Hand sanitizer production? Salon support? No problem. How John Paul Mitchell Systems turned setbacks into a new way of working

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed November 23, 2020 Audio version
The pandemic sent many beauty suppliers reeling. Not John Paul Mitchell Systems. They found a way to move into hand sanitizer production for essential workers. They also created their own salon stimulus program. On the back end, Workfront made an impact on remote work. Here's why.

Phil Oster of JPMS
(Phil Oster of JPMS talking shop)

By and large, I haven't been overly impressed by the corporate response to the pandemic - but there are notable exceptions.

Add John Paul Mitchell Systems (JPMS) to that exceptions list. How about creating your own stimulus package for the ailing businesses that support you? JPMS did just that, with a $4 million salon stimulus package of their own.

Or: how about shifting gears overnight from signature hair care products to hand sanitizer? John Paul Mitchell Systems did that too, donating 40,000 bottles to high need groups. Pulling this off requires a lot from suddenly-remote workers - and the right back end to support the effort. For the inside story, I had a video talk with Phil Oster, VP of Technology at JPMS.

No one can really prepare anyone for what we've had to face. For Oster, it was the day he got a call from one of his tech support people in Century City - informing him that workers were leaving, taking their computers home with them. The day was Friday, March 13, 2020. Begin scramble mode.

Oster, who was in the Santa Clarita office at the time, asked everyone to log their computers' serial numbers. Just like that, the JPMS remote workforce was created - no small change for a company that prides itself on a close-knit culture.

At the time, Oster had been with John Paul Mitchell Systems for 13 years. His role? Oversee the software and hardware tech stacks at JPMS, from ERP to warehouse management to Office 365. As he told me:

We have our own private cloud, if you will. And the creative stack as well - you name it. There's so many different stacks we're stepping into right now. So that's all my realm.

Before Workfront - a manual project management slog

When the pandemic hit, Oster already had the creative and marketing teams running on Workfront. The way Oster describes the pre-Workfront environment, it sounds pretty fortunate they made that switch, about a year and a half before going remote. Oster:

Think about the screens that go on bottles; think about the photo shoots, the video work, any promo work, shelf-talkers, packaging - all of it's done right here in the office. We had a traditional shop. We were running around with plastic job jackets, and you have the request form, and some things that go in that job jacket for routing, and so forth. And we had this master project sheet, which was a couple thousand lines, maybe 1,500 lines long, of projects that we were managing at the time.

Meetings were an ordeal of manual data diligence:

The creative team would meet in the creative conference room once a week. And they would go slogging along, line-by-line: "What's the status of this? What's the status of that? And where's that approval?" We knew that we couldn't survive any longer like that.

The search for a new solution led them to Workfront. Why? Oster cited several criteria: improved productivity, project management/approval cycles, and also, integration:

We looked at a bunch of products...  We also looked at it from the perspective that we were going to go with an Adobe DAM (Digital Access Management) system. We had it on the horizon. So I wanted something that integrated with Adobe DAM, and Workfront had such a good opportunity there. We jumped on board a year and a half ago. And it completely changed our world.

A new work strategy is put to the pandemic test

Funny Oster should mention Adobe - but we'll get to that. At that point, it was full speed ahead on Workfront. In retrospect, a hugely fortuitous move:

It really does speak to the luck of the strategy, and the timing of the strategy.

On that fateful March 13 day, the strategy was tested:

When Friday the 13th came, we were told to go home - but we had all these projects in play. We had a gathering planned for our 40 year anniversary in Vegas. We had product launches - all these big things coming up, and new brands as well. It was going to be a big deal.

We did a couple things over the weekend to get the media exposed properly and safely, so that they could get to the art files. But the secret sauce that made it happen after that was Workfront. We were able to continue with projects. We changed projects; we tabled a lot of projects; we opened up new ones.

Stepping into the needs - hand sanitizers and salon stimulus

One of the new ones? The hand sanitizer project.

When the CDC came out with the formulation that was approved for hand sanitizer, we turned that around in just about thirty days, from "Hey, let's do it," to formulation, getting into the lab to scale up, to testing, the packaging - all that stuff was done through Workfront, with approval cycles and projects and all that stuff.

Employees were fired up:

It was really exciting for us. We were able to do that in thirty days, and get it out to first responders -  hospitals, firefighters.

Unfortunately,   the John Paul Mitchell Systems 40th anniversary gala had to be canceled. But that led directly to the next initiative: the salon stimulus. Oster: 

The owners of the company, John Paul DeJoria and Angus Mitchell, decided to take that money, and re-invest it back into the salon industry. We came up with a salon stimulus, again, another brand new drive - and a brand new portfolio of projects.

How did that work?

We were able to get these kits out to salons that basically gave them, when they were ready to open up again, things like big liters of shampoo to be able to wash people's hair; it was a lot of shampoo. And color - a lot of color, so you're able to start your color services again.

All these things were sent off in a kit. We were able to get the kits packaged. We created something called social gathering, which was an online drive. So all the artwork for that, all the assets for that. We were able to offer deep discounts to salons, and we were able to offer great terms through our distributors.

All told, about 2,000 kits were sent out. Oster:

All this stuff was driven through Workfront. The notion of having to run around with plastics for approvals would have killed us; we would have been dead in the water. And so it was a really great success story. And the timing couldn't have been more perfect.

Now the meetings that we're having, when we're talking about projects, they aren't about "What's the status of this line? What's the status of that task?" It's more along the lines of "Okay, I see this thing is having an issue; what can we do to solve it?"

The wrap - Adobe + Workfront ahead

At the time of our chat, Adobe's Workfront acquisition announcement was still hot off the presses (see my colleague Phil Wainewright's first-pass analysis, Adobe acquires Workfront, makes $1.5bn bet on work management - or does it?). I asked Oster for a customer reaction. He told me:

When Adobe announced it, I started laughing. I'm like, "Well, that makes sense. It totally makes sense." And there is such tight integration there. I think it's a perfect match when you start thinking about what Adobe's spaces are, and how Workfront represents the nuts and bolts to get you to use those things. So it feels like it's a great pairing of technologies. I work with both sets of people, and I've got to say, They all seem to have that same kind of customer-centric, cheery disposition. So I'm gonna roll with that.

We talked about the problem of culture-building remotely. As remote work rolls on, this issue is getting tougher. Oster acknowledged that sustaining John Paul Mitchell Systems' culture online isn't easy. With more remote work ahead, that's something Oster knows his team needs to dig into.

I continue to believe that virtual tools like video can be used much more creatively, in ways that bring disparate teams together. As companies get over the initial remote push, this is an area you overlook at your peril. Otherwise, even the most modern tech isn't going to fill the gap. But with JPMS smack in the midst of such a heavily-impacted industry, you have to be impressed with a story of service, not just survival.