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Robert R Taylor: Businessman who put soap into bottles


Robert R Taylor, who has died of cancer at the age of 77, was the man who took soap out of dishes, put it in pump bottles and forever changed the way people wash up.

An entrepreneurial visionary, Taylor created and sold more than a dozen businesses, including those that produced toothpaste, shampoos and popular fragrances.

Most well known among the latter was probably the Calvin Klein fragrance Obsession, which Taylor marketed in the 1980s with what was for the time a risque ad campaign with the catchphrase “Between love and madness lies Obsession.”

It was SoftSoap, however, that made his reputation as a business genius. “He was just driving to work one day and he had been looking at the soap in the sink and seeing how messy it was and he was like, ‘There’s got to be a way to not have to deal with that,’” his daughter, Lori Lawrence, said.

He came up with the marketing concept first. Then, through home experimentation and some trial and error, created the soap. He planned to begin selling SoftSoap in 1980 through his small company, Minnetonka Corp, but realised that if it caught on, home products manufacturers such as Johnson & Johnson, where he had once worked, would copy the soap-in-a-pump-bottle idea and quickly put him out of business.

So he leveraged his company for every penny it was worth, $12 million, and bought 100 million bottle hand-pumps from the only two American firms which made them. It created a back order so huge that the businesses couldn’t make pumps for anybody else for more than a year, giving Taylor’s brand time to become established. Within six months he had sold $25 million worth of SoftSoap. Earlier this year the industry trade publication Inc. Magazine declared his cornering of the hand-pump market one of the three shrewdest business moves ever made.

Taylor, who earned an MBA from Stanford University in 1959, worked as a salesman for Johnson & Johnson for a few years before he and a college friend formed a marketing company in 1963. He started Village Bath Products himself the next year with a $3,000 investment, later renaming it Minnetonka Corp. He initially ran the business out of his Minnesota home, making hand-rolled soap balls marketed in homey glass jars and baskets, fruit-scented shampoos and other bath products.

His daughter, who as a child helped him with some of the soap formulas and tested them for him in the bathtub, recalled various failures, including some soaps that would explode. But the successes began to pile up. “He always had a quote, ‘Whatever the mind of man can conceive, he can achieve’,” said another daughter, Karen Brandvold. “He lived his life that way.”

After buying the Calvin Klein Cosmetics line, Taylor brought out the Obsession and Eternity fragrances in the 1980s. He sold his Village Bath and SoftSoap brands to Colgate-Palmolive in 1987 and, two years later, Unilever bought Minnetonka including the Calvin Klein fragrances, for $376 million. He went on to create several other businesses including the Monterey Bay Clothing Company.