Profile: The practical body above the shop: Gordon Roddick
Sunday 08 May 1994
'Anita is the highly creative end of the business,' he says. 'She dreams, and I try to make her dreams come true. But I don't know that I always succeed.'
The business in question is Body Shop International, the 1,000-strong chain of ozone-friendly lotions that began in Littlehampton, West Sussex, and now spans the globe. Gordon is chairman, Anita is managing director.
Last week, the couple outwitted the critics yet again by unveiling annual profits up from pounds 21.5m to pounds 28.6m, sending the shares up from a nervous 214p to a relieved 234p. But the Body Shop formula seems as haphazard as ever. 'Our problem always has been that we have had too many ideas and cannot use them all,' Gordon explains as he sits in the company's stockbroker's office in the City.
'Often we have tried to pile too much into our shops, or we have too many ideas at once. Great ideas get lost when you do that.'
As Gordon, a lifelong stammerer, has shyly emerged from his wife's swirling skirts, it is becoming clearer how far the company depends on the remarkable chemistry between these two children of the Sixties. It also shows how a sizeable business can be hewn out of determination and common sense.
She was born Anita Perella and was 18 before she discovered that her stepfather was her real father. He had had an affair with her mother while she was married to his cousin. After Anita's mother divorced, she married Anita's real father, who died 18 months later.
In her teens, Anita became obsessed with James Dean. It was no coincidence, then, that she ended up marrying Roddick, who bears a fair resemblance to the late film star. But it turned out the obsession was mutual.
In her autobiography, Anita says: 'The moment I set eyes on Gordon Roddick I knew that I wanted him to be the father of my children. I didn't want to marry him, didn't even want to live with him. I just wanted his children.'
Gordon's version of their first confrontation - in El Cubana, her mother's Littlehampton night club - is only slightly less dramatic.
'I have always been pretty cavalier in my relationships, so meeting Anita was a shock to me,' he admitted. 'When we met I was like a rabbit in the headlights. I had read a few of the letters she sent to her mum, so I knew parts of her, but I had never talked to her. I looked at her and thought 'I'm gone. There lies my future.' I absolutely knew it, and I have got absolutely no idea why. I put my head in my hands and thought 'Oh no,' because I was not ready. I had been travelling the world and having a great time. I was 26 and had absolutely no intention of being ensnared in a permanent relationship. I wanted to go off to Australia and have a few more years enjoying myself.'
Four days later, Anita moved out of her mother's house into Gordon's one-room flat nearby. They married in 1971 in Reno, Nevada.
But although Gordon succumbed to Anita's charms, a couple of years later he set off on a 5,300-mile trek on horseback from Buenos Aires to New York.
He said: 'I went to South America on the principle that you are only here once on this earth. I don't want to be in my wheelchair on the porch, dribbling into my underpants and wishing I'd done this or fulfilled that dream.'
But before he left, Gordon helped Anita to raise pounds 4,000 to open the first branch of Body Shop, in Brighton. He got only as far as Bolivia before one of his horses slipped and died. By the time he returned, Anita had sold half the business to Ian McGlinn, a local garage owner, for pounds 4,000 so she could expand.
McGlinn kept his share, which is now worth pounds 123m, and earns dividends of pounds 890,000 a year - about the same as the Roddicks.
'Normal incentives of life don't mean a whole lot to me,' says Gordon. 'I am not driven by cash and never have been, much as it must be awful for anybody to read who is driven by that need, but it's not what's important in life for me. Neither is position.'
So what is? 'It isn't easy to say, without sounding like the Pope,' he replies.
'Enjoyment and fulfilment are hugely important: we are only here once. Great friendships are important, and having the ability to work with my friends.
'I love working with my wife, though lots of people would hate that. I love it when everything works in some kind of harmony, as it ought to, and I love humour above all.'
Gordon's decided views were sharpened by unhappy schooldays. His father, a former president of the Liverpool Corn Exchange, died when he was four and his mother three years later. His guardians educated him privately in Scotland.
He enjoyed prep school but loathed Merchiston Castle, near Edinburgh, where his stammer was agonising, and he was beaten harshly and regularly. His voice turns cold as he recalls those days.
'I hated public school,' he said. 'I detested it. I hated the childishness and the rules. I hated the attitudes. I hated the unfairness of it. I hated the education. They were teaching us things I didn't want to learn. History was 1066 and William the Conqueror and William and Mary, and a whole list of names and dates. I would have been interested in what people were eating, what their incomes were, their illnesses, how did they survive? The school wouldn't have made me a prefect if I had been there until I was 100, because I would have had to do it their way. But their way was terror and aggression, and it isn't the way to bring the best out of people.'
So at 17 he went to the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester, in Gloucestershire, failed there and worked on an Australian sheep farm for a year before eventually making his way back to Britain and El Cubana.
When he returned from Bolivia to the fledgling Body Shop, he discovered that helping to run Anita's business brought out hidden qualities in him.
Their first problem was how to expand, after Anita's rash initial foray into corporate finance. Gordon lit on the idea of franchising.
'That was born not out of great brains, but lack of cash,' he explains. 'We had no track record, no assets and it was the only way we could expand our shops and our idea. The first franchisees were friends and it just grew from there.'
The other feature of Body Shop is, of course, its moral dimension. From early days, Gordon and Anita have been against using animals to test products, and for fair dealings with the Third World countries that provide so many of their raw materials. Now shareholders are being asked to vote these ideals into the company's Memorandum of Association.
'We wanted to enshrine these values,' says Gordon, 'because our employees say that is why they work there, and doing this will protect that when we are inevitably gone.'
Institutional shareholders are apparently happy to nod through these ideals. However, they have been more concerned about Body Shop's continued ability to keep competitors at bay, particularly in this country, where growth has ground to a halt. 'I honestly believe that we are more innovative than anybody else, in retail and product terms,' Gordon insists. 'Boots, Sainsbury and Superdrug are good retailers, and I have no desire to say otherwise. But competing with us is not the main part of their business. You cannot go into Boots or Superdrug and ask about dry hair or oily skin. They end up having to copy us, which always leaves them behind.'
In the end, Body Shop's market leadership relies heavily on the Roddicks. The good news is that their enthusiasm seems boundless and, at 52, they should each have many years in front of them.
'I guess Anita and I get on because in our personal relationships we are both quite selfish,' said Gordon, 'because we want to do what we want to do. We've been together 25 years and it's been great entertainment. The secret has been not to spend too much time in one another's pockets. It wouldn't suit everyone. I saw a film the other day about a couple who had spent 50 years together. I would find that claustrophobic.'
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