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A partnership that’s heaven scent

Written by Hannah Prevett, Emilie Sandy on Wednesday, 04 September 2013. Posted in Big business, Interviews

Mark and Mo Constantine possess all of the qualities of successful entrepreneurs: creativity, tenacity, passion and a belief in doing things ethically. But they also have something that’s unique: each other

A partnership that’s heaven scent

Lush co-founder Mo Constantine isn’t good at taking time out. If she can’t be found in the lab, inventing new bath-tastic products, spending time with other company directors, or helping husband Mark with his hobby of collecting bird sounds, she’ll be spending time with her three grown-up children and five grandchildren. “Mo will moan we’re too busy and there’s too much stimulus and so on. But have a day without much stimulus and by the end of it she’s ready to strangle me with her bare hands,” laughs Mark. 

Mark may tease, but he finds it similarly difficult to reach for the ‘off’ switch. His light-bulb moments often come in the twilight hours – much to the chagrin of his wife. “We try to have this rule that we don’t talk about the business without our underwear on. But then my friend here wakes up in the middle of the night, switches the light on and wants to talk,” Mo jokes. “I always maintain I lose more sleep with Mark than I ever did with the children.”

This gentle chiding is part and parcel of a relationship that has survived the birth and death of one business, the raising of three children, and the building of a business empire: Lush turned over £326m last year, with a pre-tax profit of £26.1m. Its products are now sold in 50 countries, and the company employs more than 5,000 people worldwide.

Mark and Mo are childhood sweethearts: they met at an all-night party when Mo was 16. “The truth of it is he used to chat my sister up,” she laughs. “Every day for a year or two stories would come home about this boy called ‘Connie’. ‘Connie’s nicked my stuff today,’ and so on. Then I saw him at this party and I thought, ‘He doesn’t look that bad to me. I think I can mould something out of that.’”

They had shared a similar malaise for school. Unlike Mo, Mark had attended grammar school, but struggled to apply himself. He was distracted by his female peers, he says. “I spent most of the time in the corridor watching the girls go by and chatting them up. That was my favourite bit of school.” There was one fixture in his school schedule that he wouldn’t miss, however. “I was very good at drama,” he says. “I especially enjoyed doing the make-up for productions. That meant that I could spend time with the girls,” he grins. 

After school, he went to work as an apprentice hairdresser. His real passion was for theatrical make-up, but a common route to enter the profession is via hair, he explains. “I was never that interested in hair, but it means I understand hair and I understand skin, which is a very good basis for the businesses we started later.”

Meanwhile, Mo attended secretarial college. School had been a challenging experience for her. As is often the case with entrepreneurs, she had struggled with authority and the cookie-cutter approach to education in the 1960s. “It was a choice between doing A-levels after GCSEs, or doing secretarial training. I knew if I became a secretary I’d always be able to get a job. Of course, my parents had completely different views on that.”

Mark’s career as a trichologist was going great guns. He and friend Liz Weir, now retail director at Lush, set up a clinic called Constantine and Weir, with Mark providing the hair and scalp treatments and consultations, and Weir running the beauty side of the business. But in his spare time, Mark began creating hair products from scratch, using the vast amount of knowledge he’d accumulated during his training and years in practice. 

It was at the same time that a UK cosmetics business had launched to huge success: The Body Shop, founded by the late Anita Roddick. “I spoke to Anita on the phone, sent her some samples of what I’d made and then I went and saw her,” says Mark. “It was things like henna hair colours, henna cream shampoo and aromatherapy scalp oil.” The experience of meeting Roddick delighted the aspiring entrepreneur. “It was exceptionally exciting seeing her. She was vivacious, strong willed. I was thrilled.”

As the Constantines climbed into bed with the Roddicks, the public’s appetite for The Body Shop’s natural products reached fever pitch. “The most exciting thing was that it was so raw for them too, so we’d all unload the van and then have a cup of tea together,” recalls Mo. “We’re talking about entrepreneurial royalty,” Mark added. “They were exciting, vibrant, argumentative, outrageous.” Outrageous to the point of shock, says Mo. “Anita was the first person I’d been into a restaurant with who swore very loudly,” she smiles. 

It’s no secret that the love-in didn’t continue indefinitely. In the early nineties, the Constantines sold the IP for the products they supplied for The Body Shop to Anita and Gordon Roddick. “All of our products were in their top ten, and because of this, we thought they’d want to own it, for security’s sake. We were only a supplier, after all.” The Body Shop bought the Constantines out for a reported £6m.

The products dreamed up by the Constantines – Mo was on board by this time too, flexing her creative muscles – had been a big hit for The Body Shop, but there were many others that weren’t making it to the shelves. “We were churning out incredibly innovative new ideas but they didn’t have space for that, they didn’t want it,” says Mo.  

So, having sold the rights for the products the Roddicks did want, the Constantines decided to set up a mail-order catalogue, Cosmetics 2 Go, to sell the products The Body Shop hadn’t wanted – much to the Roddicks’ dismay. This caused a rift between the two couples, and after more than a decade of working together, their relationship ceased to exist. 

The company founded by the Constantines didn’t flourish in the way they’d envisaged. While they had the product down pat, perhaps the business nous was lacking and in two years, they’d burned through the £6m and the business hit the runners. Not to be defeated, they scaled back and started selling the leftover stock from a shop in Poole. This time, they got it right. Lush was born.

In 2001, The Body Shop was put up for sale, and the Constantine’s bid for the company was rejected in favour of an offer by cosmetics giant L’Oréal. “The circumstances were not really known by anyone apart from the two of them,” says Mark. “If you consider that she was close to death, then Anita’s decision to sell to L’Oréal can be seen very in a very different light than it would if she was just in it for the money.”

Mark bristles at the memory of complicated negotiations which resulted in Roddick ‘ridiculing’ his offer. “We went through a series of dance moves where I attempted to buy the company. Gordon had told me it was their business partner who was dying. I had no idea it was Anita. Had I realised Anita was dying, I probably would have been more helpful and less inquisitive because I would have been keen to help.”

The Roddicks’ decision to sell to L’Oréal is one that the Constantines have had to come to terms with. But Mark says they keep the pressure on the titan to retain its ethical stance on things such as animal testing. When it’s suggested that perhaps the Constantines learned much regarding ethics from the Roddicks, eyebrows shoot upwards and telling glances are exchanged between the couple. 

“The truth of the ethics of where we are today is it’s something we’ve always done by default – to use fresh ingredients, natural ingredients, we like not to have animal-tested things. Mark has been instrumental in addressing that for decades. When he and Anita began working together, he had the basis of it and she had the platform.”

While The Body Shop got swallowed into the huge conglomerate, Lush has continued to grow and expand, all the time staying true to its staunch ethical approach to doing business. “Everyone lives in the real world and everyone makes their contribution accordingly,” explains Mark. “I’m not very keen on the term ‘ethical business’, but I do think we’re ethical buyers, I really think we get that right.”

It has certainly become easier to put pressure on suppliers now Lush is a bigger business. “Most of the time it’s to do with dough, isn’t it? In the beginning, you can’t afford to do anything, and you have to take what you’re given, to a certain extent. Now I absolutely say, ‘I want the real thing, thank you,’” says Mark. “We had a huge problem with the adulteration of essential oils. I wrote everyone a letter saying if it says it on the invoice, it says it on the label, and I find out that doesn’t correlate with the contents, I will prosecute you.”

The biggest challenge for the business is getting its people processes right, says Mark. “I make this joke that if we are in The Sunday Times’ 100 Best Companies to Work For, then god help the rest of them,” he laughs. “The problem is that if someone has to leave, they might hold a grudge for five or six years. They’ll go on social media and talk about the company. The challenge is trying to make the process as ethical as possible.”

When the personnel team at Lush can’t figure it out, they consult the services of alternative consumer organisation Ethical Consumer (think a lefter-leaning Which?). “We’re trying to get them to do a survey of the staff to find out what they really think. We have the Best Companies accolade and that’s great but we want to work on a programme with the staff worldwide to give them something a little better.”

After all, a huge proportion of the company’s employees are outside of the UK. But Mark was reticent about international expansion initially. “We used to get a thousand enquiries a month [about opening Lush stores overseas] and we would end up saying no to everyone,” he explains. “By then we had five shops in the inner ring of the M25 and we just wanted to earn a living with those, no messing around. We’d had a business collapse – we didn’t want all that crap.”

They finally relented when they were offered big bucks by a Croatian. “He said, ‘Come on, I’ll give you cash and come with my van,’” laughs Mark. “He was crazy. But we couldn’t say no to the cash.”

However, Mark says the real breakthrough with the company’s international expansion came when Mark Wolverton wanted to open Lush in the US. The Constantines were reluctant. The secret to Lush’s success is that its products are made with natural ingredients; they have a 14-month shelf-life. If they were made in England and then shipped to the US, the time that shops would have to sell the product, and the time consumers have to use them, would significantly decrease. “He [Wolverton] said, ‘Teach us how to make it then’,” recalls Mark.

That’s how the first overseas factory came about. Not that it was entirely smooth sailing. “Mark’s partner back then, Andre, was a bit cavalier,” says Mo. “We had given them a series of instructions about the factory, one of which was no animals were allowed. As soon as I left, Andre rode his horse through the factory smoking a cigar.”

The company has since grown rapidly through partnering with global firms. Lush is sold in 50 countries, and has five factories outside of the UK including two in Canada, one in Japan and another in Australia.

It’s all very impressive stuff. But the entrepreneurial couple remain incredibly modest about their achievements. In fact, when naming his biggest achievement, Lush doesn’t even get a namecheck. Mark has, after all, an unusual – and expensive – hobby: collecting birdsounds. “We now have the fourth largest birdsound archive in the world,” he beams, before rattling off the names of some birds his team has managed to tape. 

Meanwhile, Mo says she’s proudest of the Constantine clan. “I like spending time with my family and my grandchildren,” she says. However, Mark interjects. “I think I’m one of your achievements,” he says. “I wouldn’t have done what I’ve done without Mo, had she not sorted me out. I certainly wouldn’t have done all this.” 

About the Author

Hannah Prevett

Hannah Prevett

Prevett likes to think she's something of an expert when it comes to small business. Having cut her teeth writing about tech, she latterly moved on to such illustrious titles as Growing Business, Management Today and the Sunday Times to indulge her enthusiasm for entrepreneurship: from P&Ls to private equity and all that's in between, you can't keep this girl away from the heady world of start-ups. 

Back in the day when she had spare time, she would spend it networking, horse riding, drafting and re-drafting ideas for novels, and playing auntie to her niece and three god-children. Those were the days...

Emilie Sandy

Emilie Sandy

Aside from dashing between the Cotswolds and London to shoot business types for magazines such as EB and TV stars for the Beeb, Sandy is also a visiting lecturer at a college in Stroud – not to mention a proud mother to son Freddie and daughter Fjola. She has photographed our cover stars since our very first edition. You know what they say – if it ain’t broke...

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