Inside John Paul Mitchell Systems' extraordinary COVID-19 response

Phil Oster is the Vice President of Technology at John Paul Mitchell Systems

John Paul Mitchell Systems (JPMS) is a top manufacturer of high-quality hair care products and styling tools, distributed through iconic brands, like Paul Mitchell. JPMS was the first professional haircare company to take a stand against animal testing and continues its strong commitment to giving back—even through the tough days of COVID-19.

Phil Oster—VP of Technology at JPMS—sat down with us via Zoom to discuss the company’s extraordinary response to the pandemic, which includes a $4 million salon stimulus package and an 80% alcohol formula hand sanitizer production line.

Phil also shared the unique security challenges he’s encountered during JPMS’ overnight shift to remote working, his advice to other tech leaders, and how John Paul Mitchell Systems is taking this historic moment to arm itself with lessons for the future.

Where were you when...

For millions of Americans, being sent home with the arrival COVID-19 is arguably our biggest “where were you when” moment since 9/11. Phil starts off by relaying his: “It was Friday the 13th and I was sitting in our Santa Clarita office. I got a phone call from one of my tech support people in Century City, and he said, ‘Hey, we're going home and people are taking computers.’ And I said, ‘They’re what?’”

“There was a beat, I took a breath, and replied, ‘Okay, we have to pivot.’”

Phil overcame the shock and led calmly, instructing his team to log serial numbers and move quickly to keep everybody productive. While the situation was unexpected, JPMS’ business-as-usual technology already supported remote work because of the company’s flexible working culture.

But that doesn’t mean it was easy: “We had to accelerate training for Office 365 and Microsoft Teams, just to make sure people were sharing data properly and could quickly hop on meetings. There was also a huge scramble to find webcams,” Phil chuckles. “That was kind of fun—and apparently they’re still in hot demand.”

Rise to challenges by pivoting.

When stay-at-home orders started going into effect across the nation, JPMS was planning its 40-year anniversary celebration for August. Teams were hard at work preparing for the event, which included massive projects around product launches.

Phil says: “We quickly realized it wasn't going to happen, so we had to pivot around our new initiatives—and all of that came into play in our transition to remote work: How do we collaborate? How do we figure this out?”

JPMS had to pivot their primary focus while Phil spearheaded remote security.

“Working from home is a whole new security environment because you're using a residential-class firewall. It’s difficult because most of us have sophisticated gear to guard our perimeter with built-in rules to help protect our users from doing unintentionally silly things.”

The phishing attempts and patching challenges are also causing headaches. “They’ve been ridiculously targeted and very well crafted. I have to say, they’re some of the best ones I've seen in a long time. Also, there's this issue of patch management. It's easy to patch when everything is in the office, but patching remote systems to keep them going is another story,” Phil shares.

That’s the technology piece, but then there's the people aspect. “How do we help people figure out how to work from home when they’re homeschooling their kids? How do you keep the dog from barking when you're on an important call?” Phil muses.

$4 million salon stimulus, hand sanitizer production, and a whole lot of heart.

Sales to salons make up a large portion of JPMS’ revenue, according to Jason Yates, COO of JPMS. When COVID-19 hit, leadership knew their 40-year anniversary event wasn’t going to be possible. So, they made the extraordinary decision to redirect $4 million earmarked for the August 2020 event to their salon partners.

The result is JPMS’ own $4 million salon stimulus package. “The idea is to give salons enough product to get them on their feet again, so they can service clients and charge for services without worrying about paying for product,” said COO Yates. The JPMS Salon Jumpstart Stimulus package is a multi-tier offering of programs and savings that will benefit all salons and stylists at some level.

Phil says: “It’s really close to my heart. It’s something we are really proud of. We had all this money invested in our big celebration of 40 years. When that was canceled, John Paul DeJoria and Angus Mitchell—the co-owners of John Paul Mitchell Systems—said, ‘We should take those funds and we should finance the industry that made us successful because that's what we're about: the salon industry and salon professionals. For 40 years we've been that way and we will be for 400 years more as well.’”

The stimulus package includes jumpstart kits to help qualifying salon owners and a 30/40/50 program to get deep discounts on color, back bar items, and other products. Beyond discounts and free products, the program helps salon owners extend terms with their distributors to secure leniency on debt repayment.

In addition, the company has ramped up social media engagement with salon professionals through their Paul Mitchell pro site. “We have all sorts of resources to help them get back in business, build new skills to run their business, and keep their creative flows going,” Phil says with a smile.

“It's been a really successful program and we’ve seen moving responses from the community. We’re all about giving back, so seeing our leaders make these decisions is uplifting hearts within our company, too.”

Phil shared an email he received from a JPMS Business Development Manager, relaying her experience with a salon owner in Platte, South Dakota: “She was in tears of joy, and so was I, as I delivered the news that she was receiving a stimulus kit. It’s the salons like this that JP and Angus are helping to not only survive, but to thrive.”

But JPMS’ above-and-beyond response to COVID-19 doesn’t end there. When the shortage of sanitizer products was felt all over the nation, JPMS mobilized their manufacturing facility to produce an 80% alcohol formula hand sanitizer, donating 40,000 units to high-need groups. The hand sanitizer is also available for purchase online.

Look to the future pragmatically.

When it comes to returning to offices, Phil says the company is following strict protocols as they plan to reopen their LA location and fully operational Santa Clarita warehouse.

As far as crystal balls go, however, there’s no such thing. Trying to see what the future will look like while balancing today’s right work is a complicated, if not impossible, task because the world is changing so quickly. For Phil and JPMS, applying lessons learned and separating high-and-lower impact work in the present moment is the better bet.

“Our world of ‘productive’ is formalized process,” Phil says. “We’ve shifted into more productive work—or what I call ‘outcome work’—that allows us to achieve our goals because we have the insight to set reasonable expectations. It’s a wash, rinse, repeat cycle where we refine busywork into productive work with each iteration.”

“How can we leverage what we've learned over the past several weeks? Things are going to be different. What was once normal is no longer normal. What is normal today will be something else tomorrow.”

“The reality is that normal evolves—and that’s okay. Everyone’s personal lives evolve—so why not our business lives as well? I think the best thing for us to do now is to review what worked well and why, and then debrief on it so we carry those lessons into future ‘normals.’”

“For example, when the VP of Operations got the hand sanitizer formula from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), he immediately started working with our labs. We managed to start making the product in three days from that first phone call. In 30 days, we were able to ‘go to market’ to first responders.”

“For us, launching a product can take significantly longer than 30 days, so we need to understand how we were able to turn that around so quickly—without being in the office. How can we apply this success to other places? It’s all about knowing how we use technology to help us pivot.”

“And that's a tenet of John Paul Mitchell Systems culture: we look for what works and we gravitate towards it.”

Phil’s tips for adapting to and thriving in constant change.

Phil shared a few reasons why he and JPMS are thriving in an era of constant change:

  1. Don’t give in to anxiety. “Control your fear,” Phil says. “Remember: we're all in this together and we’ll meet our goals. Let's just get there.”
  2. Rely on workplace technology. Phil says using technology like enterprise work management is a way to reduce fear: “Because of Workfront, we were able to pivot all our campaigns to support our salon community when they needed us most. Not only were we able to achieve this 'turn on a dime' goal, but we are able to make a difference to so many businesses—and all from our respective homes. That visibility reduced our anxiety levels while keeping us productive.”
  3. Prove performance. Phil advises leaders to use their workplace tools and technology, not just to ease fear, but to focus on and show performance: “As we were tracking through reporting in Workfront, we saw we were keeping on track—the company wasn't missing a beat. In fact, in some cases, we were at a faster clip than we were in the office. Leadership was able to have visibility into the fact that we were as productive, if not more, during this unusual time.”
  4. Enhance security. Phil has a shortlist of must-have security components, including multi-factor authentication, air gap backups, and endpoint protection. “Get good optics into your endpoints, so if something does happen, you can see what's going on. A good SoC can help you go through logs, so you have someone out there in the cloud, who's actually your guardian angel and reading logs, looking for weird events.”
  5. Train people on security. Prioritize security training on impersonation and phishing, Phil offers. “Make your training active—not responsive.”

We’re so inspired to see the incredible way Workfront customers like John Paul Mitchell Systems, and leaders like Phil, have rallied their people together in difficult times like these. Thank you to Phil for sharing a snapshot of how JPMS has reacted to COVID-19, and embraced resilience in both business and internal security—all to help their customers survive an incredible moment in history.

How are you and your company continuing to #WorkBoldly together?

Hear more from Phil in our 2020 State of Work report, where he discusses the differences between busy work and productive work. To read more on JPMS’ big business moves in major industry publications, check out these articles in Allure and Modern Salon.