In 1961, when Al Rodriguez was making an escape from Cuba with his mother at age 11 -- afraid that he might be sent to a Communist indoctrination camp -- chances are he wasn't thinking too much about his hair.
At the time, while flying in a plane from Cuba to Jamaica -- and then from Jamaica to the United States -- he had no way of knowing that, just as America would be his path to capitalistic freedom, hair would be his path to financial success.
Today, the 59-year-old resident of the Los Angeles area is the proud founder of La Bella hair and personal care products. It all started with a company he formed out of his garage in the mid-70s. Called Golden Sun, the company initially sold mostly vitamins to drug and health food stores.
La Bella -- known for its placenta-based shampoos and firm gels -- didn't come along until 1988. Unlike Rodriguez's vitamin business, which he said was effectively stamped out by the aggressive tactics of corporate giants, his hair products flourished -- big time. Today, La Bella is a $21 million-a-year business -- twice as big as it was in 2000 -- and has long been the nation's top-selling brand of styling products for Hispanics.
In 2007, it became the nation's third best selling hair-styling brand overall, according to Information Resources Inc., a retail tracking organization. Over the years it has attained the celebrity endorsements of Cuban model
Sissi Fleitas and former LA Lakers' standout A.C. Green.
"It's a great chance for women to keep their beauty and save money," Fleitas told HispanicBusiness.com, during a recent trade show in California.
The secret to Rodriguez's success? Know thy market. In Rodriguez's case, that was the Hispanic market.
Rodriguez -- who sold his company to Parallel Investment Partners private equity firm in 2007, and stepped down from the board this year -- decades ago noticed that retail stores carried hair-care products aimed at African Americans, but nothing targeting Hispanics. He decided to change that.
At the time, he said, many Hispanic families did not have a lot of discretionary income. La Bella was among the first beauty brands to produce family-sized containers.
In addition, La Bella included a line of shampoo with an ingredient that was virtually unheard of in the United States, but relatively well known in Mexico: sheep placenta.
"The placenta is a protein that is very compatible to the needs of human hair," Rodriguez said. La Bella executives say the placenta-based shampoos help the hair undergo a biological process similar to what occurs during pregnancy.
"When a young woman is pregnant, her hair has a beautiful glow to it," Frank Loffa, La Bella's current CEO, told HispanicBusiness.com. The hair of La Bella's customers, he added, "will have the same beauty and luster."
Back in the 1980s, La Bella was the first company to take a placenta-based product to the mass market, to outlets such as Rite Aid, Vons and Wal-Mart, Rodriguez said.
Although a few other companies also use placenta in their hair products, animal rights groups are mildly opposed to the practice.
The use of placenta in hair products is indeed fairly rare, said Kathy Guillermo, VP of Laboratory Investigations for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
"I would certainly wonder why anybody would think shampoo with placenta would be a good idea, and I certainly wouldn't want to use it myself," Guillermo told HispanicBusiness.com.
However, although PETA generally asks consumers to avoid products that use any kind of animal products, the group is not overly concerned about the use of placenta. For PETA, the biggest red flag has more to do with animal testing.
In any case, these days, the notion of trying to capture the Hispanic market doesn't sound very revolutionary. After all, mainstream media stories abound about the skyrocketing growth of the U.S. Hispanic population, and companies are falling over themselves to win the hearts, minds and wallets of the market. (Think: Wal-Mart's "Mas Club", or Coca-Cola's "Unleash Your Dreams" campaign.)
But back in 1988, the idea was more novel.
"No one was really marketing to that segment of the market, as far as health and beauty products went," Rodriguez told HispanicBusiness.com. "The chains didn't really know how to handle the Hispanic market. We would work with them."
As for his escape from Cuba, Rodriguez doesn't like to talk much about it. But between 1960 and 1962, in what was famously known as "Operation Peter Pan," roughly 14,000 children fled the country for the United States after their parents were led to believe the Cuban government would send them to indoctrination camps. To this day, the operation remains controversial, with some saying it was a plot by the Central Intelligence Agency to drive talent and wealth out of Cuba. (The U.S. Government denies this, though still refuses to declassify documents on the matter.)
Rodriguez made the most of his freedom in the United States, attending UCLA, and then going to work in production and sales in the vitamin industry. Eventually, he struck out on his own.
"I sold everything I owned," he said. "Even my stereo, which was near and dear to me in those days. Some people in the industry knew me, and were nice enough to extend me credit, even though I was 26 years old."
Given his early success in reaching out to the Hispanic market, Rodriguez now works as a consultant with large corporations trying to do the same. He said one of the most common mistakes companies make in this regard is overlooking the many cultural differences among Latin countries.
"Everyone forgets 'Hispanic' is a word created by American media," he said. "It really means 'Twenty-two countries of origin that share a common language -- Spanish.'"
But companies are wise to target the market, he said.
"You have to understand: By the year 2020, the U.S. will be the second largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, after Mexico," he said.
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