HIGHLAND, Ind. -- Jerome Williams is a different kind of business owner.
For starters, he doesn't lose any sleep fretting over the professional ambitions of those who work for him, even if it means gaining a new competitor. If anything, he wants precisely that.
Williams owns a growing chain of barbershops here, and is not simply content on renting barbers a chair in his shop. Instead, the people he recruits to work with him are coached as much about the ins and outs of ownership as their razor and scissors skills.
"If you're just a barber behind a chair, you're limited by the amount of heads you can cut," said the former Marine. "In a 24-hour period, there's only so many heads you can cut in a day. But if you're an owner, now you can help more people."
Williams has been cutting hair and helping people for five years. He started quite small five years ago, just three barbers. Today, "J's Barbershop" operates in four locations in northern Indiana, outside Chicago, with 37 barbers. This past summer, one of his surrogates partnered with him to open a location at one of the world's busiest airports, Chicago's O'Hare.
His philosophy begins and ends with pleasing the customer, and he makes sure barbers who work with him understand that. Along the way, he has changed lives.
Ivan Duncan got the ownership itch like his mentor. With Williams’ encouragement -- and financial support – he ventured off on his own at a high-traffic location at the O'Hare Hilton.
Working with Jerome did change my life," Duncan said. "I saw a barber that worked hard and it reminded me of myself. It was like looking at myself in the mirror, working hard, trying to build a business. So, definitely, it inspired me."
After a career in the Marines, Williams sought a degree in nursing. But, he said, he learned he wasn't particularly suited to that line of work.
So he decided to give barbering a go. It was in the DNA, apparently. His mother and a brother were in the profession. But he wanted to build a barbershop experience that was different from many, where diversity is a centerpiece of the atmosphere -- from those holding the razors and scissors to the people beneath them.
"We can cut all types of hair, and that is where the business part came in," Williams said. "I took these guys who are really excited about cutting hair and I married them with customers who needed haircuts. Our clientele is very diverse."
So is his team of barbers. Pennee Tibin is one of the "guys." Though she doesn't long to be an owner herself, Tibin says she was excited about getting a chair at "J's" because of Williams' approach.
"He's just got that focus, that drive I like to be around,” she said. “I just like the way that he focuses on business, and like how he makes things happen."
Ultimately, Williams says he hopes to grow his business large enough one day to essentially endow a fund to help a graduating barber every year with seed money start a business.
"Once I get to $1.6 million, my idea is to take four percent of that per year and help out a guy coming out of barber school that wants to open up his own business," he said, "but without all the trials and tribulations I (had). No franchise fees, no nothing. Just be able to help a guy with getting it going."
Giving back is Jerome Williams' style -- a style he hopes never goes out of style.