Calvin Quallis grew up in his mom’s barber shop and beauty shop and says he has distinct memories of how getting a fresh haircut or shave could change a client’s entire demeanor.
“I watched how she and some of the other barbers and stylists kind of worked their magic and helped the folks walking into the shop walk out feeling and looking their best. And so that always stuck with me,” says Quallis, founder and CEO of the award-winning men’s grooming and wellness brand Scotch Porter.
After working in the corporate world for a market research firm, Quallis opened his own barbershop in New Jersey. “Part of it was because I remembered those feelings my mom and the others were able to able to help people feel when they walked out of her shop.”
It was through that experience that Quallis realized many of his customers had a specific issue with dry, frizzy or damaged hair and beards. “I created a hobby in evenings and weekends where I’d go home and learn everything I could about hair and beards and natural ingredients and started to concoct products from the kitchen of my home,” he says.
From there, Scotch Porter was born. Named for his favorite libation and jazz crooner Gregory Porter, the line offers premium products for beard, hair and skin care, a line of fragrances and candles, and even vitamin supplements. “We’re more than hair, beard and skincare products at Scotch Porter,” Quallis says. “We are in the business of confidence boosting.”
Business really took off during the pandemic. “We did see a pretty significant increase in online in our newly launched retail business and part of that is because barbershops were closed,” he says. “Guys needed to take care of their beards and hair and skincare despite not having access to a barbershop.”
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Today, Scotch Porter has expanded through new product offerings as well as new distribution channels, securing retail partnerships with CVS, Target and Walmart. More expansion is on the horizon thanks to a just closed a Series B funding round of $11 million.
As for what’s next? Quallis says the company is focused on “continuing to expand our distribution online and off, widening our reach to be able to educate more of our customers with information and product that really aligns with internal and external wellness, and figuring out ways to continue to deliver added value to our customers lives with product conversations.”
Listen to the full podcast to learn more about Quallis’ career path, the brand’s focus on external and internal wellness and his best advice for other entrepreneurs and young professionals.
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Calvin Quallis: I actually hated the daytime desk job. What I really focused on is not having regrets. And what I was worried about is if I kind of stuck in at a job that paid well — it did pay well and it afforded me some luxuries — but it didn't keep me inspired. I wasn't doing anything that was impactful, and I knew that I should be doing something else.
Bill Thorne: Welcome to Retail Gets Real, where we hear from retail's most fascinating leaders about the industry that impacts everyone, everywhere, every day. I'm Bill Thorne, and on today's episode we're talking to Calvin Quallis, the founder and CEO of the award-winning men's grooming and wellness brand, Scotch Porter. More about that name later, but I really love that. We're going to talk to Calvin about how he started the brand from a kitchen experiment to a million-dollar business, the evolution of the mail consumer and his vision for growing scotch. Calvin Quallis, welcome to Retail Gets Real.
Calvin Quallis: Thanks for having me.
Bill Thorne: Calvin, you're an entrepreneur. There's no greater title to have, I think, in any position professionally than entrepreneur. And like many entrepreneurs, you didn't start your career in the industry you were currently in, men's grooming and wellness. So, what was your professional background before you started Scotch Porter and how did that inform your company and the evolution of your company?
Calvin Quallis: Yeah, so before starting Scotch Porter, I worked in finance at a market research firm, daytime desk job, sort of looking at numbers all day, crunching numbers, and looking at spreadsheets. I wouldn't say that it necessarily informed what I do on a daily basis at Scotch Porter or growing a business, but what I will say is that it informed me of what I should not be doing. And it became very clear to me that working in corporate, trying to climb the corporate ladder, wasn't what I should be doing. And in fact, I actually hated the daytime desk job. What I really focused on is not having regrets. What I was worried about is if I kind of stuck in at a job that paid well — it did pay well and it afforded me some luxuries — but it didn't keep me inspired. I wasn't doing anything that was impactful and I knew that I should be doing something else. Just at that time, at the very beginning, it wasn't very clear on what I should be doing. So, I wouldn't say that it has informed what I do every day at Scotch Porter, but it made it very clear that I should not be working in corporate America trying to climb the corporate ladder.
Bill Thorne: So interesting because we do talk a lot through the Foundation, which is focused on students and focused on careers, is that idea of taking a risk. And I'm always reminded — back when I first started in Washington DC, they used to do this thing called the Wiz Poll in the Washington Post and they would do it once a week. In one of the polls that they did was among adults the ages of 40 to 65. The question was, what do you regret more: things that you did do and wish you hadn't or things you didn't do and wish you had? And the vast majority were things they didn't do and wish they had. So, I cut that out, framed it, and kept it on my desk as a reminder that it's okay to take risk and fail, but it's important to be able to take that risk and know that you're doing the right thing. What you don't want to do is regret something that you wish you had.
Calvin Quallis: Absolutely. I made some incredible promises to myself a very, very long time ago, and not actually taking the risk, taking the leap of faith, could have possibly meant that I didn't achieve some of the big audacious goals that I had promised myself a long time ago. I couldn't live with that regret.
Bill Thorne: Okay, so I got to know, the name Scotch Porter. I love that name. And as a matter of fact, if I had the last name Porter, and I was going to have a child, and it happened to be male, I would consider naming it Scotch Porter. That is a great name. How did you come up with that?
Calvin Quallis: Thanks. So Scotch Porter is a culmination of the things I like. At that time, I was an avid scotch drinker and Porter is the last name of a jazz musician who has the most fantastic voice on this planet. So it’s a culmination of the things I like.
Bill Thorne: That’s pretty awesome.
Calvin Quallis: Pretty simple.
Bill Thorne: Simple, but exactly what you need to come up with a great name for a brand. So, you came up— tell me the process. You decided, one day I’m going to create a brand, I don’t know the name of it yet, it’s going to have certain products that are for men. How did that all evolve?
Calvin Quallis: Yeah, so bit of a backstory. I’m a guy that grew up in my mom’s barbershop as a kid. She owned a barbershop and beauty salon, and I watched how she, along with some of the other barbers and stylists, worked their magic to help the folks walking into the shop, walk out feeling and looking their best. That always stuck with me. And in fact, when I was working at the market research firm, I actually opened up a barber shop because I knew that what I was doing wasn't what I was supposed to be doing, but I hadn't figured out what it was that I was supposed to be doing. I had this idea and I made a promise to myself as I was approaching 30, that the next big idea that stuck with me for a while — doesn't matter what it is — I would jump on it.
Calvin Quallis: Opening up a barber shop was that next big idea. Part of it was because I remember those feelings my mom and the others were able to help people to feel when they walked out of her shop. My only experience is visiting barber shops every other week. And at that time, I didn't necessarily feel my best. I was in a career and a role that I absolutely hated, and it was draining. So coming home from work one day, I had sort of an epiphany of my time that I spent in my mom's shop, my own personal experiences visiting barbershops and decided to open up a barbershop. It was this idea that stuck with me for a while. I did open up the barbershop about six months from that time where I had that vision of opening up one and I noticed this issue that many of our customers had, very dry frizzy damage hair and beards. As I mentioned earlier, the daytime desk job was one that was a bit draining and boring in many ways. So I created a hobby evenings and weekends where I'd go home, learn everything that I could about hair, beards, and natural ingredients, and I started to concoct products from the kitchen of my home. So started the business like that, would bring it to the barbershop, hand it off to the barbers and customers, then would get feedback until I created something that our customers enjoyed.
Bill Thorne: That's pretty phenomenal. I mean, you had a natural… let's just say you didn't have the barbershop. I mean, what would you do? Just stop people on the street. So you had a natural constituency there that is looking for something, and you were able to use your products to test their reaction to that. That is absolutely fantastic. So when you open a barber — I'm intrigued by this — so you open a barber shop, where do you find the barbers?
Calvin Quallis: <laugh>
Bill Thorne: Just curious.
Calvin Quallis: Yeah, that was a bit of a learning challenge. It's — there's a while. At the time social was pretty new. We posted on social and we asked a friend to ask a friend, it took a while but I eventually did get some really great barbers.
Bill Thorne: We have a place down in Fort Pierce, Florida and there's a barber shop called Too Legit. And these guys are phenomenal and it's just the same kind of setup. The owner is not a barber. He finds these barbers and they have such an extraordinary culture. These guys get along. It's fun to be in there. It's fun to watch them work. I don't have enough hair to really merit, but if I go in with somebody younger, one of my godchildren or something, they have the best time. It is absolutely fantastic. So barber shops and beauty salons, obviously the pandemic was going to have a pretty major impact on those businesses. What were you able to do to kind of maneuver through that? I know that people at home — I grew a beard…
Calvin Quallis: <laugh>.
Bill Thorne: Its pathetic, but I try.
Calvin Quallis: <laugh>
Bill Thorne: And then I went to a goatee, and that worked a little bit better. So I'm assuming that there might have been an uptick in people looking for product to deal with that.
Calvin Quallis: Yeah, first I'd just like to say that we started the barbershop, but we ended up closing the barbershop and I quit my daytime desk job — I'd say maybe a year and a half after creating the products. During the pandemic, the barbershop didn't exist, but obviously the business of Scotch Porter existed. During the pandemic we did see a pretty significant increase in online and our newly launched retail business. Part of that is because barber shops were closed, right? So guys needed to take care of their beards, hair, skincare, and everything else despite not having access to a barber shop. I also think that their partners <laugh> also appreciated good clean guys, right? So we did see also see an uptick in women and others coming to our site to purchase for their partners as well.
So we did really good. I'd also say that it became very important to us to think about how we continue to deliver even more value to our customers during the pandemic. So we've always had a focus on not just delivering really outstanding hair, beard, and skincare products, but how do we really deliver value to our customers and why are customers coming to us? We've always had this focus on internal and external wellness, and I'd say when the pandemic hit, we found it very important to continue to have those discussions, even heightened discussions around internal and external wellness.
Bill Thorne: Yeah, people needed to feel good about something. It was a scary time with a tremendous amount of uncertainty. And if you had something that made you feel good, then that's something that you needed to really take advantage of because it was so dark. And I could see, you know, the wives and partners, girlfriends, etc. would just want to make sure that whoever they're with, that they look good, they feel good, and they're having a great experience together. You've made it a part of your brand's mission to provide access, opportunity, and employment to people of color. How has that shaped how you've grown your business?
Calvin Quallis: Yeah, I'd say my bigger goal here at Scotch Porter lines with my primary aim, which is, you know, helping people to not only feel their best and live their best, most fulfilled lives, but it's also doing something impactful. And one of the things that I've always thought about is how I could leverage my personal and professional experiences to provide opportunity and access to people that look like me. I recall being in corporate America, a younger guy, and thinking I'm a lot smarter than some of the folks that were deemed my superiors in the work environment, but it would've taken me probably like 20 years to get where they are. And that always, excuse my language, kind of pissed me off a little bit, right? And so I made it my business, when I was in a position to be able to provide opportunity to folks, to look at my situation and my scenario and think about how I can provide those same opportunities to people that look like me. And so it's always been very important for me to have leaders in our company that come from some of the same neighborhoods that I come from — have similar or shared experiences. And I've always thought that it was important that the folks that we bring in also share the same values. And what I mean by that is, they also understand the importance of reaching down and helping to bring other folks up. And so, it aligns with my primary aim in the business's mission and what we do here at Scotch Porter.
Bill Thorne: It's your culture. I mean, and I think everybody would tell you that culture is just about everything to growing in successful business. You've got to constantly feed the culture, maintain the culture, grow the culture and make sure that the culture is staying relevant to the people that work there. And obviously your culture reflects your personal goals, your personal vision, and how you conduct yourself personally and professionally. I think that's a very important lesson for people to understand. You've got to be true. You've got to be authentic.
Calvin Quallis: Yeah, absolutely. One other thing is that legacy has always been sort of very important to me. It's a word that's written on my phone, plastered all over my office and doing something that really has an impact because I firmly believe that none of us can leave this earth with any financial possessions or anything that we accumulate here in this life, but it's how we treat people, how we improve folks' lives, that's really important. That really sticks with me and it's why we do what we do at Scotch Porter. It's why providing access and opportunity to people that look like me and providing resources and opportunity is so important to me.
Bill Thorne: Yeah, I think at Scotch Porter, if you look on the website and some of the emails and things that you communicate, it's about lifestyle. It's about community. You also talk about things like, and you've mentioned it before, like mental and physical wellness and you include yoga and meditation sessions at your popup stores. I have got to tell you, I just did two weeks at a wellness retreat this past July, which was just shocking. All of my friends were just amazed that I would do something like that. But one of the big parts— it was emotional, physical, mental, and nutritional. And one of the things that I learned to understand, enjoy, and incorporate into my daily journey is yoga and meditation. It's incredibly important and it's something that I wasn't really focused on. I had friends that were very actively engaged in yoga. And I'm just curious, why is that such an important part of your business strategy and does that really resonate with the customer?
Calvin Quallis: Yeah, I mean we've always understood the business that we're in, right? And we are in the business of confidence boosting, right? And helping men to feel their best. We've always known that great hair, beard, and skincare products are important, but the table stakes, it's really surface level and folks aren't coming to the brand and investing in products just for great looking hair and beard. They're looking to go out in the world, and their looking to feel their best. Because of that, we've always understood that great products are important, but it's also about helping people to feel better and how can you do that with conversations around how they take care of themselves internally as well as external. I, myself, practice meditation on a daily basis. I don't do yoga. I practice meditation on a daily basis and I get in a walk at least every other day.
Calvin Quallis: And I've understood the benefits of how that's helped me. And conversations with experts around mental wellness and emotional intelligence. I've understood how those benefited me greatly. And again, because we're in the business of helping men to feel their best, not only just look their best, it's always been a part of what we've done because we are clear and we clearly understand what business we're in. We're not in the business of just selling hair, beard and skincare products. And in terms of how that's resonated with our customers, I'd say the most engaging conversations and social posts, what we have has been around conversations about financial, emotional and physical wellness. Those topics seem to resonate the most and have the most likes versus a post about a beard care product or even when we're having a sale. Conversations around mental, physical and emotional wellness have resonated more with our customer.
Bill Thorne: That's fantastic. Mean you've got to — it is kind of the way of retail. I believe that there will be a generation that's coming, where it won't be something that is unique or different or new. It's just a part of doing business because people expect that and people like that. And people respect when there's a company or a brand that speaks to a value proposition and they live it. That provides a uniqueness, a loyalty and a trust that results in a loyal customer.
Calvin Quallis: Absolutely.
Bill Thorne: Now you have grown your business really, really well. I mean you started an eCommerce and now you've got Target, Walmart, CVS and others. Was that always part of your strategy? Obviously, it's worked out pretty well.
Calvin Quallis: Yeah, I wouldn't say that retail has always been a part of our strategy. Obviously expanding our reach and reaching more customers with our mission has been really important. But we have grown our business from, I'd say about 750 doors at the top of the pandemic to a little over 5,000 doors. And we have some additional exciting opportunities on 2023 that we're excited about. Unfortunately, I can't share today what that looks like, but we're super excited about that. We'll continue to expand our distribution both on and offline as well as our product expansion into additional categories, but we're super excited about it.
Bill Thorne: Having worked before I came to the National Retail Federation, I worked for Walmart and having known our buyers and things of that sort, you have got to have a pretty doggone good product and an ability to get that product to the customer quickly if you're in the Walmart store. So congratulations on that. And I know it's across the board. I mean Target et. al. — CVS, Walgreens — you're covering the road my friend. That's pretty good. That's exciting.
Calvin Quallis: I appreciate it.
Bill Thorne: So you've got a new president, he's a veteran of consumer packaged goods and beauty industries. And you just closed a series B funding of around $11 million. What's next for Scotch Porter?
Calvin Quallis: Expanding, continue to expand, our distribution online and off, as I stated earlier in our reach, and being more accessible to our customers. Widening our reach to be able to educate more of our customers, with information and product that really aligns with internal and external wellness. And figuring out ways to continue to deliver added value to our customer's lives with product and conversations is sort of what's next, including of course, with growth comes team expansion, right? So continuing to build the bench, getting the right people in the right seats and just looking to build the business that delivers value to not only our customers, but to our community and to our internal team. Really looking forward to continuing to build the business.
Bill Thorne: That's great. So you know, I did mention that we do have a lot of students that listen to Retail Gets Real. Now, I'd like to think that it's organic, that they just find Retail Gets Real and they're like, “Ooh, that's so good”. I learned so much. What I've learned is that a lot of professors require it in their syllabus for the class that these guys are taking. So it's not like they just love me, but they do love the program. Once they learn that it is good and it does provide some value. So with that in mind, to all those new students that just started this fall semester and are having to listen to Retail Get Real and a lot of our students that listen to us on a regular basis, what is the one piece of advice that you would give to them as they're looking to start their careers, either as entrepreneurs or somebody working in the industry? What, or just being a professional, a good professional, what would you say to them?
Calvin Quallis: Yeah, I would say same sort of advice that I give to entrepreneurs. Really just digging a little bit deep and uncovering your why, because I think that's super important. Find ways to make sure that your why aligns what you plan on doing on a daily basis, right? It's super, super critical. It's been very important to me cause the road gets tough not just for entrepreneurs, but just for everyday people in careers and in life. So just making sure that you have a super compelling why and finding ways to tie your why into each and every day. It's the thing that's needed to keep you going, to keep you moving forward and to keep you doing something that is going to be meaningful for you now and in the future.
Bill Thorne: That's great advice that you've given to a bunch of people out there. What's the best advice you've ever gotten from somebody else?
Calvin Quallis: I think it has been around that, why. It's been around that why piece. Yeah, the why piece has been some of the best advice. Focusing on crafting my why and understanding what that is and then figuring out ways to apply that not only into my personal life, but my professional life has been one of the best pieces of advice that I've gotten from an older mentor and it really has stuck with me through good and bad times, and hard times.
Bill Thorne: Good advice is always there when you need it. So, and that's — you've got a great mentor. Calvin Quallis, thank you so much for joining us today. This has been a great conversation and I'm excited for you. I'm excited for your product, I'm excited for your business and for the people, your associates, but I'm most excited for the people that are exposed to it and feel better as a result of it.
Calvin Quallis: Thank you. And thank you for having me.
Bill Thorne: And thank you all for listening to another episode of Retail Gets Real. You can find more information about this episode at retailgetsreal.com. I'm Bill Thorne, this is Retail Gets Real. Thanks again for listening.