Dame Anita Roddick was a retail pioneer

Retailers paid tribute this week to maverick entrepreneur Dame Anita Roddick, founder of Body Shop, who died on Monday from a brain haemorrhage at the age of 64.

The doyenne of ethical retailing, who launched Body Shop from a single store in 1976 and built an empire of 2,000 shops in 49 countries, was as famous for her abrasive relationship with the business world as for changing the face of retail.

Body Shop chairman Adrian Bellamy said: “She changed the world of business with her campaigns for social and environmental responsibility. Anita leaves us with an enduring legacy that will long guide the affairs of Body Shop.”

Roddick was a member of Retail Week’s original editorial advisory board. Patience Wheatcroft, former Sunday Telegraph editor and founder of Retail Week, said: “She was a one-off. I thought her energy was fantastic, so I was delighted to have her on the board.

“She was a different voice. We tried to get a mix of small and big retailers, but they had all shown a fairly similar view of corporate life. She was determined to do it her own way.”

Born in 1942 to immigrant Italian-Jewish parents in Littlehampton, West Sussex, Roddick described entrepreneurship as an innate quality.

“Entrepreneurs are obsessed with freedom,” she once said. “We’re outsiders, which is why immigrants often make the best entrepreneurs. We’re obsessed by a vision, an idea, and we’re pathologically optimistic. We don’t get worked up about processes, plans, or strategies.”

That attitude earned her a reputation as both the darling of human rights causes and the scourge of the City, particularly after Body Shop’s flotation in 1984. “She was extraordinarily rude about the City,” said Wheatcroft. “She made it clear that she had no time for them.”

Retail Trust chief executive Nigel Rothband, former managing director of UK retail for Body Shop, agreed. “She wasn’t the easiest person to work with, but was way ahead of her time. On issues like fair trade, animal testing and the environment she was pioneering before they became fashionable,” he said.

Mark Constantine, founder of eco-cosmetics retailer Lush, said: “Her audacity was legendary. She was intuitive, a great saleswoman, a true leader with great strengths and a few flaws. She was argumentative, inquisitive, persuasive and dynamic. Working alongside her was stressful, but never dull.”

Roddick’s journey to becoming a global retailer was a tumultuous one, because she refused to pander to populist trends and traditional retail strategy.

Fran Minogue, managing partner at Heidrick & Struggles and a former general manager at Body Shop, said: “She changed a lot of values in the retail world. Alongside the successes there were hiccups, because she was not a retailer by background. It took time to get to grips with retailing and get the talent on board.”

Former Tesco chief executive Lord MacLaurin of Knebworth, who was also on Retail Week’s first editorial advisory board with Roddick, said: “I well remember our time together in the early days of Retail Week. Anita had established herself as one of the leading business people in the country and her huge contribution to the retail industry in all its facets is there for all to see.”

Wheatcroft agreed. “She brought a different sort of retail onto the high street. She wasn’t the first to talk about ethical retailing, but her brand of ethics was very different,” she said.

As a result, Body Shop stalwarts balked when Roddick sold the business to L’Oréal for£652 million last year. Minogue said: “The options were limited if she wanted to get out and move on. Some will think that she sold out, but I don’t believe that it will have a major impact on her legacy.”

Constantine said: “Many people were disappointed when she sold Body Shop to L’Oréal. Now, I regret saying that she stood full-square between Estée Lauder and Elizabeth Arden. I would say that she inspired a generation of people to get off their arses and do something.”

Despite her sometimes caustic tongue, Roddick had a searing sense of humour. Constantine recalled a phone conversation with Roddick that ended with her calling him unprofessional. He said: “I took offence and pointed out that she could call me many things, but not unprofessional. ‘I can call you a wanker then?’ she asked. ‘If you want’, I replied. ‘Okay, wanker’ – and with that, she called off.”

An hour later, a florist knocked at Constantine’s door with a bouquet of flowers and a big grin. The card read: ‘Wanker’.

Geoff Marshall, former Body Shop managing director and then head of global retail development, said the real Roddick comprised “countless” small and big acts of private kindness overlain with a “wonderful irreverence”.

He said: “Once, after a particularly long day, in my sleek – and hugely disapproved of – BMW, I overtook her battered VW on our way home. I parped my horn as I swept past, only to be rewarded with a big grin and an even bigger heartfelt V-sign from the boss.”