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My first boss: recruitment supremo James Reed on Anita Roddick

·4-min read
James Reed worked at The Body Shop for 18 months before applying for business school. (Photo: Reed.co.uk)
James Reed worked at The Body Shop for 18 months before applying for business school. Photo: Reed.co.uk

For James Reed, chief executive and chairman of recruitment company and jobs giant Reed, it was a hand-written, speculative job application which set him on the right path in business.

You could say I had a set of remarkable first bosses; Gordon and Anita Roddick, who founded The Body Shop. They were simply great people to work for. Anita was just a phenomenon. She had huge energy, a wealth of ideas and it was highly motivating.

By the time I finished university, aged 21, I knew that I wanted to work for an entrepreneur. I wrote job applications to several companies but I was particularly interested in Anita. She had just won businesswoman of the year and I was drawn to her because of her position on not testing her products on animals and ensuring fair trade in the developing world. This seemed a different kind of business to me.

I was at home one Saturday morning in 1984 and the phone went. My mother answered and it was Anita. She asked if I could come for an interview the following Monday. They then said they needed someone immediately and when could I start. I was amazed.

At the time it was terrifying when Anita came into the shops - I worked in Brighton and Great Marlborough Street in London - as there would always be something that was out of place. But she cared about the shop, the image and the experience of the customers. She was always on their side.

Founder of the Body Shop, Anita Roddick shows off items that the store sells to the public. (Photo by �� Jacques M. Chenet/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
The Body Shop founder Anita Roddick. Photo: Jacques M. Chenet/Corbis via Getty Images

One phrase Anita had was ‘never dilute your image’. We were continually growing the image of The Body Shop and what it was about and I apply the same ethos today. I was also struck about the controls the company had in place. It was all cash and cheques and we had to count it up exactly right at the end of the day. Controls around cash and money is a good business discipline. And the ‘retail is detail’ mantra is still the case today.

I had a lot of roles and I ended up being Gordon’s assistant. The Body Shop was looking at franchising and, many years later, we are now doing the same at Reed. Back then, I had to visit all the franchisees across the UK. It was educational, they would give me their thoughts and ideas and it has been a management approach I have taken ever since. Being available and curious is so important.

Now, one of my tips relates to the Poohsticks game. It’s all about finding the fast flowing water. If you think about that in career terms, you don’t have to be the best manager or have the best stick to win, you just have to be in the fastest flowing current. If you want to start out in a career, it is a good idea to find where the action is or the fastest growing businesses are. Almost by accident I did that with The Body Shop.

That was really helpful to me in my development. They weren’t making redundancies, they were hiring and expanding and it was an exciting place to work. Anita, who has sadly died, and her husband Gordon made a good business team as they had complimentary skills.

He was a really good partner to her. He was thoughtful, strategic and considered while Anita had great ideas for product and marketing. I hadn’t expected business to be such fun. I now try to make Reed a fun place to work. Life is short and our brand message is ‘Love Mondays’, where we try to find jobs people will love.

British businesswoman, human rights activist and environmental campaigner Anita Roddick (1942 - 2007), founder of The Body Shop, UK, 10th April 1984. (Photo by Larry Ellis/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
British businesswoman, human rights activist and environmental campaigner Anita Roddick (1942 - 2007), pictured in 1984. Photo: Larry Ellis/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

I landed the role because I got there just before it was advertised. I preempted by looking at opportunities and where people needed help. By writing personally to entrepreneurs at fast-growing businesses, I stumbled across opportunities.

Letters used to be fun, now they are horrible things with bills. But if you got a handwritten letter, you would read it first, wouldn’t you? It’s not that hard to do.

I was paid a £6,000 annual salary but I was chuffed when they increased it to £10,000 within a few months. I guess it showed I was doing a good job. I stayed 18 months in all; I really wanted to go to business school and they were supportive of that. The Roddicks gave me a great reference and I eventually got in later. I just had a great affection from them both.

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