To meet Horst was to have an opinion about Horst. And most likely, a good cocktail party story.
To work with Horst Rechelbacher — particularly in his Aveda years — was to be part of a magical community. It was a master class in those elusive things entrepreneurs and corporate leaders now try so hard to build:
Culture. Innovation. Authenticity. A purpose-driven, lean organization.
This was partly because we would never have used words like “a purpose-driven, lean organization.” Or “verticals.” Or “above the line.” Or all the other things he taught us to understand and create from the soul, just as he did.
We used words like: “Are you living the mission?”
The mission wasn’t on a wall. It was a gravitational pull that influenced all we did, including hiding Diet Coke contraband under our desks. Or maybe that was just me.
After all the CEOs, MBAs and agencies I’ve seen since, no one’s taught me more than a hairdresser who dropped out of school at 14.
Horst led from the gut and stuck to his principles with Germanic ferocity and an artist’s lust for life. He did not waver, even as curiosity led him to every corner of the world. He remixed wisdom and consumer insight like essential oils in a bottle. His ideas decades ago are just now showing up in influencer brands. Such things do not come from focus groups — which, by the way, he never conducted.
It was not in his or the company DNA to be like any other. Quite the opposite. Before meetings, the group would turn right, then left, administering a quick shoulder massage. We were present, connected and in it together. One doesn’t throw a co-worker under the bus or phone it in under these circumstances. We were living the mission.
Horst hired good people and gave them the audience and latitude to prove they could be great. So we were unafraid to share, to collaborate, to question and to work more happily and freely than many of us ever would again. Everything mattered to him, so it mattered to us. Since we were all either young or lifers, we had no idea this was not normal.
Our meritocracy was as flat as it was fearless — and yes, occasionally fear-filled. I didn’t ponder writing “The Devil Wears Patchouli” for nothing.
Yet we had the certified organic secret sauce of truly great organizations: We cared. We believed … in ourselves, in each other, in him, and that our work was changing the world. We were doing things that had never ever been done, yet on paper we had no license to do so.
In a headquarters tucked between a gun range and Interstate 35W in a then-undeveloped backwater of Blaine, Minn., a band of believers included gay, straight, toupees, New Yorkers, chemists, small-town refugees, French perfumers, and the occasional Buddhist monk or Native American shaman/songwriter. We were a “we.” Not a series of “me”s. That was Horst’s role. He was great at it.
Several weeks ago, maybe 200 of us gathered at Horst’s place. You never had to see him to know he was there. He rearranged molecules in the air, just as he did in people. To have him believe in you was to believe in yourself and see the world differently. He had changed us all.
This was Horst’s most potent alchemy and legacy. Not merely drugstore shelves talking about parabens or people understanding why “certified organic” matters. He created a gorgeous universe of unlike people united by creativity, passion and belief. When two or more of us reconnect at an event or in an elevator, a spark rekindles. Love and belonging live on.
That night, Horst had us gather around. Everyone sat on the floor, literally at his feet — multimillionaires, captains of industry and a celebrity hairstylist among us. Under the watchful eye of the Buddhas, saints, angels, antiques and fashion photos that are his totems, he had something new to show us. As we all joined in, he joked: “It’s OK; I am still just a beginner, too.”
Horst was always and ever Horst.
We still believed. We were still learning. Greatness is possible, and how we spend our lives can matter. At that moment, I silently thanked whomever was watching and Horst himself that I will always be a part of his world.
Julie Kucinski, of Minneapolis, is a creative director and strategist who began her career at Aveda Corp. Her company The New Normal consults with consumer brands including Rechelbacher’s Intelligent Nutrients.