In 1961, Hemak took part in the JA Company program as a high school sophomore. The product that year was birdhouses, which the students assembled from a kit.
“With the birdhouses we were making, we’d put them together and then stain them,” Hemak recalls. “And of course, with all the little nooks and crannies, you couldn’t get the stain into the right spots and the quality was kind of lousy. I was laying out the production line one day, and I said to one of the advisors, ‘Why don’t we stain the wood before we put it together so we can do a better job of it?’ And they thought I was the engineering genius of the world,” he chuckles.
While the production problem was solved, the sales side still lagged. The company had a surplus of birdhouses but no customers. “The president of the company came to me and said, ‘Let’s get together and start selling these things door to door,’” Hemak says. “He was a real outgoing sales guy, and I’d be standing back in the bushes to learn his pitch, but we wound up selling all of them.”
At the end of the year, JA hosted an award banquet, during which it presented the “Rags to Riches” award to the company that had showed the biggest improvement. “Lo and behold, we got that award,” Hemak says now. ”And they asked me to come up to receive it. Honest to God, it still is the biggest thrill of my life and I get goose bumps thinking about it. It really propelled me forward to having a sense of confidence and a sense of the opportunity that entrepreneurship provides.”
Hemak went on to a wide-ranging career. He attended the University of Minnesota, where he received a B.S. degree in business administration. He served in the army during the Vietnam War, eventually working as head of personnel for all the army helicopters in southern Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. For his work, he was awarded the Bronze Star, the fourth-highest individual military award.
After the war, Hemak joined the Junior Achievement organization, where he spent 16 years working across the country as an executive with the program. By 1984, while working with JA in the Denver area, Hemak says he started to feel that the “corporate nomad” lifestyle he and his wife, Pat, and their young son were living was growing old. He began to investigate franchise opportunities as a way to expand his business interests and perhaps spark a change in direction.
Hemak stumbled over a franchisor called Great Clips, a hair care salon that got its start in Minnesota. At the time, Great Clips had only 15 salons in operation (it now has more than 3,000), but the idea appealed to Hemak. He opened a salon in Denver, which soon grew to four and then to eight. Eventually, Hemak left his corporate post with JA and went on to operate 39 Great Clips locations throughout the country, making him the largest franchisee owner for the salons.
Today Hemak is semi-retired but he continues to support JA North as both a volunteer and as a generous donor. Although nearly 80 percent of JA funding comes from corporations, Hemak believes individual support of JA is important too, and he insists that JA has given far more to him over the years than he has to it.
“I guess it goes back to the mission of JA and the importance of that mission as it relates to our society and our country,” Hemak says about his support. “With mentors going into classrooms, with JA BizTown, with all of the programs available through the school, they’re all there to help young people get inspired about business, and inspired about accepting responsibility for their own financial future. I think that’s what is unique about JA and that’s why we should support it.”
He also firmly believes his early—and continuing—experiences with JA stand behind everything he’s accomplished. “I don’t know of another organization in our society that provides that element of inspiration that I experienced from JA,” Hemak says. “Inspiration, not just education, is essential for young people to own their financial future. JA did that for me and it does it for thousands of young people throughout the Upper Midwest and our country every year.”