At a time when entrepreneurialism is encouraged and celebrated, hearing it described as “a psychological problem” by one of Britain’s most successful owner-managers comes as a surprise.
But Mark Constantine, co-founder of cosmetics chain Lush, has given a lot of thought to the origins of entrepreneurial drive, and is convinced it comes from a dark place. You wouldn’t know it though, by looking at what he has created. Lush is a brand for which subtlety is nothing, and brash, energetic vibrancy is everything. Its 650-plus stores around the world are full of teetering piles of soaps, shampoos and bath bombs. If Willy Wonka diversified into bath stuff, these stores would be the result.
The business was co-founded by Constantine and his wife Mo in 1994 and today its biggest market is Japan, with the US close behind. With £215m in sales, plus a glowing reputation as an ‘ethical’ entrepreneur, and a company regularly named among the best to work for, you might expect Constantine to be pleased with what they’ve achieved, but he rejects any hint of self-satisfaction. It’s been a bumpy road to the point he’s at now, one that perhaps prevents complacency.
It was through his first business, hair and beauty products group Constantine and Weir, that he met fledgling entrepreneur Anita Roddick, who had just opened the first Body Shop outlet in Brighton. Finding Roddick a like-minded soul, Constantine and Weir became the main supplier for the growing Body Shop, and was eventually bought out by Roddick for £11m in 1984.
Cosmetics to Go came soon after, a mail order business which went bust in 1994. The offering proved popular with customers – too popular in fact, as the reality was that the business was losing a pound with every order. “And we got a lot of orders,” Constantine says glumly. “It seemed at that time that we’d had 15 years of good luck and all the bad luck in one short period of time. It used to be very painful even to talk about,” he says. “It was tough. Business is tough sometimes.”
You get the impression though that Constantine is somewhat hard on himself
(“I certainly appreciated going bust in modern society rather than Victorian society, when I’d have had to go round the back with a revolver and finish myself off,” he semi-jokes), and it took him a while to raise his head above the parapet again. “You have to overcome the shame. You really just want to hide somewhere, curl up and die and not do anything. But you have to do something because you’ve got a son going ‘why don’t you get a proper job dad?’ which is exactly what Simon said at the time.”
Getting a ‘proper job’ wasn’t on the agenda (luckily for Simon and his siblings, all of whom work at Lush today) and customers and suppliers – among whom the company was very popular – were telling the founders to get back to what they do best. And so, as soon as the non-compete agreement with The Body Shop expired, Mark, Mo and the other Lush co-founders started selling again – no longer by mail order, but through shops.
With a similar focus on the integral part that ethics should and could play in a business, Anita Roddick and Constantine remained friends, until Lush offered to buy The Body Shop in 2001, an offer dismissed by Roddick as an early April Fools’ joke (“Mark is too small. He is a great guy and great prankster,” she was reported as saying). The relationship soured; the eventual sale to L’Oréal seems to have been the final straw. Constantine even ran a two-week poster campaign outside the shops entitled “Fed up with the BS?”. He pauses now when asked how he felt. “Cross,” he says finally. “Until Anita died. And then….sad.
“She was very irritating. And very lovely. And you look back on it and think – she must have known how ill she was when she sold it, and I never really appreciated that and was critical at the time, but looking back on it now, I don’t know what I’d have done had I known what she knew.”
After the Body Shop acquisition, Constantine set out to make Lush a business that wore its values on its sleeve. It is anti-packaging, has a stringent animal testing policy suppliers have to abide by, and its buyers seek out community projects to buy ingredients from. Its campaigns include: ‘Why Biofuels Are Not Green’; ‘The Problem With Palm Oil’; and ‘Save Sharks Around The World’. If anything though, Lush’s reputation as an ethical business only makes Constantine angry. His disgust with the low standards demanded of businesses is palpable.