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Dame Anita Roddick: The Body Shop

The late Body Shop founder on what entrepreneurship meant to her

Following her huge success since founding the Body Shop 30 years ago, the late Anita Roddick became a Dame in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List on 13th June 2003.

Dame Anita told Startups.co.uk reporter Oliver Milman: “I was awarded this honour for retailing, the environment and charity, but for me it is all about my unflinching concern for justice – be it trade, social and/or human rights – in all its aspects.

“This is my life’s work. I hope this honour opens the path to allow me to be more radical.”

Anita Roddick opened the first Body Shop in 1976 despite having almost no business experience. In 1984 the company went public, and at its height The Body Shop was worth £700 million. However, following an expansion programme that failed to meet expectations and a fall in profits, Anita stepped down as chief executive in 1998 and now acts as a consultant, as well as running her own publishing firm.

Despite some initial boardroom acrimony when Anita’s successors took over, The Body Shop continues to be profitable, with over 2,000 stores in 12 time zones worldwide.

Here, Anita exclusively spoke to Startups.co.uk about her humble beginnings, activism and how she made her business into a globally recognised name.

You travelled a lot and had a lot of what you could call ‘life experiences’ before you started up the Body Shop – how do you think these experiences affected the way you started up your business?

Travelling is like university without walls. You learn so much – about cultural differences and you become highly educated about the nature of trading. You learn about buying and selling and where people come together in markets. That was my basis of setting up my own enterprise. I never lost sight of being a merchant, it taught me that business is not just financial – it taught me about display and aesthetics.

You also had a stab at running a restaurant and then a hotel, were you glad of the business grounding that these enterprises gave you?

It helped by default by finding out how to keep people happy. It was bootstrapping, we had so little money so we had to create a restaurant with an edge to it. It’s damn hard but it’s the best dress rehearsal into running a business because of the energy needed to run a restaurant and café – you are rushed off your feet.

We opened up with an idea of a veggie restaurant, but we realised after a month we would be down on our knees unless we started serving burgers and chips. That’s the great thing about running a business – you can turn on a dime faster than any other social institution.

What made you decide to start up the Body Shop? Did you see a niche in the market?

We didn’t have that language, about niches and marketing, when I started – I don’t think there were even business schools around in the 1970s! It was really a livelihood – women are very good at moulding their interests into a livelihood.

It was never meant to be serious, it was just to pay bills and mortgage. The reason I chose cosmetics is because of my travels – I learnt right from the grass roots as to what you should put into your body, it was just taking that knowledge into the business. I shouldn’t have survived, there were only 20 products in a tiny shop, but it had amazing creativity, all because we had no money.

If I had a shed load of money, I’d have done everything wrong – marketing, focus groups, although they are more important now. A lot of entrepreneurs don’t run their business, they just find a great brand – many of them couldn’t manage their way out of a paper bag! If their idea isn’t being developed by someone then they just sit on it and it never gets used.

So how did you expand the Body Shop?

Quite simple – franchising. We didn’t know what it was, but all these women came to us and said, if you can do this and you can’t even read a balance sheet, then we can do it. I had a cabal of female friends all around Brighton, Hove and Chichester, and they started opening little units, all called the Body Shop. I just supplied them with gallons of products – we only had 19 different products, but we made it look like more as we sold them in five different sizes!

When Gordon (her husband) came back from working abroad, we started looking for self-financing. We didn’t have to go and look for it, it came to us.

Do you feel that as the business grew, your vision of how it should operate was lost?

No, I think it got stronger and stronger. When the Body Shop was at its most profitable and strongest in the mid 1990s, it was incredible how we transferred the profits into the social institutions.

We never had a marketing department- we didn’t even know what it was, we just got billions of awards because we knew how to promote and enchant. We went in the opposite way to other firms. When we floated on the stock market, we set up a human rights department and a community department because we were still basically activists.

I am, in my skin, an activist – I am trying to free guys in prison in America and stop sweatshops. When I went into business, I didn’t think you had to leave yourself and your beliefs at the door.

You said that standing down as chief executive was like “handing your child over to strangers.” So why did you stand down?

Because I was appalling at employing good people! I made a major mistake – I believed in management consultants. The massive amount of money that we paid them was a disaster, so I looked for headhunters to find people who could steer the Body Shop to the way that I wanted it to go. I don’t think I had due diligence – we had one guy in, who I thought would be brilliant, and it turned out he was the biggest bully you could imagine.

We didn’t employ the right people because we much more concerned with being radical and ethical than with the obsession with the bottom line just being about profit and loss.

Didn’t you try and turn it round then?

We tried to turn it around, but we looked at ourselves and saw that we were the oldest people in the company, we were in our fifties while everyone else was in their thirties. I was getting more radical as I was getting older and wanted to fight for every damn issue that was out there, especially anti-globalisation. The board thought that was being fractious, so I thought I should move off, let them run it, and come in as a consultant.

Didn’t that bother you though?

Yes, it pissed me off – the business was my baby. The first two years were horrendous, but it’s better now as we have people in who are more respectful of what we are trying to do. Saying that, there should be a case study of how badly we did when employing people!

Do you feel that business is still not believed to go hand-in-hand with green issues?

Yes, I think business reporters only know a language of profit and loss. I think one of the great myths is that business can’t be ethical – it’s a lie. I mean, the Quakers were enormously wealthy while building schools and helping the community. They never lied and never stole – can you imagine that happening today?

It can be done – if you go volunteering for causes it can be good for business, just think what it can do for your reputation. It’s all about reputation management now – look at the reputations of the big firms being shredded right now – Exxon, Shell and the pharmaceutical companies. They are employing gang loads of sultans of sleaze just to get them out of trouble.

Do you feel that is realistic to expect small firms to devote time and resources to being green, when some larger firms do not do so themselves?

Of course it is! Small firms can be kind to their employees and be open and transparent. They don’t have to do any of the big things because they don’t have the money, but they can have a positive high profile in their community.

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