Horst M. Rechelbacher
November 11th, 1941 – February 15th, 2014
In honor of my fellow Austrian and conscious business maverick Horst Rechelbacher’s life I am reposting this story (which was initially published in FIRST magazine) on his life and legacy, from his childhood in war torn Europe, to the early days of Aveda to his current venture Intelligent Nutrients, the 100% certified organic beauty and health line. Please share to honor Horst’s memory.
Sex and the City author Candace Bushnell is right – this is the coolest penthouse in New York. On the rooftop terrace of Manhattan’s high-rise building at One Fifth Avenue, the city lies at our feet. According to Bushnell’s bestselling book “One Fifth Avenue“, this is the hottest property in town, with the penthouse as the epicenter of power and prestige. Said penthouse is the residence of Horst M. Rechelbacher, the man who began his career as a hairdresser, then conquered America with his cosmetic chain AVEDA. Today Horst enjoys world renown as an ecopreneur and certainly yields significant power in the conscious business world.
The original prewar elevator rides leisurely up to the top floor. The renovation of the penthouse took nearly two years, after Horst also bought the neighboring apartment, snatching it away from Oscar winning actor Denzel Washington. Today it offers a fabulous 360 degree panoramic view of New York and enough space for my host’s passion for collections. As I arrive, he enthusiastically sprays Orange Superselect, his self-created organic room spray, on the countless angel statues and figures of the Hindu god Ganesha. For a moment I expect him to spray me as well, but he smiles and gives me a hug embracing both of us in orange mist.
Horst is the founder of the world famous cosmetic line AVEDA, which calls for all-natural beauty products and has attained cult status among its customers. AVEDA was inspired by Horst’s study of ayurvedic medicine, his passion for botany, and his travels to India and Tibet. The “Ecopreneur”, as Vanity Fair called him, dedicated himself decades ago to conserve the world’s resources and to combine the principles of business with social responsibility, and sustainability. When Horst and I settled in the living room I asked him how he became the man he is today.
“I came into the world in November 1941 in Klagenfurt, a small city in Austria, and was the youngest of three boys,” recounts Horst in his unmistakable Austrian accent. “My father was a shoemaker and my mother was a true herbs woman. She worked in a pharmacy, and on the weekends mixed herbs in the kitchen for her private customers.”
Horst’s childhood was shaped by the postwar years. When he was 14, he quit school to earn money. “I had the choice to do an apprenticeship in either the delicatessen around the corner or at the hairdresser across the street. I decided for the hairdresser.” It was a step that meant a ticket to the world for the teenager. Rechelbacher practiced in Rome, Munich, and London, and narrowly won the European Hairstyling Championship when he was 20. He hired an agent, traveled throughout Europe and the USA, and held styling seminars, which earned him then an unbelievable 500 dollars per day. He mingled with the rich and the beautiful, who were styled by the young hair artist. “They loved me,” he smirks candidly.
Rechelbacher’s good fortune came to an abrupt end when a drunk driver crashed into his Jaguar XKE in Minneapolis. He was brought to the hospital in critical condition, and when he was discharged, the bill added up to $15,000. “My passport was confiscated,” remembers the eco-trailblazer, who even today, at over 70 years of age, always sees a chance in every crisis. “First, I had to get healthy, and then work off my debts. I started my own salon ‘Horst from Austria’ and established myself as a fixture in Minneapolis. I got married and had both my children.”
The salon was a success, however Rechelbacher’s health suffered anew. “Hair salons are among the most poisonous places to be. The chemicals made me sick. As I was lying there ill once again, my mother Maria was visiting from Austria. She mixed some miscellaneous herbs for me that helped me get on my feet again.” Maria’s herbs helped him health-wise, but also business-wise as it turned out.
“Through my mother, I discovered my passion for the plant world, and we began to develop shampoos, balsams, and massage oils from a plant base with lavender, rosemary, and eucalyptus. My customers were thrilled.” The business flourished. Horst opened more salons and then deepened his knowledge of plants when he went to India to follow his guru Swami Rama for six months – a consequence of burnout and a failed marriage.
Then he had the idea for a cosmetic line with all natural products. “Veda is the Indian book of wisdom, and I placed an ‘A’ in front because it looked nice graphically. I later found out that the letter ‘A’ in Sanskrit means ‘all/everything’”, Horst explains and gets up to fetch us a glass of wine – organic, of course. As I look around the penthouse I see artifacts and deities from around the globe. It is apparent that Horst’s experience in India had sent him on a spiritual and reflective path that would influence his business choices. Horst meditates daily – “taking inventory”, as he calls it – and accredits his practice to helping him stay on course in his business.
When Horst launched AVEDA in 1978 it was a three-person enterprise. When he sold it not even 20 years later, AVEDA made more then $100 million in revenues and had become a cult brand. In 1997, Estée Lauder paid $300 million for AVEDA and made Horst a multi-millionaire. Horst does not have to work any longer – he consciously chooses to.
Since the sale of AVEDA, the enlightened businessman acts as the trailblazer for entrepreneurs who built their work upon sustainability and cooperation. In lectures around the world he speaks about “Conscious Business and Capitalism.” His book “Minding Your Business – Profits that Restore the Planet” describes how he shifts between break even analysis and enlightenment. When he handed this book to President Barack Obama at a dinner and explained his philosophy to him, the President appeared very interested and told his assistant: “Make sure that I read this book.”
Horst can’t help but do business based on creative organic ideas: with Intelligent Nutrients (IN), he has created a 100% certified organic beauty line that offers hair, skin, and body care products as well as pet care products. “The skin care line is an anti-aging line,” explains my host, who himself is the best testimonial for it – 70 years old (as of 11.11.11) and hardly any wrinkles. His girlfriend and partner Kiran Stordalen, the former AVEDA model at his side for almost 25 years, is in her late 40s and looks as if she were in her mid 30’s. “Our products are created exclusively with organic nutrients and foods like pumpkin or raspberry that the body recognizes and absorbs as food,” says Horst, explaining the astonishing fact that you could also theoretically eat the serum.
Beauty has never been a synonym for health – a quote that the visionary builds upon. “Numerous products on the market today cause inflammation of the skin, the largest organ of the body. More and more people are aware that their daily beauty care can have a damaging effect on their health. We say: Everything that goes on or in our bodies—or near them—must be nutritious and safe. This is not a slogan for us, it’s what we guarantee.” At present, Intelligent Nutrients is still a small business. According to Horst, IN could even one day exceed the success of AVEDA since the healing cosmetic line is supposed to promote health and strengthen the immune system.
Modern medicine has already taken notice – outside of Detroit, the first American organic clinic opened, which administers organic food and an IN antioxidant intellimune tablet twice a day. If the idea catches on, Horst will be at the forefront of preventative medicine. He also has his eye on the globe: IN recently expended into the markets in the UK, Austria, Germany, Turkey, Italy, Hong Kong and Singapore. Canada, China and Benelux is next. Up to 100% of net profits from Intelligent Nutrients will be passed on to fund research, environmental, and social projects. “I will support farmers in poor countries so that they can cultivate organics.”
In his mission to decontaminate the world, Horst is more than happy to get dirty. Part of his 600 hectare property in Osceola, Wisconsin, was made into a dynamically organic farm, where the charming eccentric can himself cultivate plants and herbs for his IN products. “I must admit, I had a somewhat romantic approach to organic farming, very eco-chic,” grins Horst, thoroughly self cynical. With his hat and shovel, he gets down to work anyway, and is proud to power the farm almost 100% with solar and wind energy.
Today, however, we both stand on his terrace in New York, drinking organic wine, and watch the lights come on over Manhattan, the center of the financial world. Evidently, the penthouse on One Fifth Avenue is also the address for a new capitalism of the sustainable kind.