Orlando hair-transplant surgeon Matt Leavitt has leveraged locks into a multimillion dollar medical empire.
Article - | February 27, 2013
Leavitt has performed thousands of transplant surgeries on patients ranging from celebrities to cancer patients. He also hosts an annual workshop for hair-transplant surgeons that brings practitioners from all over the world to Orlando.
by Michael McLeod; photographs by Rafael Tongol
Lou Holtz needs a touch up. He's come to the right place. Holtz's hair has been thinning for years: not a good thing when you make your living in front of cameras. The loquacious former college football coach turned ESPN color commentator has had several hair transplants over the years.
Now, on a Tuesday morning, with his fairly well-covered blond pate anesthetized but his folksy wit intact, Holtz is sitting upright on a brightly lit surgical gurney in the Maitland office of his longtime hair-transplant surgeon, Matt Leavitt.
Using an instrument that pokes small, shallow holes of precisely the right angle, circumference and depth, Leavitt is creating an artful array of what surgeons call “sites” on a 2-inch wide section on the left-hand side of Holtz's forehead.
A crop of transplants has already been harvested from the back of the scalp, where the hairs, unlike those atop the head of many a male, are not predisposed by a biological quirk to wither away, sabotaging any chance their owners might otherwise have had of becoming television personalities.
Leavitt hovers over his patient. Assistants garbed in powder blue swirl about. But judging strictly from Holtz's locker-room banter, you'd think he was already at Bay Hill Country Club, where he plans on teeing off later in the day.
“Well, I might let you play just nine holes,” Leavitt cautions.
“Sure, I'll just play nine,” says Holtz, one of many national sports celebrities to call Orlando home. “Then I'll go out and play nine more.”
Sounds pretty cocky for a 76-year-old with freshly poked holes in his head. Then again, Holtz's confidence is probably well founded, given the relatively simple nature of the procedure — and the considerable reputation of his surgeon. At 51, Leavitt is at the top of his game, not just as a practitioner but as a businessperson. He is the man with the Golden Follicle, not to mention the Midas touch.
The widely used, state-of-the-art instrument that he is using to beef up Holtz's hairline is called the Leavitt Mindi: He invented it himself. He owns the largest chain of dermatology clinics in the country, with 600 employees, and operates, along with his brother, a highly successful, nationwide company that manages billing for other doctors. And in the biggest financial coup of his life, he built up a chain of hair-restoration centers, then sold them off at a multimillion-dollar profit to a Japanese corporation in 2008, just prior to a recession that triggered a lull in discretionary spending.
Dr. Matt Leavitt
He has done thousands of transplant surgeries across the country, from Rodeo Drive to Manhattan, ranging in price from $3,000 to $25,000. His patients have included 8-year-olds scoured by cancer and chemotherapy; men in their 90s who want to spruce themselves up enough to prowl for women in their 70s; mideastern royals who arrive with retinues in tow; a mysterious Russian businessman who told him, “We checked you out;” 25 NFL quarterbacks; and various local celebrities such as, say, auto dealership magnate David Maus.
“I had hair. I just wanted more,” says Maus, who bonded with Leavitt after having his locks enhanced and has come to consider him a trusted friend. “Matt is genuine,” he says. “He's a very successful businessman and a great family guy who really does care about the community. When you're around him, he makes you feel larger than life.”
Photo: Michael Cairns;
Wet Orange Studio
Leavitt has been doing hair transplants since his dermatological internship days 30 years ago at Grandview Hospital in Dayton, Ohio, when he was motivated to go the transplant route-partly by a mentor who told him he was gifted with unusually steady hands, and partly by his own thinning hair. “I got tired of being known as ‘The guy in the hat,’” he says.
He learned hair-transplanting techniques in the early '80s, when the procedure was still largely viewed as a luxury for celebrities and the rich, and practitioners had to travel from city to city, with instruments and assistants in tow, to find enough patients to get by.
In those days, most hair-transplant surgeons worked in loosely regulated isolation. But Leavitt soon became active among a circle of doctors who wanted to change that. Eventually, he organized an annual workshop for budding hair-transplant surgeons which, for the past 19 years, has brought practitioners from all over the world to Orlando. That, among other collaborative efforts, prompted the International Society of Hair Restoration Surgery to present him with the 2002 Golden Follicle award.
The Golden Follicle Award, may look a
bit menacing, but it’s actually a
substantially enlarged, medically accurate
reproductionn of a human hair follicle.
It sounds like something out of a Saturday Night Live skit and looks a bit like a prop from a science-fiction movie. But the award itself is actually a 2-foot tall rendering of a human follicle, medically accurate from papilla to shaft. Were it cast not in plastic but brass, you might mistake it for one of those vaguely unsettling models of various human organs that doctors insist on keeping in their waiting rooms.
But you'll never find the Golden Follicle in such pedestrian digs.
The trophy commands one of the finest lakeside views Central Florida has to offer from its perch on a polished maple shelf in a well-appointed office overlooking a secluded stretch of Lake Brantley. The office is at the far end of Leavitt's ultra-modern Longwood home, which he and his wife, Judye, designed themselves and built on a secluded lot atop a coveted stretch of land that was once a fish camp.
They also own a mountain-view home in Colorado. But it’s mainly from his Lake Brantley enclave that Leavitt, who since moving here in 1989 has quietly become one of Central Florida's savviest multimillionaires, oversees his medical empire.
“Most doctors are terrible businesspeople, and a lot of them have trouble relating to patients,” says Leavitt’s mentor from his med school days, Arizona dermatologist Shelly Friedman. “Matt is a very rare combination of a great doctor and a great entrepreneur.”
Leavitt also has - as if you hadn’t figured this out already - an obscenely healthy head of hair: black, lightly sprinkled with gray, and appearing to consist of such outrageous density that it makes you wonder if you’d risk busting a knuckle or two should you try, either in a moment of affection or a burst of curiosity, to run your fingers through it.
“Oh, that,” he says. “It's kind of a rite of passage with the surgeons on my staff.” He's had multiple procedures over the years, using a mirror to critique the surgeons as they work. It's characteristic multitasking on his part - or as he calls it, “leveraging time.”
He grew up in Grand Rapids, Mich., where his father was an optometrist who made all three of his sons assist him in running the apartment complexes he owned - then made sure they took business classes in college, regardless of what career they chose.
Leavitt was a Boy Scout, traveled nationally on an all-star baseball team, ran cross-country and went to the University of Michigan on a wrestling scholarship. While in med school at Michigan State he taught tennis lessons, developed a business providing lecture notes to fellow students, then created a medical-supply company to sell classmates the books and supplies - including human skeletons - they needed for their training.
He met Judye, who was studying to be a veterinarian, while both were students at Michigan State.
By the time I spoke to her, I was getting a little alarmed at how perfect her athlete/doctor/businessman husband appeared to be. So I asked her, in an email, to catalogue his faults. Here is what she sent me:
- 4 Favorite food Doritos Nacho Cheese - will work out then come home and eat them!!
- 4 Eats too much candy!
- 4 Not punctual - actually makes it just on time but scares anyone with him.
- 4 Types w one finger!
- 4 Packs too much into each day.
- 4 Knows way too many Michigan sports facts - stalks the recruiting pages and MGoBlue website every spare moment — he could even tell you the Michigan women's field hockey scores.
- 4 Never loses his temper - is that normal?
The Leavitts have three children. Lauren, 23, is studying at Nova University to become a physician's assistant in dermatology and plastic surgery. Adam, 21, is a senior studying cognitive neuroscience at the University of Michigan. Danielle, 18, who has battled Crohn's disease since she was 8 years old, will graduate from high school this year and has been accepted in pre-med at Harvard, where she hopes to play volleyball and focus on stem-cell research.
Leavitt is on the National Board of the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation (CCFA) and chairs the local chapter. He's also the driving force behind an annual Corporate Cocktail Fundraising event, which he began in 2010. Since 2006 he also has cosponsored the David Maus Foundation's Celebrity Golf Charity Event, proceeds of which are donated to Ronald McDonald House and CCFA.
Over the past few years, the man with the Golden Follicle has gradually diminished the time he spends doing transplants himself, bringing it down to twice a week. He’s spending more of his time teaching, collaborating, and overseeing his growing chain of dermatology clinics, using the funds he made from selling the hair-transplant centers to expand and improve.
“At this point,” he says, “I see nothing but green fields ahead of me.”
No doubt they'll be not only green, but well groomed.