Anita Roddick, all in black, scuttles into the room, head down, corkscrew hair waving around. She is clutching some files and a pair of glasses, and looks shorter and a lot younger than I expected. There is a certain fumbled coyness about the initial greetings, even a shyness, as she barely looks up. It takes time, it seems, to set her at her ease.
We are meeting in a little comer office of The Body Shop's vast, pagoda-pastiche headquarters in Littlehampton, close to where she was brought up. Outside, grey rain falls on the rows of drab little houses that make up this tiny Sussex resort. Inside everything is bubbling. Pounding dance music bursts from the ground-floor canteen every time the door flies open. Young staff, predominantly female, bustle round the large, open-plan offices upstairs. Over 1,300 people work here on two sites. `It's too big, the communications too complex,' shrugs Roddick. But I'm thankful anyone comes to Littlehampton,' she adds. `It's not the most creative place to be.'
She fiddles with her glasses as we talk. At 53, as founder of The Body Shop, she should have a lot to be cheerful about. Her company, with over 1,200 outlets worldwide, is now Britain's most successful international retail business. Twenty years old this month, it has survived two recessions, a fluctuating exchange rate, a bout of rapid expansion and a host of those business-of-the-year-style awards that are guaranteed to put the hex on any firm. It has also remained solidly a family affair: her husband Gordon chairs the company. One of her two daughters also works at the Littlehampton headquarters.
But it is well-known that all is not plain sailing down here on the south coast. A slumping share price, poor performance in the US and a general discontent with the way the City deals with the company has led to speculation that the Roddicks want to buy The Body Shop back. Roddick herself has also hit something of an image problem.
Her strategy of relying on personal publicity to sell the company, and at the same time preaching endlessly about environmental, gender and human rights issues, has irritated more people than it has intrigued, leading some to suggest that she has been on a prolonged ego trip. So in recent years she has kept her head down and concentrated on running the business. Apart from the odd American Express ad, that is, and a speech here and there.
Yet what a business. Roddick, the daughter of Italian immigrants, has taken The Body Shop from one rickety shop in the backstreets of Brighton to a global franchise corporation with retail sales of 500 million [pound] trading in 45 countries and in 23 languages in extra-ordinarily quick time - not bad going for someone who only went into retailing because she was tired of running a cafe and wanted a job with sensible hours.
Famously (and I wonder whether this needs retelling with sales of her autobiography Body And Soul running at 140,000 worldwide) she ran the first shop, selling cheap natural cosmetics and lotions, on her own after husband Gordon had taken off to ride a horse across South America. The horse died, Gordon returned and took over the boring bits, mainly filling the bottles and doing the figures.
Now chairman, he still does what his wife sees as the boring bits - sorting out the financial side of the business and keeping a low profile (though he does, apparently, play a mean game if polo in his spare time) - while she gets on with the dynamic bit, organising new products and leading from the front. Clearly, on a personal level, it works. They are now the most famous husband-and-wife team in British business.
Yet since floating the company in 1984, both Roddicks have constantly struggled against what they would describe as the expectations of the money men: how they should run their company and what they should be doing with the money.
The sense of conflict has grown, leading to their recent confirmation that they are looking to take the company private again. …