Geoffrey Rappaport is an entrepreneur and businessman who co-founded the discount haircut franchise Supercuts with Frank Emmett in 1975. During a luncheon with Hillsdale College students Wednesday, he discussed his belief in the importance of a liberal arts education and also shared developments of his new chain dental service.
What was the initial inspiration for creating Supercuts?
Being a hair cutter, holding a cosmetology license, my partner and I decided we needed to do something with that license. What we’d seen by observing the public, our customers while we were in beauty school and just the general public, was that what was out there and the alternatives that existed were not what the public wanted. The choices they had were barbershops and beauty parlors and the guy with the electric shears — none of them ever established the quality of a haircut for a price. It was a time of hippies with long hair, people cutting their own hair. You couldn’t go to anyone who could actually give you a reasonable haircut at a reasonable price at convenient hours.
How do you believe your competition has changed over the years, and how do you think your competitors were motivated after you created this discount model?
A lot of our competitors actually believe there was a discount, but we saw it as establishing a price for a service. We can deliver a high quality service at a given price. We picked that price, given our overhead and given the fact we wanted to pass along savings to people. We paid hairdressers an hourly wage, not based on the number of customers they could produce, so that allowed us to set a standard for the price in the industry. We were the market entrepreneurs; we came up with the price for our high quality service. Competitors saw it as a discount product or discount service, and that has never worked out long for them. When we opened our first store in Albany, California, on San Pablo Boulevard, our haircuts were $6. A fellow opened up shop across the street, and on the window of his shop, it said, “We fix $6 haircuts.” Forty-one years later, we have almost 3,000 stores, we have 20,000 – 30,000 employees internationally, and he’s no longer there.
What led you to believe that this model you created in Supercuts could transfer to dentistry in Superteeth?
I looked around to see what was comparable to the system that Frank and I had developed, which was actually for pre-industrial craft. Machines can’t give haircuts virtually, and dentistry cannot be done by machines. I looked around the world and then looked at the history of our own craft in which barbers and surgeons were basically the same people at one time. When you looked at what they really did, the tasks they performed with their hands, the question was very obvious. Could I establish a reasonable price for that service, put services on a menu, and let people select exactly what they want — much like Supercuts, where you could pick and choose exactly what you wanted for a given price? What work could you get people to do? Could you train people to do it, and could you train people to train people to do it? It’s not far-fetched, if you look at it systemically and historically.
Would you say this new model is privatizing the healthcare system?
It’s supply-side public health. We set a price for a service that we can deliver. We can deliver to anyone anywhere in the times we are open. It has a standard of quality. The menu covers eight basic services that people all over the world ask for. I ran a survey to find out what people really want when they go to the dentist, all of which are on our menu for the same price. People select from that. They’re not told what they should have; we’re not charging them according to their insurance. We’re charging them according to what we believe is a fair price, much like we did with the haircuts. Our customers are customers, neither patients nor clients, and we do what they ask for not what we want.
How does this service come into existence without the government regulating it?
We don’t actually go around it. What’s nice about licensing is that it means all that come to us are qualified. It sets the parameter for health and safety standards. We know these people are properly trained in their craft, but we have to teach our dentists, cosmetologists, and barbers how to treat customers. Your job as a craftsman is to make sure they get what they want.
Does your model make it easier for dentists to enter the workforce?
Yes. The reason is the same as it is in the beauty industry. When you come fresh out of dental school, you have very few choices, just like a cosmetologist. Working for us, you bring nothing; we provide it all. All we want is your expertise and your availability to work, your interest in making a living and doing the very best job you can. It is idealistic, but it works that way. You bring nothing but yourself and your skills and your license; we will teach you how to relate to the public.
What are some of your future goals for Superteeth, as it becomes more present in the market?
Ideally, Superteeth is a boon to third world countries. Americans, like ourselves, have a lot of choices. The rest of the world suffers from very bad, if not non-existent, dental care. Superteeth has a system based on the Supercuts model to deliver these products worldwide in a way they are delivered in the United States. I see its future offshore. I’m more interested, at this point, in my life in taking this to places that have never seen American ingenuity like this.