Barefoot’s First Ever Interview: Anita Roddick – Founder of the Body Shop

When the Barefoot Investor kicked off many years ago on Melbourne youth radio station SYN FM I had a tough time getting guests.

Sensible business executives declined to appear (until the show became a hit), which left me with a small list of interviewees.

Fortunately they included some of the most successful business people on the planet.

Our first guest was the founder of The Body Shop, Dame Anita Roddick, who sadly passed away this week at the age of 64.

Reading through the tributes, I noticed that her final interview contained many of the same messages that we’d discussed years earlier:

Formal education v. experience

“This notion that to be in business you’ve got to go to a business school is crap; business schools only shape you to be a very efficient person working in a very traditional system – but the most exciting things are what’s being done untraditionally.”

Instead of devoting too much time to learning the latest management theories, Roddick believed the best education could be found in travelling far and wide, exploring and experiencing different cultures, and thinking deeply about the things we are most passionate about.

Roddick was a living example of this.

It was the mid-70s when her hippie hubby decided to emulate some long forgotten explorer and travel by horseback from Buenos Aires to New York – for two years.

In his absence, the young mum decided to try her hand at setting up a small business, selling all-natural beauty products using ingredients that she’d seen local women use on her many travels.

The Body Shop immediately stood out – not least because it was wedged between two funeral parlours.

The walls were painted bright green (which hid the mould), and her products came in recyclable bottles (because of a lack of capital, rather than for environmental reasons).

Business boomed, and she quickly opened a second shop.

Yet despite her early success she had difficulties getting finance.

“No bank wanted to go into a business with a hippie chick dressed in a Bob Dylan T-shirt who made her money selling cocoa butter cream,” she said.

Out of frustration she turned to a local garage owner, and borrowed pound stg. 4000 ($A9700), in exchange for a 50 per cent share in the business.

Thirty years and more than 2000 stores later, The Body Shop was taken over by L’Oreal for $US625 million ($A1.5 billion). The garage owner cashed out his initial pound stg. 4000 investment for a cool pound stg. 137 million.

In our interview I asked her about her founding investor, fully expecting to uncover some resentment.

“He’s a lucky bastard,” she said, laughing.

While the former garage owner effectively won the lottery, it was Roddick who really hit the jackpot – starting a revolution she built with little more than her passion.

The Body Shop made her one of the richest women in Britain, and while this is what the media continues to focus most on – it’s the least interesting part of the Dame Anita Roddick Story.

So what were the strategies employed by this pioneering entrepreneur?

Ingenuity

Roddick’s ingenuity was being the first to recognise that there was a market for natural-based skin products that were free of chemicals, not tested on animals, and packaged in refillable biodegradable containers.

From a business standpoint, she realised that consumers would pay a premium for these products.

That’s not to say she was the first hippie to see the benefits of all-natural products – or even to try to sell them.

How to spin it

The real success behind The Body Shop (and arguably of Roddick herself) lay in the power of her storytelling and mythmaking – especially in the sales process.

She made shopping an ethical act, a cause-related revolution.

Each product was sourced from some ancient hill tribe that had used the all-natural ingredients to refresh their skin for centuries.

The Body Shop was trading with the tribe, bringing them peace and prosperity – and by purchasing the product the consumer was playing her part in the picture.

The alternative in those days was a slick department store trussed up under banks of neon lighting where you could purchase a lipstick that had been tested on Lassie and manufactured by the daughters of the hill-tribe in a sweatshop.

Your choice.

Differentiation

Another strategy that Roddick employed was differentiation.

It’s a fanciful story – through the ’80s when greed was good, one woman took on the might of the multi-million dollar cosmetics industry and won.

In the early days she pitted The Body Shop as the underdog, engaging in a David and Goliath battle against the cosmetics industry.

She famously described the big players as “a monster selling unattainable dreams, one that lies, cheats, and exploits women”.

The Queen of Green, as she became known, saw her stores as billboards which attracted consumers inside and exposed them to the various causes she championed: fighting animal testing, trade not aid, environmental protection, corporate responsibility and community activism.

Today corporate leaders talk of their green credentials, and espouse notions of corporate responsibility.

Yet it was Roddick who built a company around it long before it was fashionable.

It was this passion that made The Body Shop a runaway success.

You could feel it when you spoke to her.

There were no public relations officers determining the questions you could ask and attempting to manipulate the message.

So, these days, as I sit through interviews with what she referred to as “pin-striped dinosaurs” doing their best to stick to the script and deliver safe sound bites, I remember with fondness one of the few people who successfully trod her own path.

Tread your own path!