Inspirational Stories X : Anita Roddick & The Body Shop

By Ellesse

I’m going to end our Inspirational Stories series with this feature on Anita Roddick, the founder of The Body Shop. Most of you should be very familiar with this environmental-friendly cosmetic and beauty products provider and I’m not surprised if you’ve ever purchase anything from it. In fact, some of my earlier facial products were from The Body Shop :D

But how many of you know about the making of this brand name and the heroine behind it?

Against Expectations

Anita Roddick was a woman of a different breed. After all, who would have that kind of magnanimity to send her husband off to a 2 year expedition while slogging on a new business and taking care of 2 young kids?

Born to an Italian couple who had migrated to England, Anita started working at a very young age at her parent’s cafe in Littlehampton. She would work through the weekends at the cafe and then cramping in one of the rooms with both her parents and grandparents, while the other rooms in their house were rented out.

Having come from an immigrant background, it was no wonder Anita could relate very well with foreigners in her town. When she was 10, she started to take a interest in human rights after reading a book about the Holocaust. Perhaps it was the same affinity that won her a teaching scholarship to be on kibbutz in Israel, exposing her to the world outside England.

Around the World

It was nevertheless a short stint as young Anita was later sacked for allegedly taking part in a prank. Although it tainted her teaching career, the issue saw her taking up a bohemian lifestyle, traveling around Israel on a shoestring and then living in Paris and Switzerland for a few months. All that while, she was supporting herself through short term teaching assignments.

She eventually decided that there was more to life than that and left teaching for good, traveling to various countries such as Tahiti, New Caledonia, Australia, Madagascar and South Africa. Her expatriation from South Africa for patronizing a jazz club on “black night” culminated a year’s of travel and made her so broke and homesick that she finally decided to call it quits.

Business Experience

After she returned to England, she met Gordon Roddick, a young writer and poet who was a regular at her parent’s cafe turned bar. They got married and had 2 daughters in short span 2 years. To support the young family, Gordon went into a few business ventures and when his first picture framing shop went bust, he later worked with Anita to operate 2 businesses simultaneously : a boardinghouse and a restaurant. Both were not without struggles, too. The boardinghouse was a convert from an original bed & breakfast idea. And the restaurant only prospered after they changed the initial gourmet health food menu to a grill & fry mix of steaks, hamburgers and fries.

The next 3 years saw the Roddicks waking up in the wee hours to run the boardinghouse and tend the restaurant until 1am the next day. Though the restaurant was very popular in the town, the income which was only enough to cover the operating costs, came at the expense of quality time with their 2 daughters.

Taking into consideration those factors and Gordon’s growing desire to pursue his childhood dream (of riding horseback 5,300 miles from Buenos Aires to New York), the Roddicks sold their businesses and searched for another alternative that would support the family when Gordon was away but allow Anita to work regular hours so that she could take care of the children in the evenings.

All It Takes Is … An Idea & Some Creativity

Anita eventually had an idea. She decided to set up a shop selling environmental-friendly cosmetics that used natural ingredients. Though it was a good concept, she had a hard time convincing the bank because of her rock star like image. It was only when Gordon forced her to revisit the bank wearing a power suit with a well written business plan before her loan request was approved.

Anita’s ability to inject creativity into her limitations was unquestionably her recipe for success. With the money, she set up the first The Body Shop outlet in artsy Brighton in 1976 and began with 15 products, 5 different sizes for each. She later admitted that the different sizes stemmed from the need to stack up the store shelves so that it wouldn’t look so empty. Ingenious, isn’t it?

Even when she didn’t have funds to purchase enough of those inexpensive bottles (similar to the ones used by hospitals for urine samples), she was creative enough to bank on the go green movement and started the refill-the-used-bottles concept. Not only was the concept well received by the environmental enthusiasts, it struck a chord with the thrifty crowd.

Her creativity was also extended to the interior design and publicity of The Body Shop outlet. Who would have expected that the signature dark green colour used on the walls, which came to symbolize the company’s recycling and sustainability efforts, was a bid to hide the shop’s unsightly water marks? And who would have known that a lawsuit threat by 2 nearby funeral parlors for using the brand name “The Body Shop” would turn out to be a no cost newspaper publicity campaign? In fact, the free publicity was so sensational that she made £130 on the grand opening day, way exceeding Gordon’s target of £300 a week.

Husband & Wife Synergy

When Gordon came home, not only was he excited that Anita had opened a second outlet in another town nearby, he also worked with her subsequently to develop The Body Shop into a franchise, using whatever additional funds they generated into product research. That business model allowed them to open at least 2 stores each month by 1982. 2 years later, the group was publicly listed.

Today, The Body Shop can be found in more than 50 countries with over 2,000 outlets. The product range has increased to 600 different types. The heroine behind this brand was also roped in to setup a college business degree course and knighted with the title DBE (Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire). Isn’t this amazing?

What Did I Learn From This Story?

That everyone deserves a life of no regrets! The choice of making that decision lies in no one but yourself.

(1) A Soul Mate… Someone to Share or Sell Your Soul to?

Everyone would admit that Anita’s an extraordinary wife. Although I’m still single, I can still understand the anxiety some wives would feel having their husbands leave them behind if they were in the same situation. In fact, an user that I’ve worked with in my last job used to tell me how his wife would call him every other hour (sometimes crying in exasperation) when he was out in another state for business.

That left me wondering. Is a soul mate someone whom you share your aspirations, decisions, happiness and troubles with or someone whom you account to for every single movement, action that you make to the extent of suppressing your own individuality?

If getting married is equivalent to losing your soul to someone else, doesn’t it make sense to stay single?

That’s an open question that I myself am still pondering.

(2) A Life of No Regrets

I remembered reading a story in my local newspaper some time ago about a car branding executive. He gave up his job to be a research chemist even though he has got no relevant qualifications, to fulfill a childhood ambition. Using all his savings, he bought expensive equipments and set up a home laboratory. In the end, his passion for polymers and synthetics led him to discover a form of chemical that can be used to reinforce the strength of fabrics. His invention was so well received during a defence exhibition that he might become a millionaire in no time because of the many deals that were made then.

That story, Gordon’s decision to leave the family for an expedition and Anita’s travels before she got married affirm the fact that everyone deserves a life of no regrets. I know many friends who’ve given up their ambitions for a mundane life because of responsibility. Their responsibility as sons, daughters, husbands, wives, fathers or mothers. But is that really responsibility? What about their responsibility to themselves?

Your decision to pursue the dream of your lifetime may not be popular with the people you love, but you don’t exist in this world just to be popular. You are in this world because you’ve got a mission to accomplish. You could be in this world to show the world how to be a better philanthropist. Or an adventurer. Or whatever you’ve chosen to do.

But if you decide to disregard that and settle for less than what you deserve, you’ll sense a tinge of uneasiness even when you’re on your death bed. That, is the feeling of regretfulness.

Don’t wait for that to happen. Aspire.

Aspire to live a life where you’ve done what you should have done, tried what you should have tried.

Update : It came to my understanding that Anita Roddick died of a major accute brain haemorrhage on September 10, 2007, sometime after the writing of this article. I hereby dedicate this article to her and her family. She might have left the world. But her spirit lives on. Thank you, Anita Roddick for being an inspiration!


2 Responses to “Inspirational Stories X : Anita Roddick & The Body Shop”

  1. Bill Tessore at 10:29 pm

    Wow, what a story. Anita Roddick’s ability to make “negatives” into assets is spine tingling. I loved the origin of the trade mark green & the law suit turned free local advertisement (every marketer’s dream is free publicity)

    Thanks for the shot in the arm.

  2. Ellesse at 2:16 am

    Hey Bill, glad you enjoyed the boost! I was impressed when I first read about it as well. It goes to show that behind every entrepreneur is a recipe of
    - a dash of creativity
    - a few sprinkles of ingenuity and
    - a large dose of tenacity


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