5 Questions With... American International Industries' Zvi Ryzman

Sure, he's a beauty biz titan—but there's more to AII's CEO than meets the eye.

AII President and CEO Zvi Ryzman

The story goes like this: It was 1971, and Zvi Ryzman was working with a partner in the import-export business when a suddenly devalued dollar forced the men to dissolve their company and divide its assets. Neither wanted the one-year-old eyelash business, so they tossed a coin. Ryzman lost. And that’s how he got into the beauty business.

Today, he’s president and CEO of Los Angeles–based American International Industries (AII), a beauty industry giant that has to date acquired 54 professional beauty companies (Ardell, Body Drench, China Glaze, Clean + Easy, Gena and Gigi, to name a few) that collectively manufacture 61,000,000 products—including eyelash enhancements—per year in 180 countries.

But there’s a lot more to Ryzman than his achievements in the beauty business. As an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, writer and teacher, he relies upon a value system consistent with religious law, a reality that sometimes challenges, but most often drives, his business decisions. The approach has not only served him well but has enabled him to employ more than 800 people, including all four of his children.

“Our first employee—Gloria Rodriguez—started with us in 1971 and is still with us, leading our Safety Team,” Ryzman says proudly. “In fact, most of management has been here for 30 to 35 years. People like Terri Cooper [executive vice president] and Mark Moesta [vice president of sales]—they’re the oxygen of the business.”

To mark AII’s 40 years in the business, we sat down with Ryzman and asked him to share his thoughts about the milestone. He was quick to deflect: “The anniversary isn’t about me; it’s about all of the people around me. I’m like a little nail in the building.” —Linda Kossoff

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You’ve seen many changes in the industry over the years, including the effects of today’s economic climate. How have they impacted AII?
Our customer base used to be the mom/pop store, but not anymore. Now there are more e-commerce stores (which we’ve decided not to get directly involved in or we’d lose our base), department stores are getting involved, beauty supply chains are taking over. The economic recession affects us in different ways. I have people coming to me saying, ‘Mr. R, I know you are enormous, please buy my company and make something out of it.’ And we try to do that. But we also have a lot of people working here, and we’re a seasonal business. When I need to fire someone, it’s so hard.
How has your faith affected your business decisions?
The success of the company is related to the faith. I learned to make business decisions from the Torah [the first five books of the Hebrew bible]. It’s not always easy. I once had an opportunity to buy a chain of 16 stores, but I didn’t because a substantial part of the business is done on Saturdays [the Jewish Sabbath].
Do you feel that ethics are too often overlooked in corporate America?
There should be no compromise on ethics whatsoever. But there’s what should be and there’s what is.
What was the last great book you read?
The one about Winston Churchill that just came out—I can’t recall the title. I liked his leadership under pressure. We don’t have many real leaders out there today.
What’s on your agenda for the years ahead?
There may be more acquisitions. I can’t reveal which companies I want to buy—but I’ll pay a finder’s fee! Also, for me, studying and writing; swimming and exercising. And always staying close to the books.