A Shining Example

blog Feb 04, 2022

            Next time you check in the mirror and nod approvingly at how your hair looks, you may want to thank the Luster family. Now with third-generation leaders involved, they are the largest African American-owned manufacturers of personal care products in the world, whose leading brands include the Luster’s Pink and SCurl lines you may well have used.

            Their various cleaners, conditioners, detanglers, enhancers, moisturizers, oils and texturizers have earned a loyal consumer base for the Chicago-based company credited by one leading hair care website for “its focus on innovative product development and brand management.”

            It’s hard to think of a better name for a hair care products company than Luster (definition: “a gentle sheen or soft glow”), but it comes from the founder, not the finished look. Fred Luster Sr. was running a successful barbershop on the South Side when he began to develop his own styling creme because those available weren’t the quality he was looking for.

            “He was just very resourceful,” says son Fred II, now Vice-President and Director of Research & Development. “He did some tinkering and some trial-and-error in his barbershop, and he came up with something that was good. It was just like kind of a cook coming up with a new recipe.” Word started to get around and he began to get requests from other barbers, founding Luster Products in 1957. Today the company employs around 180 people at its headquarters in Stockyard Industrial Park, with a smaller aerosol products plant in Blue Island, Illinois. In addition to its own lines, the company also does private labeling.

            Luster’s success hasn’t only been measured in sales but in succession, with subsequent generations joining the business. Around a dozen members of the family are part of things, with Fred II’s brother, Jory, president. Sister Sonja Luster-Munis is Vice-President and Director of Systems Administration.

            The ongoing family involvement is a reflection of Fred Sr.’s vision. “He was the oldest of his siblings and he was like my brother’s keeper,” says Fred II. “So, as he could envision success in doing whatever he did, he loved to have family and neighbors, whoever was close to him, join in what he was doing, because he could see success. He not only wanted success for himself and his immediate family, it was really for people who were close to him.”

Changing demographics

            Theresa Luster-Mac, Jory’s daughter and Senior Brand Manager, credits a hands-off approach from the second generation for her joining the company. “What they did at a young age that I noticed other people that have a family business don’t do, is they encouraged us to follow our passion, whatever that might be. If we wanted to be doctors, whatever, go for it.

            “I think the fact that it wasn’t forced for us to come into this business, that also presented an opportunity for ourselves to establish what we wanted to do with our lives, with our careers. I have always loved fashion and beauty, so it aligned… They didn’t pressure us to come into this business and they let it happen organically, which is really why we all are here today. We all have some capacity in this business that we’re contributing our own skillsets to what we do here.”

            For Simone Luster, Jory’s daughter and E-commerce and Social Media Manager, having grown up around the business, she “realized that I feel the most at home here. I kind of already know the industry and I’ve gotten to grow with it. I liked seeing how the business was from the inside out and it was all I really knew, and it was what I felt most at home with. It just felt right for me.”

            One challenge has been staying focused on Luster’s core brands while also looking for new opportunities. Among the company’s innovations have been new shave and beard care lines, and a hand sanitizer prompted by the coronavirus pandemic. More significantly, there are also plans to broaden the company’s traditional customer demographic.

            “It’s no secret that we’re a Black-owned, family-owned organization,” says Theresa. “However, we do know the world is moving into a multicultural space”: she references a young family member who is Puerto Rican, African American, and Asian, by way of example. “This multiculture is in our family as well, so we have products that are speaking to texture and not just you being Black.”

            Jory admits that they were caught flat-footed at one stage. “The industry changed, and we didn’t necessarily see that thing coming,” he reflects. “It was kind of a rude awakening, as people began to desire something different from straight hair. And in my heart of hearts, I believe that it was probably the most incredible thing to happen to Black women, to fall in love with their personal beauty, to accept themselves as beautiful and not have that beauty based on another standard.

            “But we got caught, really, and we had to play catch up to try to not only learn the products but to learn the psychological, psychographic part of that whole thing, and it was just different than we were used to.”

Changing consumers

            The change needed wasn’t just in what they made but how they marketed it. “We jumped from having magazine ads and radio ads and the like to social media being the dominant communication mechanism,” Jory says. “And we went from an area where people wanted to believe and follow people that they wanted to follow, as opposed to just a good story, just a great brand positioning, just great purposeful products.”

            It took a while for them to adjust, he admits. “You just can’t go out and use any traditional form of consumer communication to find out what the hell is going on,” he says. “Thank God we do have this third generation that came around to tell us, ‘Hey guys, I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but you’re not doing what you think you’re doing. Let us kind of help you get into the conversation, guide you and give you some understanding and insights as to what this thing is about.’ We had to sit back and look and learn because the whole communication strategy has changed.”

            His father was “of the school that you walk softly and carry a big stick,” Jory says. “This [social media] movement is about self-aggrandizement, upfront. All of that is just a paradigm shift, and so here we are now, we’re beginning to understand and we’ve been inching our way forward, but this is a learning experience.”

            One boon for Luster has been the recent swing towards consumers wanting to support Black-owned businesses. “It’s most definitely helped our business,” says Theresa. “These consumers are smart, they want to buy into companies that not only have products that perform but also give back to our communities, and that’s something that we’re really, really big on. In the past, I don’t think that we were as robust with showcasing and informing the public how we give back, but that is something that my grandfather was very passionate about.”

Changing communities

            While other brands serving the Black community have been sold off to multinationals over the years, Luster remains determinedly independent. Why is that?

            “It’s a couple of things,” says Jory. “We want to be a going concern. We’ve got [the] third generation that is coming in and they deserve the same kind of opportunities that our father fought so that Fred and I would have [them]…”

            Then there are the employees, many of whom feel like their last name is Luster, he says. “It’s important to come in every day and to give them your best effort so they can look forward to their employment here.” And finally, “we like being a beacon of hope in a community where we can inspire young people to say, ‘You know what, if they could do that, I could do that.’ It just makes sense to continue on. We don’t mind fighting: hell, we’ve been fighting our whole life, you know?”

            Fred agrees with that, emphasizing the opportunity to make a difference in the community, “not only from giving back like a philanthropic scenario but just providing jobs and opportunities… A lot of times we hire people, it’s their first time they really had an organized job, nine to five, so it is a thrill to be able to provide that opportunity.”

            Many times, he meets people who tell him someone in their family worked for Luster at some stage, and they enjoyed their time there. “It’s a family-oriented facility and organization and we try to keep that going,” Fred II says. “That’s a big part for me to keep it going because we’re able to bless so many as we’re being blessed.”

            Then there’s the wider impact on other businesses. “We have brokers that represent us and they have their own teams and because of Luster, we’ve given a lot of those brokers their start in this industry to represent beauty and grooming brands,” says Theresa. Some “say I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for you guys believing in me when everybody else closed the door on me and told me no… your grandfather, your dad, your uncle, your aunt all said, ‘You know what? We’re going to give you a shot, even though you’re young.’ I really have to take my hat off to my family for seeing that in our community and giving people the chance to start their own businesses, as well as helping scale ours.”

            Giving back has long been part of the Luster’s mission; a nonprofit foundation established in 1989 has raised more than $1 million to support beneficiaries which include the American Cancer Society. “We’ve had several incidences in our family of cancer and so we found it appropriate to support that organization,” says Fred II, himself a cancer survivor. “My dad, my uncle, several cousins have not been as fortunate as me, so that’s our biggest [focus].”

            They also support several youth-focused programs in Chicago. “That’s from the heart,” says Jory. “It’s not really something where we seek a lot of public aggrandizement for, we just do it because we do it and it’s the right thing to do.”

            It’s not just financial help. “We’re really big on giving back to kids when they go back to school, so we will hire a team of barbers and braiders to get these kids to feel good, to look good, to start their school year off strong,” says Theresa. There have also been mid-year visits to schools to offer makeovers. “So, it’s not always just we’re dishing out a check to these people,” she adds. “It could be hands-on with them as well, with their grooming and beauty.”

            Further afield, the foundation has drilled more than a dozen wells in Africa to provide impoverished communities with clean water. “We’re real proud of that,” Fred II says.

            What do the middle-generation Lusters want their legacy to be? “A company that not only that has produced a lot of great products that make people look good and people feel good when they look good, but providing jobs and opportunities,” Fred II answers. “To me, that’s huge.”

            He also speaks of being a role model to the business community and family businesses in particular. “I hear stories all the time about the in-fighting and all kinds of shenanigans that go on.” People ask how, with so many family members involved at Luster, they all get along.

            “We get along because there’s a lot of love within our organization,” he says, “that has been implanted by my grandfather, my grandmother, my father and my mother, and my uncles and my cousins, and me and Jory and the third generation. So, they recognize us as being a successful company for those other reasons, not just one that’s successful selling products, but successful in providing support to the community and showing how it really looks to be a responsible organization within the community.

            Jory speaks of some of the values that his father made sure were woven into the fabric of the company. “Integrity, honesty, fair dealing—you know, just do it the right way if you’re going to do it,” he says. “We always want to do the right thing. Regarding our employees, our strive is to work toward making this a great place to work—not a good place to work, but a great place to work.”

From an interview with Louis Carr