Ray Barton

Ray Barton

He's grown Great Clips into a nearly 3,000-salon chain and the biggest single hair-care brand in the world.

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Ray Barton likes big numbers. But when he was crafting his vision for Great Clips, he had to call his banker for help.

“I had to ask him how many zeroes there were in a billion,” Barton recalls with a laugh.

The year was 1988, and he was preparing his presentation for the first annual Great Clips franchisee meeting—including a slide that proclaimed his top goal: “Great Clips is a 3,000-salon hair care chain with operations coast to coast and annual sales in excess of $1,000,000,000.”

Great Clips, then six years old, had 150 salons nationwide and was growing by about 10 a year. “We didn’t have any money, and we didn’t have any plan,” Barton says. “But ‘3,000 by 2000’ became a rallying cry, if you will—a focus for our organization.”

The way he saw it, national chains and their economies of scale were destined to rule the hair-care business, supplanting mom-and-pop salons. Great Clips would provide convenience (no appointment needed and extended hours), low prices ($7 a haircut then, $10 to $14 now), and top quality. Barton kept up his rallying cry, inviting franchisees at a 1990 meeting to sign a mock 1999 Wall Street Journal article he’d written, detailing Great Clips’ success. He began closing correspondence with “Looking forward to working with you as we grow to 3,000 salons!”

One day, his wife, Mary Lou—the first franchisee and still the owner of five salons—said, “Ray, you’ve got to stop talking about the 3,000 salons.”

“I said, ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘Because people are starting to believe you.’”

With 2,580 stores (all franchises) in 42 states and western Canada, Great Clips projects $700 million in system-wide revenue in 2007. It’s on target to reach 3,000 salons in 2009. While locally based Regis has more salons under its various brands, Great Clips is the biggest single hair-care brand in the world, and Barton, 58—the company’s CEO, chairman, and majority owner after its founding partners departed—still has big dreams. He believes Great Clips could be three or four times its current size, and have system-wide sales of more than $2 billion: “There’s still a lot of opportunity—markets we’re not in . . . markets we’re not big enough in. It’s an exciting time!”

Barton’s family moved often throughout the Midwest when he was growing up, his father a construction engineer and his mother a serial small-business operator. Barton started working at age 9—shoveling snow, mowing lawns, delivering newspapers. He and his five sisters washed dishes during recess to pay for their school lunches. “It taught me a very valuable lesson,” he says. “If you wanted something, you had to work for it.”

After a stint in the Navy, he finally buckled down at San Diego State—his fifth college. He majored in accounting, then spent four years with Grant Thornton in Denver and Minneapolis. Next, he joined Century 21 real estate, developing and servicing franchises in the north-central states.

“That’s when I first saw the true power of franchising,” he says. “I saw how it harnessed the talent and capital from lots of people to build something that none of them could have built on their own.”

Barton wanted a business of his own. In 1981, he became the first investor-franchisee of The Barbers hair-care chain. The venture was a money-loser; a year later, he got out. But it led to an acquaintance with Steve Lemmon and David Rubenzer, the founders of Great Clips. When they asked him to become their third partner, he had left Century 21 to work with an energy start-up company and said no. Five months later, when oil prices went way down instead of way up, he said yes—if they wanted to franchise their business and grow it.

He joined Great Clips as an officer in 1983. A year later, the firm had 14 franchisees, “but we didn’t have a training program,” says Barton with a laugh.

He called his sister, Rhoda Olsen, who worked at Land O’Lakes, and persuaded her to learn the Great Clips business and write a franchisee-training program—in two weeks. “Ray knew what was possible,” says Olsen, who’s now been with Great Clips for 20 years, the past 9 as president. “He identified people who he knew could help him get there, and, in a very positive way, he would basically say, ‘You can do this!’—even if it seemed a little unreasonable.”

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