Lessons from Business Empress Martha Matilda Harper

submitted by Valerie Renk; photo by Pete Christianson

Jane Plitt 10 17 2018

From left: Rotarian Mary Borland, Guest Speaker Jane Plitt & Rotarian Joan Collins

Rotary and Martha Matilda Harper both want to make the world a better place, said October 17 Rotary speaker Jane Plitt.  Plitt highlighted how Harper, a poor Canadian servant for 25 years, became the American pioneer of modern retail franchising with 500 Harper Method Hair shops around the world catering to world royalty, US presidents, along with suffragettes.

Harper was born in Canada and put into servitude at age 7.  As she grew, she learned several business lessons.

Dream. She dreamed of success and marrying, although marriage would not release her from being a servant.

Stick to your Goals.  Her last employer was kind. He taught her about a product he designed to make hair stronger.  On his death bed, he bequeathed her the hair tonic formula.  With that formula, she believed she has the passport to change her life.  She moves to Rochester, New York, home to suffragists, entrepreneurs, and Quakers, a hot bed of activists. With about $300 in savings, she’s denied a building lease, until hiring a lawyer.

Capitalize on Your Assets. Her floor length hair, pictured on the door, drew in mothers of piano students from next door.  She offered them chairs, then drew them into to hear about her hair tonic.

 Understand and Delight the Customer.  Harper created the first reclining barber chair; this meant no soap in customers’ eyes and clothes were protected.

Create Buzz.  Famous customers such as Grace Coolidge and Bertha Palmer kicked off her fame.  Bertha drew her to open a second store in Chicago.

Commit the Customer.  Harper asked Palmer to come back with a list of 25 friends on a petition for her to come to Chicago.

Thinking Outside the Box.  Today we call this franchising, from the French “free yourself from servitude.”  After success franchising, she rethinks her anti-male beliefs and marries at 63 to a 39-year-old. She ends up with 500+ shops, two in Madison, five training schools, one also in Madison, and two manufacturing centers.

Treat Your Staff Well.  She advised franchisees to start staff meetings listening.  She believed it important to celebrate achievements.

In 1935, when Fortune Magazine was saying “a woman’s place is not in the executive chair,” Harper was proving she could make real money and success for her organization and her franchisees.

If you missed our meeting this week, you can watch the video here.

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