(PHOTO: Manuello Paganelli)

John Paul DeJoria

Homeless twice, he’s now a billionaire who owns three business jets.

John Paul DeJoria was born in Los Angeles and raised by his mother after his parents divorced when he was two. Always ambitious, he started working at an early age and didn’t keep a job long in his hustle for something bigger. His lengthy list of former positions includes paperboy, Navy recruit, janitor and insurance salesman.

In 1980, DeJoria and his hairdresser friend Paul Mitchell partnered to release John Paul Mitchell Systems hair-care products with $700 in capital. He lived in his car while selling the merchandise door to door. Two years later, the company hit $1 million in gross revenue. Today annual retail sales are almost $1 billion.

Other successes followed. Patrón Tequila—which DeJoria cofounded in 1989 as an alternative to cheaper brands—now ranks as the best-selling premium tequila in the U.S., with sales of more than 2.4 million cases per year. His latest venture, Rok Mobile, offers cellphone service through three out of four of the top U.S. providers and is expanding to the UK, India and Brazil.

DeJoria—now a 71-year-old billionaire—met with me in Madrid, Spain. A tall, friendly man sporting a signature ponytail greeted me warmly, as if we’d known each other forever. We began chatting while he fiddled with a Nespresso machine, and I quickly got a sense of the secret behind his success: John Paul DeJoria has a talent for connecting with people instantly.

What led you to private aviation?

As the business grew, my transportation needs grew. I travel at least one-third of the month. I needed to have an airplane or I could never make two or three stops in a day. My first private planes were the Citation I and II. The problem with both was the short range. To go cross-country, you have to stop to refuel.

I next bought a Lear 35. On a good day, it could go from west to east nonstop, but coming back required a refueling stop. And on longer trips the Lear was not that comfortable. I decided to buy a Falcon 50, but that wasn’t my last jet.

Which jets do you own now?

Today I have three. A [Gulfstream] GIV for great distances. It’s probably the most beautiful GIV in the world—converted to a G450 inside with GV avionics. I have a Lear 60 for shorter flights. But the world invented an unbelievable jet and that’s the Falcon 2000. It’s now my everyday jet and stays wherever I am. The Falcon’s a bit wider and taller than the GIV and fits 10 people comfortably. It has about the same speed as a GIV but uses half the fuel. That’s a dream come true since conservation is important to me.

Do your kids use the other jets?

Absolutely not. I own a company called Royal Jet that leases my jets out when I’m not using them. Because I own all the jets myself, I charge my companies my cost of running them. It’s usually cheaper than flying commercial.

How do you raise kids that don’t expect to borrow their dad’s jets?

I’ve seen so many kids raised in affluent homes and ruined for life. I taught mine the value of money and hard work. My kids got a weekly allowance [based on] age [a dollar per year]. My youngest, at 14, said, “Dad, $14 doesn’t get a kid anywhere! If I went to the movies with friends, that’s a ticket, popcorn and if I can get a soft drink, I’m lucky.” But my approach works and I’m proud of my kids’ accomplishments. My daughter Alexis is the first woman to win the Indianapolis U.S. Nationals racing nitro funny cars. In an interview about life as the daughter of a billionaire, her response was, “It’s not my money, it’s his. I make my own money.” I’m proud of her.

Did your upbringing influence how you’ve raised your kids?

Definitely. Growing up, we didn’t have any money. I worked from a very young age building flower boxes to sell. At 11 years old I had a morning paper route with my brother where we made $30 per month. I gave the money to my mother so we could live a better life. Having a job was an honor.

You were unsatisfied in many jobs, though. Did you feel you were destined for something bigger?

There was no doubt in my mind there was something I wanted to do that can make a difference in the world. I didn’t know what, but I knew that if given the opportunity, I could make a change. I worked as circulation manager for Time, Inc. when I was 26. I ran a boiler room of 50 employees trying to get people to subscribe or renew their subscription. I thought, “I can’t do this for the rest of my life.” I went to my manager and asked what it takes to become a vice president and he answered, “You’re 26 years old and don’t have any college education. Come back and ask me when you’re 35.” I knew then it wasn’t for me.

How did you get from various sales and management jobs to hair-care line?

A friend connected me with an opening in the beauty industry. I took a pay cut but fell in love. I’ve been in the industry ever since. At the time, I met a hairdresser named Paul Mitchell. We became friends and partnered to develop Paul Mitchell Systems. We had half a million dollars lined up, but our investor pulled out. Seven hundred dollars is what we could scrape up to save the launch. I was too proud to ask my mom for help so I lived in my car for the second time in my life.

When was the first time you were homeless?

I was 22 with a young child and a wife. Things weren’t going my way.

Paul Mitchell Systems spearheaded the environmental movement with no animal testing. What led to that commitment?

When I worked for Redken Professional Hair Care, they had a 12-by-12 windowless room with a testing table and stacked cages of small monkeys called marmosets. The monkeys never went outside and I felt it wasn’t right to test on them. They were so cute, I asked if I could take them out for a walk. Redken fired me a short time later. When we started our company we did not test on animals and didn’t buy any ingredients that had ever been tested on animals. We tested on ourselves.

You tested chemicals on yourself?

We always did. When we first developed Baby Don’t Cry Shampoo, I put it in my eyes and it hurt. I called my chemist and asked him to put the shampoo in his eye next time before sending it to me. The only thing I don’t test on myself is hair color. I won’t try red or blue hair.

What’s the secret to your business success?

I’m a person that believes in something. If I believe the product or service is good, I will tell you how it’s going to benefit you. If I don’t believe in it I’m very bad at selling it. I tried selling life insurance and I sucked.

The CIA asked you to help them because they were so impressed with your management style.

That made the front page of The Wall Street Journal. At Paul Mitchell, we eliminated 90 percent of middle management. If you’re qualified for a job, you don’t need people supervising you. I give someone the opportunity to grow and develop their own area. On more than one occasion, I’ve trained the CIA, FBI and other U.S. agencies on how to be a more human and caring manager, how to motivate personnel and create a more efficient work environment. The CIA told me that if they handled a piece of paper 100 times instead of 1,000 times, it was a good day. My goal was to help them handle that piece of paper once. 

You’re ahead of your time in some ways, but I’ve heard you don’t like computers or emailing. 

It’s not that I don’t like them. If I used email I’d be inundated answering emails from all my companies and projects. I like the personal touch. If there’s something important I need to talk to you about, I’ll call.

What makes you philanthropic?

It started when I was six, thanks to my mother. She would take my brother and me to downtown Los Angeles at Christmastime. We’d spend hours looking at the department store windows with the puppets and trains and we thought we were the luckiest kids in the world. The year I was six, my mother gave my brother and me a dime. She asked us to each hold half of the dime and put it in the little red bucket where the man was ringing a bell. We could have bought two soda pops and three candy bars with that dime, we thought. “Remember in life, boys, no matter how much we have, there’s someone that needs it more,” she told us. That stuck with me forever. My motto is: “Success unshared is failure.”

You knew the late Nelson Mandela. What was he like?

Nelson was super cool. I’ll give you a funny story about him. Whenever I was in Africa, I would fly to Johannesburg to visit him. On one visit, I spent time with Nelson, Richard Branson and Brad Pitt, putting together an organization called Mineseekers. I told Nelson I was going into Mozambique after to fit and supply landmine victims with prosthetics. Nelson said to me, “J.P., I want to work for you.” Shocked and amused, I said, “Nelson, you’ve got to be kidding me. I’d work for you for free!”

“I want to work for you, J.P.,” he insisted. I asked him what he would do. He told me he wanted to be my personal driver. I said, “Nelson, you have a cane and you can barely walk around. I’d have to hire someone to drive you around to drive me around.” Nelson said that’d be OK and explained, “J.P., I’m sitting around digging my own grave while you do great work. And my wife is becoming very demanding. I want to get out of the house.”

You’ve also known the Dalai Lama.

Yes. I asked the Dalai Lama what I can do to be like the great prophets that heal the sick and save the poor. It was just the two of us together talking and he asked, “J.P., have you ever seen anybody do that?” I said I had only read the stories. And he giggled and said, “I haven’t either!” Dalai’s advice was: “The best you can do is be happy, mean well and walk into a room excited. Spread your good energy.”

Have you ever felt intimidated meeting anyone?

I was a bit apprehensive when I first went to meet [Libyan leader Muammar] Gaddafi, but once I got there, I was fine. I was there to convince him to release the two suspected terrorists of the Lockerbie bombing of Flight 103 to stand trial at The Hague. A lot of diplomats worked on the issue tirelessly. I went in to lend a helping hand and convince Gaddafi to do the right thing, which he ultimately did.

Is that why you received the Horatio Alger Award?

It’s given to Americans who grew up with adversity, succeeded and gave back along the way. I’m most honored at receiving that award.

Is there anything left that you’d like to accomplish before you retire?

My daughter and Paul Mitchell vice-chairman, Michaeline, isn’t too happy about it, but I’m not retiring. She’ll have to outlive me. I love what I do!


NAME: John Paul Jones DeJoria 

BORN: April 13, 1944 (age 71) in Los Angeles

OCCUPATION: CEO, cofounder and chairman, John Paul Mitchell Systems; cofounder, Patron Spirits Company; founder, Rok Mobile; founder and CEO, John Paul Pet Company; founder, JP’s Peace, Love and Happiness Foundation.

TRANSPORTATION: Owns a Dassault Falcon 2000 (his “everyday jet”), as well as a Gulfstream GIV and Learjet 60.

EDUCATION: Completed high school.

PERSONAL: Married to wife Eloise since 1993. Four children. Enjoys a retreat alone in the mountains once or twice a year to reflect. Is an avid motorcyclist.

Cynthia Bowman, a freelance writer, hails from Los Angeles but currently lives in Madrid, Spain.