Business as unusual

Written by Rick Spence

Have you ever wondered where your entrepreneurial path will take you? No two journeys are the same, but the life of Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, is worth observing. Dame Anita, who died in September at only 64, found her calling in the fashion typical of entrepreneurs — by accident. Her evolution as business leader, role model and activist contains a lot of lessons for Canadian entrepreneurs; as well as a road map for what may come next.

Like many entrepreneurs, Roddick was born an outsider, the daughter of Italian immigrants in Littlehampton, an English seaside town. While her schoolmates played, Roddick worked in the family restaurant. The Clifton Café opened at 5 a.m. and closed when the last customer left. As Roddick wrote in her 2000 autobiography, Business As Unusual, “I couldn’t help noticing that other cafés in the town that weren’t owned by immigrants tended to open at nine and shut at five. Not us.”

Like a true entrepreneur, Roddick valued creativity in business. When she was a young girl, her father converted the café into an ice-cream parlour. “We all wore uniforms that resembled something out of Norman Rockwell’s €˜The Soda Fountain’…It taught me how important a sense of theatre is for business, and how important it is to create an atmosphere.” Roddick engaged in her own reinvention years later, when she and her husband, Gordon, bought a hotel in Littlehampton. Business was brisk until the winds of autumn cleared the beaches. They quickly turned half the building into a residential hotel, attracting a year-round clientele. The lesson: “When you make a mistake, you have to face up to fact,” says Roddick, “and take immediate steps to change course.”

The world’s best-known woman entrepreneur made lots of mistakes. Soon after fixing the hotel, she and Gordon opened a restaurant serving healthy dishes with an Italian flavour. It was a classic business error, Roddick confessed: “We were trying to impose our will on the customers and sell gourmet food in an egg-and-chips environment.” They converted their bistro into Paddington’s, a boisterous, U.S.-style burger joint.

The spirit of The Body Shop formed at Paddington’s. Anita had intended to cook, while Gordon, a writer, waited tables. But Anita was too disorganized to run a kitchen, and Gordon too brusque with the customers. Anita found her métier dealing with the public, while Gordon used his organizational skills to tighten up operations. At The Body Shop, they would assume the same roles.

But the business that made the Roddicks’ fortune sprang from necessity, not strategy. Burnt out after three years at the restaurant, Gordon embarked on a 5,000-mile solo horseback expedition. Anita wanted a 9-to-5 job that would give her time to care for their two children, so she opened a store.

Again, she followed her instincts. She had always been annoyed that while she could buy a penny’s worth of candy or two ounces of cheese, women had to buy lotions and cosmetics in big quantities and expensive packaging. “One of the great challenges for entrepreneurs is to identify a simple need,” she wrote later. “But the fact is that if something irritates you, it is a pretty good indication that there are other people who feel the same.” Her plan: to sell all-natural cosmetics in small and inexpensive containers. The eco-ethic followed, although again by accident. Roddick encouraged customers to recycle their lotion bottles because she had only enough money at first to buy 700 bottles.

The rest is history — from one store in 1976 to more than 2,000 now. Like many entrepreneurs, Roddick’s goal was not to make money but to see how far she could push her idea. Yet, by 1987, The Body Shop had been named Britain’s Company of the Year. Roddick was made a “dame” (the female equivalent of knighthood) in 2003. Three years later, the company was bought by L’Oréal Group, with Roddick staying on as an advisor.

But the more successful The Body Shop grew, the less Roddick cared about it. She turned her sensibilities to fighting poverty in Haiti, child labour in Thailand, moral bankruptcy in business, dedicating her life to fighting “nomadic capital” and assisting marginalized people around the world.

Roddick’s activism sprang from the same DNA that made her an entrepreneur. Having built firms in her own image, she didn’t understand the concept of business as a conscienceless force seeking only its own survival, while experience as an outsider gave her the courage to speak unpleasant truths.

If you see parallels in your life and Roddick’s, there may be more to come. Many Canadian entrepreneurs share her sentiments that business should be a force for good. Once the business of building a business is complete, they turn their energies to other causes, from day camps for the chronically ill to companies exploring medical breakthroughs and alternative energy, and foundations supporting indigenous peoples, social entrepreneurship and better governance. As Roddick said, if business “isn’t about the production of the human spirit, we are in big trouble.”

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