Executive Spotlight: Vassilios 'Vasso' Stamatkos, co-owner of The Clip Shop Grand Salon and Day Spa
PITTSFIELD — Vassilios "Vasso" Stamatkos got his first glimpses of America when post-World War II aid workers traveled to his village in Greece and when relatives sent him clothes from the United States. Those experiences gave Stamatkos a desire to come to the U.S., a dream he realized in the early 1970s.
While attending hairdressing school in Boston, Stamatkos became friends with a classmate, an immigrant from Brazil named Carlos DeAbreu. The two men moved to Western Massachusetts, and together they founded The Clip Shop Grand Salon and Day Spa chain, which has outlets in Pittsfield, Williamstown and Bennington, Vt.
The American dream that both men wanted has had its rocky moments. Immigration problems almost caused DeAbreu to be deported in the mid-1970s, but with help from the federal government and local legislators, he was able to obtain his green card and stay. I met with Stamatkos recently to talk about his business, his love of America and his thoughts on immigration.
Q Why did you want to come to America?
A My greatest [desire] ever since I was a little kid was to come to America. My first encounter with America was when people from the Marshall Plan came to my village to see the economy, the destruction, all that stuff. We saw big cars, and there were very tall people. I was little. I was impressed with that.
My mother's sister's family also had family here in the United States. When I was about 9 years old, they were sending us clothes from school, kids to kids. I happened to get a red jacket from another kid, and I kept it. It had the name of the school on it, I don't remember. It was the warmest coat that I ever had. ... That jacket impressed me. It was so beautiful, you know what I mean? Those were the encounters I had with America. It was the place to be.
Q How did you come here?
A When I grew up, I wanted to go to university, but my parents didn't have the money to help me. I came to America after [serving in the Greek] army. It's mandatory. I was working for a bank in Greece and hoping that's going to help me get to college. Then I got in with a shipping company, and when they came to Boston, I stayed.
Q How did you become a hairdresser?
A When I was a kid, a hairdresser was doing my mother's hair. The woman asked me, "What are you going to be when you grow up?" I said, "Of course, I'm going to be a hairdresser." ... [In Boston], I had some friends. They had some brothers, and they were married. All of them were involved in hairdressing. I liked what they were doing. So, I went to school in Boston. I met Carlos in the school.
Q How did you meet?
A We were studying together. It was the sixth of December, 1971. Because I had the accent, he asked me where I come from. My English was limited. Carlos started talking to me about the life he had. They were very, very poor. He lost his mother when he was young. He seemed to be a very honest, sincere and a simple person. So, then we started to hang out and talk together.
Q The two men arrived in the Berkshires after working for a hair salon in Amherst. Why did you guys come here?
A We came to Williamstown to meet a friend I had gone to school with together in a village in Greece. I liked Williamstown. It was the last weekend in July 1974. We saw a place on Spring Street. We talked to the owner, and he rented the place for us. He was very helpful. So, we gave our notice to our jobs, but they fired us because they thought we were going to compete with them. We were far away!
Q Why did you decide to expand the business beyond Williamstown?
A Somebody had called immigration on us. At the time, and I don't remember exactly, the law said that if you invest at least $10,000 and have a certain number of employees, then they would give you the green card. So, we were forced to expand in order for us to stay.
Q You received a green card in 1975 after briefly returning to Greece. Why was Carlos almost deported?
A Brazil and the United States didn't have the same type of agreement as Greece. His sister wrote a letter to President [Gerald] Ford's wife, Betty, because at the same time John Lennon was given the right to stay in the United States. ... They gave him a three-year extension based on his employment and other stuff, and he got his green card in 1979.
Q Based on your experiences, can you relate to how immigrants feel today?
A I feel bad and sometimes tears come to my eyes, because I have been through this. I feel sorry for them. ... When you look in the mirror, all of us are immigrants. I found then and today a good 80 percent of the American people love and care for the immigrants. The way they handle it now is they're making a lot of noise.
Q A couple of years ago, you sponsored a trip for your employees to the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate in Boston. Why did you do that?
A Because I think that people should know how our country is being run, where it came [from] and where it is going. I think the schools here don't have enough time to teach the kids the information they need to be the citizens to understand the government.
Q What do you like the most about running a chain of hair salons?
A The people, because they have a lot to teach you. ... In 45 years, I have seen kids become adults, get married and bring their kids into our business. It's immensely appreciated. It's a family. We're invited to christenings, weddings, we've participated in funerals. It's a part of your life. Our business depends on that loyalty. Not only from the clients, but the people who work for us. I would say three-fourths [of the Clip Shop's employees] have worked with us between 15 and 45 years.
Q What does having so many employees stay with you for so long mean to you?
A I am very lucky. I feel this is my family. I have family in Greece, but when people ask me when are you going home, my home is here. And, my family are the people working with me.
Q What advice would you give to immigrant entrepreneurs like you and Carlos who are just starting out?
A To be persistent and work hard. Be kind, be honest and allow other people to grow from within while taking advice from everyone. ... Be loyal and focus, focus.
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