Entrepreneur preaches her own brand of corporate responsibility Body Shop founder makes sweep through Baltimore

March 26, 1992|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

A scraggly-haired Englishwoman with an electric smile sat in a church auditorium in East Baltimore yesterday, surrounded by more than a dozen eager inner-city girls, rapping about how to get rid of zits.

Scrub your face with some common glycerine soap, she says, then massage the skin with confectioner's sugar. The girls in Brazil swear by it, she confides.

It's odd advice coming from a woman whose business is selling skin care products -- even odder when you consider that the woman is one of the richest women in Britain and one of the most famous entrepreneurs in the retail industry.

Anita Roddick, the 49-year-old founder of The Body Shop and evangelist of corporate responsibility, came to Baltimore yesterday to visit some of her stores and to preach her gospel.

Companies, she proclaims, must put employees, customers, the environment, human rights and world peace ahead of profits. Take up causes, she exhorts managers. Don't worry about shareholders, she says, put people first. And because she does all that and still makes scads of money, people listen.

To admirers, Ms. Roddick, who started out with a single store in the English resort city of Brighton in 1976, is a secular saint -- a foul-mouthed, funny, irreverent prophet of a more enlightened way of doing business. To detractors, she's either a shrill, self-righteous fanatic or a slick saleswoman whose do-good posturing is a brilliant marketing campaign.

In Baltimore yesterday, Ms. Roddick swept through a grueling schedule that took her from a 7:30 a.m. breakfast talk to business leaders downtown to an 8 p.m. lecture at Loyola College.

In between, she had two broadcast interviews, a picnic lunch on Federal Hill and visited two of her stores before ending up at The Door, an after-school program for inner-city elementary and junior high school students that has been "adopted" by the local Body Shop franchisee.

The interviews were about philosophy. The store visits were mini-seminars in retailing and management.

Ms. Roddick is a tactile manager giving big hugs and sharing giggles with employees.

When attention shifts to a store inspection, two sides of Ms. Roddick come out: the sharp-eyed professional and the former teacher. Salespeople follow and take notes as she critiques the display.

"This is absolutely perfect!" she gushes at one window display as the manager beamed. But the next minute, she's using profanity to criticize a cluttered display.

Back in the van after a visit to the Harborplace store, she and franchisees Skip Maner and Scot Samios discuss the employees she had just met. "Your manager is lovely," she says. "She listened." Others come in for less flattering appraisals.

Throughout the day her questions are constant. "What would you like to change?" she asks a customer. "So what does Baltimore need?" she asks a writer. "What are you doing to keep him motivated?" she asks her franchisees about an employee who impressed her.

The Body Shop story goes back to 1976, when Ms. Roddick, then a 34-year-old mother of two, opened a small store called The Body Shop in Brighton, selling 15 skin- and hair-care products in cheap plastic bottles with handwritten labels.

Instead of the chemical-laden concoctions sold by mainstream cosmetics companies, The Body Shop sold products derived from traditional preparations used by women in Third World countries. The merchandise carried such names as Cucumber Cleansing Milk, Seaweed and Birch Shampoo and Cocoa Butter Body Lotion.

From the beginning, The Body Shop operated by its own code: No advertising. No extravagant packaging. No misleading claims. No corporate bureaucracy. No products that had been tested on animals. No products that damage the environment.

The concept took.

With Ms. Roddick providing the inspiration and marketing prowess and her husband, Gordon, supplying the organizational skill, the Roddicks have built The Body Shop International into a chain of 723 stores worldwide.

The chain opened its first store in the United States in 1988, and the total has grown to 78. There are five in Maryland: Harborplace, White Marsh Mall, Montgomery Mall, Annapolis Mall and The Mall at Columbia.

Critics point out that the company was slow to make its U.S. move, allowing such companies as The Limited and Estee Lauder to beat it to the market with similar concepts. (The Limited's Bath and Body Works was so similar The Body Shop sued. The companies settled out of court.)

Nevertheless, since the company went public on the London Stock Exchange in 1984, the stock price has increased more than 10,000 percent, according to Fortune magazine. The Roddicks' holdings alone are estimated at almost $300 million.

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