But Christos Panopoulos, known universally as “Chris,” has walked that walk and he says it was easy.
“After living where I grew up,” he joked, “everything in the United States is easy.” He was talking with the Business Journal last week, minutes after returning from Holland where he is taking the initial steps to open a 12th Panopoulos salon. He says the new salon should be in operation by spring.
His enterprises — which now employ more than 800 people — also include 17 Haircuts Plus Salons; the Salon Products Co.; several Chic Schools of Cosmetology; Spectrum Recreation, a firm operating volleyball courts, bowling lanes, restaurants and sports bars; U.S. Golf Carts, a large distributor of golf carts; Dara Leasing Co.; and Dara Development, a real estate firm which develops office buildings and strip malls, in which many Panopoulos salons happen to be located.
The word Dara is not an acronym, but the name of the Arcadian village in Greece where Panopoulos was born and grew up. He attended school four hours away in Levidi, a mid-sized town roughly in the center of the Peloponnesus, Greece’s rugged lower peninsula.
It’s hard country and it was especially hard starting in 1941 when the German occupation began. British infantry replaced the Wehrmacht in 1945, and not long afterward Soviet-sponsored communist insurgents launched a grinding, brutal civil war.
Panopoulos arrived in Chicago in 1955 at age 19 with $5 in his pocket, a rock-solid faith in Greek Orthodox traditions, and the sponsorship of an American uncle.
“My biggest break was coming to this country,” Panopoulos said, “and a conversation I had shortly after I arrived.”
He said his uncle had volunteered him to clean pots and pans for a church picnic. He was working with another lad, an American who spoke Greek and who was questioning him closely about the old country and about his plans.
Panopoulos asked the youth, Andreas Colias, what he did for a living and the response was that he was a hairdresser.
“I said, ‘What?’ not being familiar with the term and Andy said, ‘I dress hair.’ When he saw I was still puzzled, he said, ‘I cut hair, man!’
“Well, I told him I could cut hair and was the only student in my high school that owned a pair of sheers.”
Panopoulos says Colias took him under his wing, took him to a cosmetology school and helped him get a license. Within two years, Panopoulos was working on Michigan Avenue while also doing his duty in the National Guard.
After that he moved to Grand Rapids to manage a salon while aching to buy it and run it for himself. “Ed Frey gave me a break,” he said. “He believed in me and helped me with a loan.”
After establishing himself as an American businessman, he was able — with a little help from then-Congressman Gerald Ford — to bring his brothers and sisters to Grand Rapids.
He founded Panopoulos Salons in 1960, the development company in 1971 and Haircuts Plus in 1987.
“I had to learn some hard lessons because I had some habits from the old country,” he said of his early years in business.
“At first, I was very, very difficult to work for. I was very, very strict and I had to learn that people are a business’s best assets.”
He said the thing he has enjoyed doing most over the years has been acquiring failing or bankrupt firms and turning them around.
“It’s something to see the employees react,” he said. “They know the company’s failing and losing money. You take over and apply certain techniques and you move the business in certain directions. Then suddenly things are working well and everybody is happy. It’s really enjoyable.”
Panopoulos has remained extremely involved in the Greek Orthodox Church ever since — and even before — Uncle Xenephon volunteered his services at the Assumption Church picnic in Chicago. His father helped build and restore churches in Greece. Also, Panopoulos’ wife, Joan, is closely tied to the church, among other things being the granddaughter of one of the first Greek Orthodox Church priests in Lowell, Mass.
He has been so involved with the church, in fact, that the church has inducted him into its national Order of St. Andrew and conferred upon him the title, Archon Orphanotrophos, the highest honor that it accords any layman.
The honor arises out of Panopoulos’ involvement in his own parish, in support of the diocese and in the Archbishop Lakovos Leadership 100 Endowment Fund. He also is the founder of a scholarship endowment for the American Hellenic Educational Association.