How Anita Roddick has customers and employees clamoringfor her brand of business
Here it is, the start of another bloody brilliant decade, and Anita Roddick is worried. So what if Vogue has just anointed her a queen of the beauty industry? So what if her chain of eco-conscious cosmetics stores is the toast of England, counting the likes of Princess Diana and Sting among its boosters? So what if her company's shares continue to trade at a frigging 50 times earnings on London's stock exchange? So bloody what? These matters are of no interest to Roddick as she charges through the headquarters of The Body Shop International, the company she founded in a storefront 14 years ago.
What's worrying her at the moment is language. You know, words. Language is primary, she says, and it makes her nervous to find a whole new vocabulary creeping into her company. For the first time, people are talking about such things as three-year plans, net income, and average sale, and she doesn't like it, not one bit.
Language isn't all she's upset about, either. She's also feeling real annoyance, she says, at this obsession with meetings. "We're getting to a point where we can't fart without calling a meeting. And if I'm bored by them, and I run the bloody thing, Christ knows what other people must be thinking."
Then there's the problem of people spilling coffee on the new carpeting at headquarters, another thing that's been bugging her lately. Not that coffee stains rank high on her list of global concerns. But that's beside the point. "It's a symbol, a metaphor for a whole way of thinking. That lack of housekeeping, that lack of care. We talk about being lean and green. We deny that we have a fat-cat mentality, but I can see it creeping in. The paper that's wasted. The lights left on after a meeting. What it comes down to is arrogance. We think we're so brilliant, we're so successful that anything we do is all right, and that attitude really pisses me off."
If success is at the root of Roddick's worries, she has cause for concern. The Body Shop is already a legend in the United Kingdom, where the tale is told of a 33-year-old housewife with two young daughters, a husband yearning for adventure, and an idea for a store that would feature natural lotions and potions for the body. With a £4,000 ($6,400) bank loan, she and her husband proceeded to get the shop up and running, whereupon he took off for South America. By the time he returned 10 months later, the business had gone from one shop to two, and there was no turning back.
Nor did the pace slacken thereafter. For over a decade sales and profits continued to grow on average some 50% a year. By the end of fiscal year 1990, pretax profits had climbed to an estimated $23 million on sales of $141 million -- despite the onset of a withering recession in British retailing. And here's the beauty part: in all likelihood, The Body Shop's real growth lies ahead.
That's because the company has barely begun to tap its potential overseas. Although it operates successfully in 37 countries, about 75% of its profits still come from its U.K. stores. The balance is shifting, however. For 13 years, The Body Shop has been acquiring experience abroad. Now, a number of the foreign operations are approaching the critical mass a retail chain needs to explode in a market. Meanwhile, after years of preparation, the company is beginning to make its big push in the United States, with Japan set to follow. And there's still room for expansion in such established markets as Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom.
Even a professional skeptic, moreover, has trouble finding weaknesses that might keep The Body Shop from realizing these opportunities. "We're talking about a company that is capable of sustaining a growth rate of 40% to 50% per annum, not just this year or next year, but for 5 or 10 years," says John D. K. Richards, director of retail research at County NatWest Securities Ltd., one of England's leading securities firms.
What's even more extraordinary than The Body Shop's growth record, however, is the effect the company has on the people who come in contact with it. Indeed, it arouses feelings of enthusiasm, commitment, and loyalty more common to a political movement than a corporation. Customers light up when asked about the company and start pitching its products like missionaries selling Bibles. Franchisees, employees, and managers talk about the difficulty they would have going back to work in an "ordinary" company. Here in the United States, some 2,500 people had written in for franchises -- before The Body Shop even got its U.S. operation off the ground. It's a kind of magnetism that even affects investment analysts. "I've never seen anything quite like it," says Richards. "The nearest comparison would be something like Flower Power in the 1960s."
The analogy is apt, particularly in the United Kingdom, where The Body Shop is almost as well known for its passionate environmentalism as for its cosmetics. The association goes back a long way. From the start Roddick has incorporated her environmental beliefs into the business -- offering only biodegradable products, for example, and providing refillable containers. Today the company even has an Environmental Projects department that monitors its own internal compliance with its stated principles. Beyond that, it has used its shops as the base for a series of highly visible campaigns to save the whales, stop the burning of the rain forest, and so on.
Such activism has, if anything, enhanced The Body Shop's mystique. Once viewed as an intriguing but irrelevant remnant of the 1960s, it has increasingly come to define the mainstream. From the billboards in the London Underground to the advertising on commercial television, British companies now tout their ecological virtues. Far from a curiosity, The Body Shop is the symbol of this new business consciousness.
But environmentalism does not explain the attraction of The Body Shop, not even when coupled with a personality as dynamic as that of Anita Roddick or a manager as capable as her husband, Body Shop chairman Gordon Roddick. On the contrary, people tend to be suspicious of companies that profess devotion to social causes, and with ample reason. When altruism and business lie down together, neither one gets a good night's sleep. Indeed, it's generally expected that neither one will be alive in the morning.
What The Body Shop elicits, however, is the opposite of suspicion. Rather, it is the kind of intense commitment -- Anita calls it "electricity and passion" -- that companies spend fortunes trying to create, and that may yet make The Body Shop a $1-billion company by 1995. Less clear is how it actually pulls off this bit of alchemy, and Anita is not providing many clues as she races around her headquarters in Littlehampton, England, talking about language and meetings and the fat-cat mentality.
So where does that electricity come from? We are talking, after all, about a chain of stores that sells shampoo and skin lotion. Its success raises questions, not just about technique or strategy, but about some of the most fundamental aspects of business. What do customers really want from a product, and what do they want from the company that makes it? Are they motivated by forces that traditional marketing efforts ignore, and that traditional test-marketing techniques can't pick up? So, too, with employees. What do they want out of work, and what are they looking for in the organizations that provide it? Are they also motivated by forces conventional management techniques simply miss?
Those are perhaps the most important questions confronting business today. What The Body Shop's experience suggests is that it may be time to come up with some new answers.
* * *
Appealing to the hyped-out customer
A sense of electricity and passion is not, in fact, the first thing that hits you when you walk into a Body Shop. It's the smell. A wave of exotic aromas greets you at the door and draws you in. The shop itself is bright and airy, very orderly, but with a whimsical touch. Along the walls are neat rows of products with names like Rhassoul Mud Shampoo, White Grape Skin Tonic, and Peppermint Foot Lotion. What's odd is the packaging. It is almost defiantly plain. Indeed, one whole side of the shop is covered with rows of shampoos and lotions in identical plastic bottles with black caps and green labels.
What's odder still is that no one seems to want to sell you this stuff. The salespeople are pleasant enough and quite knowledgeable about the products, but if you want advice, you have to ask for it. Nor will you find any photographs of beautiful models or promises about the miraculous benefits of using this or that cosmetic.
There is, on the other hand, plenty of information. Containers have clear, factual explanations of what's inside and what it's good for. On the shelves are notecards with stories about the products or their ingredients. There are stacks of pamphlets with such titles as "Animal Testing and Cosmetics" and "What Is Natural?" In a corner is a huge reference book called The Product Information Manual, providing background on everything The Body Shop sells. In some shops there's even a television set playing a video at low volume about, say, the company's manufacturing operation or one of its causes.
All of this is, of course, deliberate. In an industry built around selling fantasy, The Body Shop prides itself on selling "well-being." As a matter of stated principle, it pledges "to sell cosmetics with the minimum of hype and packaging" and "to promote health rather than glamour, reality rather than the dubious promise of instant rejuvenation." As for the shops, they are designed to be self-service, though not in the usual sense. Salespeople are expected to be able to answer any questions they might get, but they are trained not to be forceful with customers. In a similar spirit, the company refrains from advertising its products. Anita says she'd be embarrassed to spend a lot of money on ads for deodorant and skin lotion.
These policies reflect more than Anita's personal feelings and beliefs, however. They form the basis of the company's marketing strategy. That strategy begins with the premise that standard marketing techniques are increasingly ineffective. Consumers are hyped out. They have been overmarketed. The din of advertising and promotion has grown so loud they can no longer tell one pitch from another. Meanwhile, they are becoming more cynical about the whole process. They have heard too many half-truths, or untruths, from companies trying to move product. It doesn't matter if your particular company has wonderful products and is absolutely truthful in its marketing. Consumers have reached the point where they mistrust whatever they hear from anyone with something to sell.
All of which poses an enormous marketing challenge. How does a company cut through that cynicism and establish credibility with customers?
That's where the information comes in. The Body Shop establishes credibility with its customers by educating them. It tells them everything there is to know about its products: where they come from, how they're made, what's in them, how they're tested, and what they can be used for. It does all this, moreover, with a light touch, using anecdotes, humor, videos, and bright graphics. Few customers suspect they're in a classroom, but that doesn't keep them from learning.
Suppose, for example, that a customer is concerned about safety, as well she might be in buying a product that is applied to the skin. In this case, safety is intimately connected to product development. Most major cosmetics companies develop their products in laboratories. They must then test each product's safety by conducting extensive experiments on animals. The Body Shop, on the other hand, develops its products from ingredients that either are natural or have been used by humans for decades, if not centuries. Through brochures in the shops, it explains to customers in great detail not only what it does, but what it doesn't do -- including animal testing. It reinforces the point by marking each container "Not Tested on Animals." It thus turns a basic consumer issue -- safety -- into a powerful tool for differentiating its products.
Similarly, The Body Shop uses information about ingredients to differentiate its products. The label on the Rhassoul Mud Shampoo, for example, notes that it is made from "a traditional Moroccan Mud from the Atlas Mountains . . . which has astringent and toning properties." To find such ingredients, Anita travels to the ends of the earth. Several times a year she visits remote areas of Third World countries, where she observes local customs and talks with native people about their methods of skin and hair care. The ideas she gets are incorporated into Body Shop products. Not coincidentally, her trips also produce the information that is used to educate customers in the shops.
All of this information has a cumulative effect. Customers get the message that they can find out anything they care to know about the way the company does business. They can also learn about other cultures, about environmental issues, about social problems -- the teaching just won't quit.
"I've just taken what every good teacher knows," says Anita, who is herself a former teacher. "You try to make your classroom an enthralling place. When I taught history, I would put brilliant graphics all around the room and play music of the period we were studying. Kids could just get up, walk around, and make notes from the presentation. It took me months to get it right, but it was stunning. Now, I'm doing the same thing. There is education in the shops. There are anecdotes right on the products, and anecdotes adhere. So I've really gone back to what I know how to do well."
As a marketing strategy, moreover, the approach is extremely effective. It cuts through the cynicism of consumers. It clearly differentiates the company from its major competitors. And it creates significant problems for would-be copycats, who can't easily duplicate the level of information that The Body Shop offers. In short, it provides all of the classic marketing benefits that conventional techniques are increasingly incapable of delivering.
More to the point, it does all that by humanizing the company. Customers feel that they are buying from a company whose values and business practices they know. The effect is to create a loyalty that goes beyond branding. Customers actively promote the company and its products to their friends, and this word of mouth fuels growth. Meanwhile, The Body Shop has yet to spend a dime (or a shilling) on advertising. Indeed, it does not even have a marketing department -- in an industry that is as marketing intensive as any on the face of the earth.
So what happens to the money that would ordinarily be spent on marketing? As it turns out, a large chunk of it is used to do for employees exactly what the company does for its customers.
* * *
The Boredom Factor
Motivating the hyped-out employee
The Body Shop approaches its employees with pretty much the same assumptions that it has about its customers. The operating premise is that people who work for corporations are hyped out. Companies have come up with all kinds of clever techniques for inspiring a work force: compensation and benefit plans, motivational seminars, training programs, you name it. They don't work, or at least they aren't as effective as they once were. As cynical as consumers have become, employees are even more so. It doesn't matter how much you insist that you are committed to their welfare. It doesn't even matter if you believe it. Employees simply don't buy the argument that companies are in business to make their lives better.
And, of course, they're right. Granted, a company may do other things along the way to making a profit -- create jobs, for example, or make quality products -- but when you come right down to it, business is about making money. The more the better. And employees know it. You can argue that this is just reality, and if employees don't like it, well, that's too damn bad. But it's hard to deny how tough it can be to get anyone very excited about generating profits for someone else.
Many companies attack the problem with equity participation or incentive programs. The Body Shop does all that, too. But such techniques almost always have a catch-22. They work by focusing employees' attention on the very thing that causes the difficulty to begin with: the goal of corporate profitability. It's not that employees don't want their company to be profitable. It's that they don't really care very much. In fact, most of them probably feel pretty much as Anita does. "The idea of business, I'd agree, is not to lose money," she says. "But to focus all the time on profits, profits, profits -- I have to say I think it's deeply boring."
Therein lies the crux of the problem. To vast numbers of employees, profits are boring, even if they get a piece of the action. What's more, everything else a company does becomes boring insofar as its real purpose is to maximize profits.
So how does The Body Shop get around this one? It takes more or less the same approach that it uses with customers. It attacks cynicism with information, creating an elaborate system that deluges its employees with newsletters, videos, brochures, posters, training programs, and so on. In this case, however, The Body Shop focuses on teaching its employees that while profits may be boring, business doesn't have to be.
Consider employee training. The Body Shop's training center is its school for employees, located in London. The admissions policy is somewhat unusual in that anyone in the company, including franchisees and their employees, can attend for free. What's more unusual, however, is the school's curriculum. For all the emphasis The Body Shop places on the training, there is virtually no attention paid to making money, or even to selling. The courses for shop personnel, for example, are almost entirely devoted to instruction in the nature and uses of the products. That means everything from Herbal Hair and Problem Skin to Aromatherapy II (Advanced). It's as if McDonald's were to offer free classes in Grades of Beef and Nutrition Counseling to every kid who flips burgers throughout the chain.
The courses obviously help to improve the general level of customer service in the stores, but they are designed with the employees squarely in mind. "[Other cosmetics companies] train for a sale," Anita says. "We train for knowledge." And, indeed, the courses have the desired effect. They are so popular with employees that the school can't keep up with the demand.
Anita brings the same attitude to every aspect of The Body Shop's educational system, even to something as basic as the company newsletter. Aside from the format, it has almost nothing in common with other examples of the genre. For one thing, it reads like an underground newspaper. More space is devoted to the company's campaigns to save the rain forest and ban ozone-depleting chemicals than, say, the opening of a new branch or the dropping of an old product. Even the latter, moreover, are handled with humor and flair. The design is dramatic, the graphics arresting. Sprinkled throughout are quotes, bits of poetry, environmental facts, and anthropological anecdotes.
Once again, the difference is Anita. She may be the only chief executive of a $100-million business who actually invests time and energy in the company newsletter. Her brother is part of the team that puts it out, operating from a Macintosh outside her office. She herself suggests articles, checks copy, chooses illustrations, and changes design. The point is not lost on people in The Body Shop. This is not some throwaway. This is a direct line of communication from the leader to the rest of the organization, and she is telling people about all the things that make the business interesting and exciting for her.
Anita, for her part, is almost obsessive about finding new ways to get across what she calls "that real sense of excitement." To her, an empty space is an opportunity to create an atmosphere, deliver a message, make a point. Wherever you go in the company, the walls are hung with photographs, blown-up quotes, charts, and illustrations. Waiting rooms and cafeterias are lined with informational displays. The sides of the warehouse and the corridors of the factories blossom with words and images and dazzling displays of Third World art.
She uses her trips abroad the same way. When she gets back, she will burst into a managers' meeting and regale the participants with tales of her adventures. She will tap into the company grapevine, planting "rumors" (as she puts it) with the "gossips." "I mean that in a positive sense," she says. "It's actually a good way to get the word out." Meanwhile, she will work on her next video and next slide show, through which she will deliver the news to the organization worldwide.
The effect on the company is electric, though not necessarily because the news itself is so riveting. What's riveting is Anita. She is, quite consciously, creating a role model. She wants each and every employee to feel the same excitement she feels. You can learn in business, she is telling them, you can grow, you can be somebody. But to do that, you have to care. "I want them to understand that this is no dress rehearsal," she says. "You've got one life, so just lead it. And try to be remarkable."
And it works. The message gets through, and it gets through for one reason alone: Anita believes it. She is not the least bit cynical about business. Shrewd? Yes. Calculating? In a sense. Manipulative? Often. But cynicism is simply not in her repertoire. She is passionate in her belief that education matters, customer service matters, even newsletters matter -- they all matter. There is no hidden agenda here. Anita really doesn't regard these as tools for boosting sales and enhancing profits. She is saying that, to have a successful company, these things have to matter in their own right.
More to the point, she has been able to imbue her organization with the same attitude, and the effects are apparent in the shops. Employees understand why it's important to keep a shop clean, to display products well, to treat customers courteously -- in short, to take care of all the little details a retailer must get right to be successful. The point is not that these details affect sales or profits, but that they affect customers, and customer service matters for its own sake. Once again, the company is humanized, to the benefit of everyone involved.
* * *
A Banner of Values
Creating a global community
On a cold night in January, a ragtag group of environmentalists gathers outside the Brazilian embassy in London. There are about 20 of them, the usual suspects, from such organizations as Friends of the Earth and Survival International. They have come to draw attention to the plight of the Yanomami Indians, a Stone Age tribe that is being wiped out by diseases brought to its remote Brazilian habitat by miners looking for gold. At the moment, however, there is not much attention to be drawn. Aside from an occasional passing taxi, the only people around are the protesters. Among them is Anita Roddick, founder and managing director of The Body Shop International.
She is there, moreover, in her official capacity. Recently her company has engaged in a worldwide campaign that has drawn much attention to the plight of all the inhabitants of the Amazon rain forest. The Body Shop and its franchisees have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to their defense. It has mobilized employees for petition drives and fund-raising campaigns, carried out through the stores and on company time. It has produced window displays, posters, T-shirts, brochures, and videotapes to educate people about the issues. It has brought 250 employees to London for a major demonstration at this very embassy -- not on a dark night, but in broad daylight, with a television crew broadcasting the event live, via satellite, to Brazil. It has even printed appeals on the side of its delivery trucks, reading: "The Indians are the custodians of the rainforest. The rainforests are the lungs of the world. If they die, we all die. The Body Shop says immediate urgent action is needed."
In the United States such corporate activism would be considered bizarre, if not dangerously radical. In the United Kingdom it draws attention, but it no longer generates much surprise. That's mainly because The Body Shop has been acting this way for years. Long before it launched its rain-forest offensive, after all, it waged similar campaigns against everything from the killing of whales to the repression of political dissidents. Almost as well known, and accepted, are its efforts to help communities in developing countries by setting them up as suppliers under a program it calls Trade Not Aid. Then there's the soap factory it has built in a poverty-stricken section of Glasgow, Scotland, with the explicit (and well-publicized) purpose of providing jobs for people who, in some cases, have been unemployed for upward of 10 years. Not to mention the community project that every shop is required to have and that every shop employee is expected to work in for at least one hour a week -- a paid hour, that is, on company time.
Indeed, there is almost no end to the list of such Body Shop activities, most of which have been widely reported in the British press. This inevitably raises a question in the minds of many people, one Anita almost always hears when she appears before business groups. "They want to know, 'Isn't it all public relations? Aren't you just using these campaigns and activities to create more sales and profits?' "
She bristles at the question. "Look," she says, "if I put our poster for Colourings [a line of makeup] in the shop windows, that creates sales and profits. A poster to stop the burning of the rain forest doesn't. It creates a banner of values, it links us to the community, but it will not increase sales. What increases sales is an article in boring Glamour magazine saying Princess Diana uses Body Shop products. Then we'll get 7,000 bloody phone calls asking for our catalog. You can measure the effect."
It's a provocative argument, but it's a little misleading. Most of the activities are, in fact, intended to generate publicity for The Body Shop, and the company milks them for all they're worth. Even Anita would admit, moreover, that -- over the long term -- they do tend to increase sales and, yes, profits. What's most interesting, however, is the way that happens. Indeed, this may be the single most striking aspect of The Body Shop's entire approach to business.
The first thing you have to understand is that the primary audience for these activities is not the public: it is her own work force. The campaigns, which play a major role in her educational program, are anything but random attempts to promote goodwill. They are part of a carefully researched, designed, and executed business strategy. She regularly turns down causes that don't meet her criteria, and she won't launch any campaign until she feels confident of all the facts on the issues involved. She takes these matters far too seriously to adopt a cause that might come back to haunt the company, or to carry it out in less than a thoroughly professional manner.
More to the point, she wants causes that will generate real excitement and enthusiasm in the shops. "You educate people by their passions, especially young people," she says. "You find ways to grab their imagination. You want them to feel that they're doing something important, that they're not a lone voice, that they are the most powerful, potent people on the planet.
"I'd never get that kind of motivation if we were just selling shampoo and body lotion. I'd never get that sort of staying late, talking at McDonald's after work, bonding to customers. It's a way for people to bond to the company. They're doing what I'm doing. They're learning. Three years ago I didn't know anything about the rain forest. Five years ago I didn't know anything about the ozone layer. It's a process of learning to be a global citizen. And what it produces is a sense of passion you simply won't find in a Bloomingdale's department store."
The key word here is bond. For Anita is not just educating and motivating employees. She is not just selling cosmetics to customers. She is not just selecting franchisees, or establishing trade links with people in the Third World, or setting up factories to hire the unemployed. She is creating a community, a global community. The common bond, moreover, is not merely a mutual desire to save the Amazon rain forest. Rather, it is a belief that business should do more than make money, create decent jobs, or sell good products. The members of this community believe that companies should actually help solve major social problems -- not by contributing a percentage of their profits to charity, but by using all their resources to come up with real answers. Business is, after all, just another form of human enterprise, as Anita argues. So why should we expect and accept less from it than we do from ourselves and our neighbors?
There are many people, of course, who would quiver at the prospect of companies becoming social activists. Some would contend that business ought to stick to its collective knitting and do what it does reasonably well. Others would note that, for many companies, knitting well is difficult enough without taking on society's problems in addition to their own. Still others would prefer to leave such matters to nonprofit organizations or to government, which is presumably more accountable for its actions.
But Anita doesn't buy any of those arguments. She believes that there is only one thing stopping business from solving many of the most pressing problems in the world, and it has to do with the way most of us think companies must be managed. That is precisely what she wants to change.
* * *
Preserving the start-up spirit
Anita Roddick is reminiscing in her Littlehampton office. On the wall next to her are photographs of the original Body Shop in Brighton. The company no longer owns the store, she explains, but she is doing everything she can to get it back. "Then we'll put it back exactly the way it was in 1976. It's a real good reminder of the initiative and creativity that counts when you have no money."
Back then, Anita needed all the creativity and initiative she could muster, what with two children at home and her husband in South America pursuing his lifelong dream of riding from Buenos Aires to New York City on horseback. Before he had left, Gordon had run the numbers and told her she had to make 300 a week in order to stay in business. "I said, 'What happens, Gordon, if I don't?' He said, 'Give it six months and then pack it up and meet me with the kids in Peru.' "
So Anita had done all the things people do when they start a business they know nothing about, with no resources to fall back on. She worked around the clock, improvising as she went along. "We had only about 15 or 20 products," she says. "So we had the idea of offering five sizes of containers, which made it look like a bit more. And we had all handwritten labels with explanations of the products. We thought we had to explain them because they looked so bizarre. I mean, there were little black things in some of them. We had to say these were not worms. We were offering honesty of information that we didn't even know was honesty. We thought it was the only way to sell the products."
She goes on, talking about all the crazy things she did in the early days. Leaving a trail of strawberry essence on the street in hopes of luring customers with the smell. Planting a newspaper article about the morticians next door who were trying to shut her down because they thought a store called The Body Shop was bad for their business. Starting a refill service as an ecological way to reduce the need for new containers, which she couldn't afford.
It is obvious, as she talks, that she enjoys the memories. And yet, there is no trace of sentimentality in her reminiscences. She is not yearning for the good old days. Rather, she is remembering her own naïveté, and she is reminding herself how well she did because she was naïve. Her innocence, she is saying, led her to do the right thing.
"There was a grace we had when we started -- the grace that you didn't have to bullshit and tell lies. We didn't know you could. We thought we had to be accountable. How do you establish accountability in a cosmetics business? We looked at the big companies. They put labels on the products. We thought what was printed on the label had to be truthful. I mean, we were really that naïve."
Anyone who has been involved in a successful start-up understands what she is talking about. There is terror, there is excitement. There is a sense of living by your wits, relying on your instincts, knowing that your dumb mistakes could sink you, hoping that they don't. And there is something else: a kind of simplicity, a clarity of purpose. You have a product, or a service, and everything depends on your ability to get customers to buy it. This is what Anita calls trading. "You set up a business without any understanding of business vocabulary. If you throw away all those words, you have trading going on. That's all it is. Here's a product. Here's the environment. Here's the buyer. Here's the seller."
Business on that level is exciting and rewarding. It is also very human. It is a simple activity centered on direct relationships between people. "I actually see it as ennobling," says Anita. "It's been going on for centuries. It's just buying and selling, with an added bit for me, which is the magical area where people come together -- that is, the shop. It's trading. It's making your product so glorious that people don't mind buying it from you at a profit. Their reaction is, 'I love that. Can I buy that?' You want them to find what you are doing so wonderful that they are happy to pay your profit."
But businesses seldom remain on that level, not successful ones at any rate. They grow. They hire employees. They acquire assets and make commitments. Life gets complicated. Management structures are created. Responsibilities are delegated. Control becomes an issue. Reporting systems are developed. Financial discipline is introduced. And along with it comes a new language -- the language of budgets and profits, of return on investment and shareholder value. In the process, business ceases to be just trading and becomes, in Anita's words, "the science of making money."
Professional management is the common term for this way of running a company. In the world of business, it is generally considered to be a good thing, not to mention an inevitable and necessary consequence of growth. Without it, we are told, a company can never reach its full potential. Sooner or later, it will be overwhelmed by chaos and die. The only way to avoid that fate -- short of selling out or staying small -- is to develop sophisticated, financially based management systems, to "cross the threshold" and become a full-fledged, major-league corporation.
But business is charged a steep price for this kind of "success." The bill is paid in the currency of cynicism -- the cynicism of customers, of employees, of the community, even of other businesspeople. If companies are in business mainly to make money, you can't fully trust whatever else they do or say. They may create jobs, they may pay taxes and contribute to charity, they may provide an array of goods and services, but all that is incidental to their real purpose: to generate profits for shareholders.
Indeed, cynicism is so much a part of the way we view business that we don't even notice it until it is missing. No matter whether people hate business or love it, they share the same cynical assumptions about it. Then there's Anita Roddick.
Anita simply does not believe that companies need ever cross that threshold and start making decisions by the numbers. She finds it hard to understand why anyone would want to. "That whole goddamn sense of fun is lost, the whole sense of play, of derring-do, of 'Oh, God, we screwed that one up.' I see business as a renaissance concept, where the human spirit comes into play. How do you ennoble the spirit when you are selling moisture cream? It's everything we do before, during, and after we manufacture. It starts with how we look for ingredients. It's the initiative and the care and the excitement. It comes from education and breaking rules. And let me tell you, the spirit soars -- God, does it soar -- when you are making products that are life serving, that make people feel better and are done in an honorable way. I can even feel great about a moisture cream because of that."
Therein lies the most important lesson The Body Shop has to offer. Business does not have to be drudgery. It doesn't have to be the science of making money. It is something that people -- employees, customers, suppliers, franchisees -- can genuinely feel great about, but only on one condition: the company must never let itself become anything other than a human enterprise.
Oddly enough, that lesson is not a new one, as Anita often points out. There was a time when the world was filled with companies driven by a vision of improving the human condition. Many were started by Quakers and other people with deeply religious convictions. The managers who ran them were absolutely clear about their responsibilities to customers, to employees, to society as a whole. Some of these companies are still around today.
Along the way, however, something has been lost. "Businesses have forgotten that they are just buyers and sellers," says Anita. "We must never forget that. The whole value of this business lies in keeping it on the level where we know what we're trading. That's why I will never dilute the image of the shop. In our shops, we sell skin and hair care. Period. We know what the customer wants, and we fill those needs."
And that's really the point. It is trading, after all, that makes everything else possible, and yet that is precisely what she fears a traditional style of management would undermine. By establishing financial performance as the goal, it would throw the company off target. It would introduce powerful distractions. It would weaken The Body Shop's focus on the one thing that allowed it to succeed in the first place: its relationship with its customers.
In a sense, everything Anita does is designed to preserve that focus on trading. "What's imperative is the creation of a style that becomes a culture. It may be forced, it may be designed. But that real sense of change, that anarchy -- I tell Gordon we need a department of surprises. Whatever we do, we have to preserve that sense of being different. Otherwise, the time will come when everyone who works for us will say The Body Shop is just like every other company. It's big. It's monolithic. It's difficult. This is going to be such a huge company in a few years. We just have to make sure we don't wind up like an ordinary company."
To be sure, her success will depend on many people, not least her husband Gordon, who oversees the operational side of the business. It is a role he has played ever since he returned from his adventure in South America, teaching himself what he needed to learn as he went along. To him, as well as Anita, belongs the credit of demonstrating that a company can be both passionately idealistic and exceptionally well managed. He himself, however, has no doubt where his inspiration comes from. "Creatively, this is Anita's company entirely," he says. "She says what she wants, and we make all her dreams come true."
Meanwhile, the pressures to conform keep growing. They come from shareholders, who want to maximize their earnings. They come from franchisees, who push the company to expand faster than its resources will allow. They even come from some employees and managers, who might be willing to sacrifice a little derring-do for the stability and security they think financial planning would allow. But mostly they come from the world in which The Body Shop operates -- a world that doesn't care much about a company's social responsibility or its empowerment of employees if the benefits don't eventually show up on the bottom line.
But Anita has a vision. "I believe quite passionately that there is a better way," she says. "I think you can rewrite the book on business. I think you can trade ethically; be committed to social responsibility, global responsibility; empower your employees without being afraid of them. I think you can really rewrite the book. That is the vision, and the vision is absolutely clear."
And so she fights all the pressures. She fights them with language. She fights them with values. She fights them with education. And she fights them with her vision. "It's creating a new business paradigm," she says. "It's showing that business can have a human face, and God help us if we don't try. It's showing that empowering employees is the key to keeping them, and that you empower them by creating a better educational system. It's showing that you forsake your values at the cost of forsaking your work force. It's paying attention to the aesthetics of business. It's all that. It's trying in every way you can. You may not get there, but goddammit, you try to make the journey an honorable one."
After all, it matters. It all matters. For its own sake.