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No orchids for Ms Roddick

No orchids for Ms Roddick
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First Published: Mon, Jan 14 2008. 11 34 PM IST

Updated: Mon, Jan 14 2008. 11 34 PM IST
Anita Roddick passed away last year, but Body Shop, the cosmetics and beauty retail chain she founded, continues to inspire millions. And the lessons she has taught us will endure. Whether you are a student of visionary leadership, entrepreneurship, retailing, marketing, corporate social responsibility or activism—Roddick’s ideas prevail today.
Her principles fuelled the dramatic growth of Body Shop, and made this brand a legend. From her first small hippie shop at the seaside town of Brighton in England, Body Shop now has 2,000 stores in 50 nations. It attracts 80 million consumers each year. I can think of only two other 20th century British institutions, which can compete with Roddick for immortality—the Beatles and Winston Churchill.
What created Roddick’s magic, and what lessons does she leave behind? The first chapter of a Roddick primer should be the power of personal mission. Her famous banner line “I am an activist!” captures the mission she believed in. The core values she imbued Body Shop with —the battle against animal testing, support for disadvantaged communities or helping save endangered parts of the planet—sprung from this overriding mission. No wonder this line was the theme of her memorial service at Westminster, where thousands gathered to describe her as “the human equivalent of a torch, a flame.”
No less important was her obsessive devotion to her mission. If her mission helped light fires, her obsession created the unstoppable momentum by stoking them constantly. To the exclusion of other pleasures of life, Roddick single-mindedly campaigned for her activist goals. She was personally at the forefront of campaigns against cosmetic tests on animals or demonstrations against Amazonian deforestation. Perhaps such obsession created for her a somewhat dysfunctional life. But here are her own thoughts on this: “Dysfunction is the essence of entrepreneurship. I’ve had dozens of requests from places like Harvard to talk about the subject. It makes me laugh, because I’m not convinced it’s a subject you can teach. I mean, how do you teach obsession? Because it is obsession that drives the entrepreneur’s commitment to a vision of something new.”
She should know, because she was one of the foremost entrepreneurs of our times. And it is on the subject of entrepreneurship that we learn our next lesson from Roddick. Successful entrepreneurship, her life teaches us, is about building capable and energized teams, which pursue the great cause. Whether it was the simple Englishwomen who took on initial Body Shop franchises, or the people who worked with her to construct a global business, she surrounded herself with a passionate core team. Pause again, and hear what Anita Roddick herself said: “We entrepreneurs are loners, vagabonds, troublemakers. Success is simply a matter of finding and surrounding ourselves with clever and capable souls who can take our insanity and put it to good use.”
She was a master of retailing. One of the inventors of the concept of “franchising” in retail, the first few Body Shops were franchised to women in English towns, but only to women who believed fervently in her activism. She was also a master of public relations. During the first several years of Body Shop, she drove public awareness of her stores only through public relations, using no advertising at all.
She made her stores lovely temples where her mission could be worshipped. The stores spoke passionately of saving the planet, against animal testing. They showcased her products as mere vehicles of this superordinate mission. Simple visual devices, such as “Against Animal Testing” leaflets, small tentcards, which showcased Nicaraguan sesame oil farmers or Namibian marul oil crushers, made the point. Modern retailers can learn many lessons here. When I first visited Body Shop, the store spoke to me so powerfully that I somehow felt elevated to buy its products.
This is perhaps the most important lesson here. She demonstrated that “profits with principles” can constitute the sustainable basis of a successful business. In doing so, she shattered the myth that greed is at the heart of capitalism. On this I have often contrasted her with that other extraordinary Ayn Rand heroine, Dagny Taggart, who symbolizes Rand’s philosophy that the greatest virtue is in selfishness. I have no doubt Roddick’s conviction is the stronger of the two beliefs. And it certainly has the greater power to change our world for good.
Roddick sparked change. She invoked the soul of business, and her model of entrepreneurship presented a powerful counterpoint to the barbarians of the capitalist world.
Her honesty reaffirmed this approach. “No ingredient in beauty products can take off all the grief, anger and industrial pollution in our lives,” she openly declared. “No moisture cream does more than another. Every moisture cream works similarly.” She was similarly forthright on why she eventually sold her retail chain. Her calls for activating self-esteem and ethical beauty, for defending human rights, for supporting disadvantaged communities are all milestone events that we will celebrate.
So, we will lay no pretentious orchids at Roddick’s gravestone today. Instead, we should use the stunning red ginger flower and the beautiful white butterfly lily, both natural flora from the Amazonian tropical forests, which she fought for and loved. And we should then sit and learn at her altar, simply because she was one of the most strikingly different, yet immensely successful, women of our times.
Harish Bhat is chief operating officer-watches, Titan Industries Ltd. A member of the Tata Administrative Services, he has been with the Tata group since 1987. Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com
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First Published: Mon, Jan 14 2008. 11 34 PM IST
More Topics: Business | Activist | Orchid | Human Rights | Havard |