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The founder and the heir

How one surprising phone call created a hair imperium.

This modern fairy tale started with a tragic death in the summer of 1993. Johan Hellström was in his summer house with friends Peter Hägelstam and fashion designer Lars Wallin after having spent Midsummer’s eve together, when the sudden death of Björn Axén hit the news. The passing of the legendary entrepreneur and hair stylist made big headlines, and Johan, Peter and Lars were shocked and saddened by the news.

One week later, Johan received a phone call that would change his life forever. He was at home in his kitchen chatting with a friend when he answered the phone; the lady on the other side of the line was Ingemo, the personal lawyer of the celebrity and royal hairdresser. “Is Johan sitting down? ”she asked with a formal voice. He wasn’t, so he sat down and tried to make sense of the following words: “Is Johan aware that he is the lone heir of Björn Axén’s name and his life’s work?”

Today, 24 years later, Johan Hellström is playing around in front of a camera to the music of Billie Holiday in a studio in Stockholm. He is obviously comfortable; his playful energy and friendly smile is contagious and disarming to us all. I tell him I’m glad he’s chatty and happy, even after having spent hours in the studio.

— I’m like that, he says. I was born with a lot of energy and I love meeting new people. That gives me energy. My friends think I’m a bit much sometimes, but I can’t help it. I’m an extrovert person with lots of energy.

— Life is a roller coaster. And positive energy will create more positive energy, he adds. Johan Hellström speaks enthusiastically about kindness and humility; together with ambition and knowledge; these are the keywords in his life and in the company he’s dedicated his life to build. But, before we get into what that company is today; let’s go back to the year of 1993 when a 27-year-old singer and dancer became the sole heir of Björn Axén AB.

Björn Axén, the man, was as much a celebrity as he was a hair dresser and entrepreneur in Sweden, when his tragic death made big headlines in 1993. He was found dead at the age of 55 in his grandiose apartment in Stockholm. To this day, no one knows whether he committed suicide or died of natural causes. Johan is a firm believer that Björn Axén did not intend to say his goodbyes just yet but admits that his colleagues may think differently.

— Björn lived off three packs of cigarettes and 20 cups of coffee a day, and worked all the time. Maybe his heart gave up? He was such an organized person; I don’t think he would have left without leaving a letter or having organized things first. He had just gotten groceries and was taking a bath before dinner when he died. The groceries were still unpacked in the kitchen. It just doesn’t fit with the person he was. Björn had taken a valium and some alcohol before his bath, yes, but that doesn’t really say much. I don’t think he intended to leave so soon, Johan explains.

Björn Axén brought the Parisian glamour to Stockholm after having mastered the craft as a student at the hairdresser legend monsieur Alexandre de Paris salon in Paris. De Paris was the hairdresser of Maria Callas, Shirley McLain and Greta Garbo among other big names, and Björn Axén used the top-notch skills he had when he opened his first salon on Sibyllegatan 5 in Stockholm. Soon enough, hair was as relevant as fashion and makeup for the rich and famous. And Björn Axén was the king of hair that Stockholm had been waiting for. His innovative styles, flawless service and Parisian air caused a stir and anyone who was someone got their hair styled at Björn Axén. The Swedish Queen had heard about this amazing hairdresser from Queen Kristina and from 1976 until his death in 1993; Björn Axén was Queen Silvia’s private hairdresser. In 1984, it was made official when he became a purveyor to the court. A few years later, he moved his salon to the NK department store in Stockholm where all bookings were made on a computer. Probably making his salon the first in the world to have what we now know as online booking. And he was, together with Vidal Sassoon, among the first to introduce a premium segment in hair care. With two big, fully booked salons, his own hair care range and a big group of celebrity friends; Björn Axén seemed like nothing but a beautiful success story. But the picture painted to the public turned out to be only partly true. When Björn Axén passed in 1993, few knew that the company was, in fact, a sinking ship and bankruptcy lured in the mist.

— Soon after that phone call, we met with the lawyers to get the details of the testament, and after that; it was quite obvious that the company was in shatters, Johan remembers.

His lawyers and advisors urged him not to take on the mission to rebuild Björn Axén AB. But that only triggered him; the more impossible it seemed, the more he felt he could not resist the challenge.

— I don’t want fear to be the guide in my life. I don’t want to make a decision based on fear. The scenario of me spending my life wondering what would have happened if I hadn’t would haunt me. I couldn’t bear that thought.

Together with Peter Hägelstam, a friend and former worker at the salon, he decided to embrace the challenge that destiny had brought upon him. Not everyone wished him good luck though. This new world order at Björn Axén was a tough one to grip for the staff to get to grips with. And more so, the question on everyone’s minds was why this inexperienced 27-year-old was trusted to take over the brand that Björn had spent his life creating. Johan recalls that the disbelief among the staff was especially hurtful.

— I remember a meeting in the very beginning. I was preparing to talk to the staff for the first time and I was so nervous. I walked into the room and could hear how they laughed with each other and ignored me. The overall opinion was ‘who does this youngster think he is?’. I felt so humiliated. That’s when I decided to create a brand book to change the culture and the way we treat each other within the company. Still today, that’s what I am most proud of, he says and adds that you can walk into any of Björn Axéns facilities and be met with kindness and knowledge today.

He is certain that the fact that the company has next to zero staff turnover is a result of that humble culture as well.

— Kindness is the new black, he says meaning every word.

— I don’t understand why a woman should be less worth than a man, why race or religion has anything to do with dignity or why it matters who you love. It’s so unintelligent how we treat each other in this world. I may not be able to change that, but I can decide on the values and how we treat each other in my company.

Making the staff feel good is important to Johan, but that was unfortunately not one of Björn Axéns strengths.

— Björn was very creative and had guts; he would try anything with hairdos. Not everything looked great but he always tried, and never backed down out of fear. That was his strength. His weakness was the financial side of things and not realizing how to make talented people stay in the company.

But, that is only part of the reason as to why the financial situation was as bad as it was.

— Björn was actually scammed by a close colleague in the company, and she got away with a lot of money. He never really recovered from that betrayal.

No matter how nice and likable Johan is as a person, and he really is, you can’t help but to ask ”why?”. The two of them had no personal relationship, they never even had dinner together. And more so, Johan left the company after only a few years to pursue his musical dreams. During those years the two of them had very little contact. The fact that makes it, even more, an enigma is that it turned out how Björn had made his decision when Johan only was 18 years old; at that time, he had only been with Björn Axén for a few months.

So, why? What do you think he saw in you that made him leave everything dear to him in your hands?

— I’ve been awake many nights asking myself that very question. I don’t know. I know of one incident that may say something about the way he was thinking though. His receptionist told me the story. Apparently I had told Björn that I thought he was wrong by not letting one of his employees go to lunch one day. We had a short discussion, and after that, he apparently went out to his receptionist, hit his fist in the table and said: “Damnit! That guy is the best student I ever had!”

Johan was not afraid to tell his boss when he was wrong, but he always had suggestions on how to make things better. That and the fact that Johan had a strong creative side together with a good business sense is, in Johan’s opinion, what probably made Björn see him as the right heir. The combination of creativity and business mind is not all that common, he says,

Have you ever felt haunted by Björn, or angry with him for leaving the company with you?

— No, never angry. I never ask myself: What would Björn have done? From the day I signed the papers the company was mine and I make the decisions from what I think is right. It had to be that way. But Björn did haunt me in the early days. The TV, radio and stereo would go on at a full volume in the middle of the night making us very aware of that Björn was present, says Johan who still lives in the grand apartment in Kungsholmen that was left to him by Björn.

For someone who had a bad business sense, he obviously made a very smart decision. Björn Axén is a successful and expanding company today with four salons, a hair & makeup school and a hair care range. What do you think he would say if he saw you today?

— I am sure Björn is smiling down from his heaven, and that he would be very proud of what his name is today.

But the road to success has been a roller coaster for sure. Together with Peter Hägelstam, who was given 45 percent of the company when all the debts were paid off, Johan has experienced ups and downs.

— We’ve made mistakes, and in the beginning, it looked like we were about to fail. The bank called in our loans and that was going to be the end of us. But luckily, another bank saved us. I had a meeting with a bank lady called Carina and she said: “I don’t believe in the company right now, but I believe in you. I would be a fool to give you the money, but I would also be a fool not to.” She saved us, and Carina is still my client at the salon today.

They ́ve come a long way, Johan and Peter. In the beginning, they shared an apartment because they couldn’t afford double rents and stocked up on cheap sausage and instant mashed mashed potatoes to save money. Today, they run a hair imperium. They have turned the company associated with rich blue-haired ladies with poodles in their handbags into a trendy and very respected brand. And yes, they still do Queen Silvia’s hair! This year Björn Axén is taking another big leap in expanding; their eyes are set on the men’s segment. What that will be and how it will look is still a secret, but Johan Hellström is excited and says he still thinks it’s fun to go to work every day.

Of course a sharp business sense and being among the best at what they do have developed Björn Axén to a successful modern hair imperium. But Johan Hellström always comes back to the brand book and the change in staff culture

— I believe it was Maya Angelou who said that: ‘people will forget what you said, they will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ That’s the secret of Björn Axén. If we, by making someone look great, can help that person to make better decisions in their life, that’s success. Hair is important to how you feel about yourself, and how you feel about yourself will affect the way you live your life.

We’ve now talked for over an hour now and someone tries to reach Johan on the phone. “Never mind”, he says, “I will be back at the office when we’re done. Take your time.”

We say goodbye and I leave thinking about how that genuine friendliness combined with a sharp mind never fails. Most likely, that’s the best answer to why Björn Axén left Johan Hellström everything he owned.

But before I leave Johan to get back to his office, I have to ask him if he could ever do what Björn did?

— You mean leaving my company to the guy who sweeps the floor? Never!

December 18, 2017

Sofie Zettergren is a writer living in Stockholm, Sweden.

Johan Hellström in Stockholm, 2017. Photography: Tobias Regell
Björn Axén in his first hair salon on Sibyllegatan in Stockholm, 1963.
Björn Axén with his Grand Prix René Ramband statue, 1982. The hair stylist's "Oscars" at the time.
Björn Axén with his muse, model Vanja Befrits, at the Swedish Hair Championship, 1964.