yet I’ve never seen that to be true in my experience at Wahl.”

Ditto for tools and marketing designed for women. The aptly dubbed Peanut, introduced in 1992, is a compact, lightweight trimmer beloved by estheticians as a means of nixing hair prior to a waxing service. Still, despite its benefits, it can be noisy and high-vibration–in other words, not perfect. “In response, we’re collaborating with our factory and engineer partners in Germany to develop the ideal pre-spa tool for women,” Kollias says. Pop culture drives development for avant-garde ladies’ devices much the way it does for men, with Rihanna, Pink, Ellen DeGeneres and other short-cropped icons setting a new tone for what it means to be a female with ferocious hair.

While remaining forward-facing, Wahl is simultaneously tasked with the significant job of keeping alive a rich heritage that spans 100 years. In one sense, that demand is simple. “We have hundreds of examples of generations of families working here,” Kollias says. “Kids are now starting to take over the roles of parents, following in the footsteps of grandparents who came before them.”

The fourth generation of Wahls are actively involved in the making of day-to-day decisions, including Lance Wahl, Leo’s great-grandson and the global vice president of professional products. Two of Jack’s nephews, Leo and David, serve as director of Asian exports and material planner, respec- tively. A third nephew, Jim Wahl, retired last July from the demanding role of executive vice president. After 46 years as a leader in the family business, he decided he was ready to spend more quiet time with family.

Remarkably, with a population of less than 16,000 people, nearly every Sterling, Illinois, resident has some connection to the brand that after all this time has remained family-owned. Likewise, all currently employed Wahls, along with their preceding relatives, hail from this town. “There exists a strong commitment among Wahl executives to never become publicly owned or answer to Wall Street, but rather keep operations local, the way they’ve always run,” Kollias says.

The Wahl family is private–a modesty that in and of itself speaks to the larger company culture. “All of us are here for the improvement and respect of the full organization, with tools themselves as the main focus,” says Kollias.

In honor of this year’s centennial, Wahl released a product that perfectly encompasses that inherent dichotomy of commemorating the golden days while stepping smartly into the future. The Wahl Professional 100 Year Clipper is all metal, cordless and Apple-esque in its mod design. Kollias adds, “It comes with a card from the Wahl family that says, ‘Thank You’ in 37 languages, acknowledging the vast network of worldwide barbers and hair artists who have helped us be successful throughout the century.”