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Hair-replacement firm finds success by going — and being — direct

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Hair tech Tara Frattaroli cuts and styles a hairpiece in the finishing department of Hair Direct Inc. in Lancaster County. Photo/Amy Spangler
Hair tech Tara Frattaroli cuts and styles a hairpiece in the finishing department of Hair Direct Inc. in Lancaster County. Photo/Amy Spangler

It has been a busy six months for Hair Direct Inc.

In December, the Lancaster County-based company opened a fulfillment center in the Netherlands to better serve its growing European client base. In February, it finished moving from its former headquarters in Conewago Township to 24,000 square feet in Greenfield Corporate Center in East Lampeter Township.

The family-owned and -operated business had revenue of $11.5 million in 2012, according to Business Journal records. Bill Biesecker Jr. — who co-founded the company with his father, Bill Biesecker Sr. — and Brandon Andrews, senior vice president of customer experience, answered the Journal's questions about the company's growth and the culture that has guided it.

Q: How have you grown over the years, and how and where do you intend to grow in the future?

A: This is our 19th year in business. We began as a father, son and a simple idea to change the hair replacement industry forever. To say we come from humble beginnings is an understatement.

For the first 10 years, we operated out of Bill Sr.'s childhood home along the river in Bainbridge. We steered away outside financing — which meant learning to be creative and resourceful with every penny. But it also meant full control of the business and a focused commitment to the vision of selling natural-looking, custom-made hairpieces to hair-loss sufferers all around the world.

Today, "The Bills" (as we affectionately call them) are still working to improve the industry — one bald head at a time. Only now there are over 50 of us spread across three continents committed to the cause. Our mission has grown to include every type of hair-loss solution. We still focus on nonsurgical hair replacement but plan on one day offering a full lineup of options from the surgical and regrowth markets. So no matter the type or severity of hair loss, our goal is to have a solution that fits perfectly.

What is your company's biggest challenge?

The simple answer: reach. Our business model defies convention. Most new customers say stuff like "I wish I would have known about this years ago!" After all, going online and purchasing a custom-made hairpiece without ever stepping foot in a salon or hair loss center is a hard concept to accept. So just getting the word out, telling people that our service exists and convincing them that it can be done is a huge challenge.

Hair loss can be a sensitive issue. How important is hitting the right tone on that to your success?

Hair loss is certainly a sensitive issue, and it's vital that we respect the privacy and comfort of our customers. But at the same time, we don't believe in preying on the insecurities of those who suffer. In other words, we don't try to convince anyone that bald can't be beautiful. Wearing a hairpiece isn't for everyone. And we're OK with that.

We don't make excuses for what we do, and we never try to hide it by using confusing marketing names or sneaky sales tactics. We're proud of our product and the way it makes our customers look and feel — so we've found honesty to be our best policy. In an industry crowded with vague terminology and fear-based advertisements, most of our customers find such a direct and open tone of voice to be refreshing.

Factories in China are an integral part of your business model. Why is that, and how has it affected your company?

We work with factories in China and all over Asia. Why? Hairpieces are made entirely by hand, and they are labor intensive (literally each hair is tied individually.) In fact, an average unit typically takes more than 80 man-hours to produce. So if we did our manufacturing in the U.S., one head of hair would cost as much as a Hyundai.

But certainly working with factories on the other side of the globe — to manufacture a custom, hand-made product of which no two are ever exactly alike — comes with its own unique set of challenges. Unlike factories for other industries that rely heavily on technology and assembly line automation (mobile phones, textiles, ShamWows, etc.) our production partners are decidedly "low tech," to put it kindly. Yet our customers still demand the same level of quality, consistency and speed that they've come to expect from other industries. So we've developed tracking technology and special manufacturing techniques in-house and worked closely with our friends in Asia to implement.

Technology and the Web are obviously important to Hair Direct. Do you do a lot of online advertising as well, or have you found better results in traditional advertising venues?

Even though we have a retail location in Lancaster, we've always considered ourselves to be an online company — and a fierce proponent of technology and automation. Despite our best efforts, the money just never seems to grow on those trees we planted out back. Just like the old saying goes, "Half our money is wasted on advertising, we just don't know which half," so we've found the most success with online venues, where we can closely track every dollar of our ad spend and continuously optimize and make course corrections as needed.

With that said, as mentioned earlier, our big challenge is reach and evangelizing our business model to any and everyone who will listen. So we certainly value the wide net of traditional advertising and hope that our experiences in the online world will one day prove useful in connecting with prospective customers offline.

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