Adam Lee-Potter meets Lush' Mark Constantine in Poole
PUBLISHED: 18:04 21 November 2012 | UPDATED: 22:23 20 February 2013
Victorian values of cleanliness, early rising and philanthropy underpin Mark Constantine's multi-million pound family business, as well as a passion for birdsong as Adam Lee-Potter discovers
A Lush life
Victorian values of cleanliness, early rising and philanthropy underpin Mark Constantines multi-million pound family business, as well as a passion for birdsong as Adam Lee-Potter discovers
Mark Constantine would seem to have it all. A 150million cosmetics business, an idyllic marriage, three doting children, a hobby he adores and even at 60, a cyclists waistline and his own hair. Worse, hes disgustingly likeable.
I am, says the man who set up Lush Fresh Handmade Cosmetics in Poole 17 years ago, an over-achiever. I realise my ambitions. But, for 58 years, one ambition has haunted and eluded him a longed-for reconciliation with the father who walked out when he was two years old.
I tried looking for him over the years, he says. But I had nothing to go on just that he was called John and had moved to Kenya to fight the Mau Mau Uprising. In the end, I gave up. I assumed he was dead. It was a gap in my life.
Mark, whose talent was spotted by The Body Shops Anita Roddick 38 years ago, even named his first perfume after his missing father Dear John. I made it to smell the way I wanted my father to have smelled lime and coffee and maybe a hint of cigarette smoke. It was subtle and gentle, something youd bury your face in. My son designed a label that looked like it had teardrops on it, ink that had been cried on. A Dear John is the letter thats sent when someones never coming back. Thats exactly what I thought.
We all want good things to happen to good people. And Mark is a thoroughly decent fellow. It is impossible not to warm to a self-made man who, despite his millions, doesnt own a car, gets up at 5am to listen to birdsong and whose favourite holiday is a week on Brownsea Island. Moreover, he donates hundreds of thousands of pounds a year to charity: Isee myself as a Victorian patron.
For once, there is a fairytale ending. Lastweek, Mark finally tracked down his father. My best friend, who lives in Weymouth, had my family tree done for my 60th birthday. And there he was, my father John Constantine, living in South Africa. I flew out to meet him last week. I took everybody my wife and our three children. We held hands and I called him Dad.
I made it to smell the way I wanted my father to have smelled lime and coffee and maybe a hint of cigarette smoke something youd bury yourface in
I spent three days with him and it was one of the highlights of my life. He said it was for him too. When I left, I gave him a bottle of Dear John. He loved it. My wife and children were all in tears.
Incredibly, Mark who plans to fly back to South Africa in the New Year feels no resentment for what hes lost, only joy for what hes found.
My dad kept saying: Youre so generous. But I was just so happy. This was the opportunity of a lifetime. Hes very like me he became a self-taught scientist too. My step-father was never what I wanted he was cold. My dad is warm. Suddenly, it all made sense.
I think all my hard work and will to succeed possibly sprang from a subconscious desire to impress him. And when I told him what Ive done, he was impressed: he was overwhelmed. That was lovely.
There is no doubting Marks drive: his philosophy has proved simple but revolutionary and incredibly effective. Lush products are sold, like food, by weight and wrapped in paper. This lack of packaging is doubly significant: representing Marks green ethos and serving as a valuable promotional tool. Naked, the heavily-scented products give off a pungent aroma. Youll always smell a Lush shop before you see it!
My best friend, who lives in Weymouth, had my family tree done for my 60th birthday. And there he was, my father John Constantine, still alive and living in South Africa
This year, Lush topped a Which? poll of Britains best businesses. There are now 830 stores in 50 countries. Not bad for a boy who slept rough in the woods above Weymouth for three months after his mother and step-father threw him out when he was 17. I think my mum had a bundle of issues back then, he says, with typical forgiveness. I have a fabulous relationship now.
He is nothing if not a survivor. While fending for himself, he met Mo, then 16 at an all-night party on Portland. Mo was and is the love of my life. Were a great team. I do the thinking, she does the work. She drives, I dont. She goes to the mechanic, I buy flowers.
After leaving school at 18, Mark found a job as a hairdresser in London. It was always about girls for me, he says. The stereotype is that men who cut hair and who know about make-up must be gay but for me, they are the most natural environments in which to work. I love the company of women.
Mark, now 60, already had a passion for natural cosmetics that stemmed from a childhood trip to the cinema. I was about seven or eight and there was a B-movie on about rat poison getting into some bread. It horrified me. My neurosis about chemicals started there. When my mum used to do home-perms I hid at the other end of the house.
Mark married Mo in 1973 and movedback to Dorset, where he taught himself organic chemistry and started experimenting, making his own natural hair and beauty products in his bedroom. His first attempt was a henna cream shampoo it looked disgusting but it worked.
And it was then that his chutzpah and brief stint in the woods came to the fore. After reading about Anita Roddick who founded The Body Shop he sent her a sample. I was a hippy back then with long hair and Anita loved the fact that Id lived in the woods. We clicked.
She ordered 1,200 worth a huge sumin 1974. Within 20 years, Mark was supplying 80 per cent of The Body Shops stock and Anita perhaps fearful of the competition bought him out for 6 million.
I was a hippy back then with long hair and Anita (Roddick) loved the fact that Id lived in the woods
His success story is not without its bumps. After investing the money in a new business that went bust within weeks, he lost it all. But a valuable lesson was learned.
Everyones got the right to lose everything and start again, when we went bust, I started having nightmares. I was on one side of a door, knocking. My colleagues were on the other. One of them said: Oh, weve started again Mark but we dont need you. That is my idea of hell. I always want to be on the warm side of that door.
To recoup what they could, the couple started selling leftover stock without packaging, the quirk that became their trademark. Demand was huge, profit immediate. Lush was born.
The company remains very much afamily business. Mo still designs perfumes. Their children all work at Lush, too. Simon, 30, is the head perfumer. Jack, 27, looks after marketing and Claire, 21, runs the Covent Garden store. But for all Marks bonhomie, no one gets rich by being soft. When his old friend Anita mocked his bid to buy The Body Shop in 2001 and sold instead to the highest bidder, LOral, a company he resents because of their animal testing history andlinks to Nestl, he never spoke to heragain.
Anita was an entrepreneur, very charismatic and far more driven than me. But she knew nothing about the cosmetics business. Her rudeness was unnecessary but thats not why we fell out. I fell out with her because of who she sold her company to. I dont approve of LOralsethics.
However Marks latest venture is a world away from his Melting Marshmallow Moments, Vanilla Mountains and Creamy Candy Bath. A self-taught world expert on birdsong his hobby for 40 years Mark has just published his second book, Catching the Bug: A Sound Approach guide to the birds of Poole Harbour. The book covers the concerns, puzzles and conundrums set by the natural world to a group of amateur birders, including Mark, who have met regularly over the last 20 years in a Poole pub. Alongside Marks stories of bird races and being stopped by the police for possession of a super ray gun, are tips on watching the tens of thousands of birds that secretly migrated through Poole Harbour. A unique aspect of the book, and an ideal tool for those who are learning the ropes, are two CDs featuring the flight calls of those migrant songbirds; these are also illustrated and explained using annotated sonograms. Thats where my money goes, says Mark with a smile, sending people out to record those bird sounds. Id much rather be doing that than anything else.
Marks philosophy has proved simple but revolutionary and incredibly effective Lush products are sold, like food, by weight and wrapped inpaper
Funnily enough, Mo was into birds before me. But Ive caught her up and overtaken. Men just become obsessed, dont they? I got up at 5am the other day to record a blackbird, flinging the French windows open to our bedroom. I had to nip back and stroke Mos head to stop her snoring because otherwise shed have ruined the recording! He laughs, adding She understood!
The first book took 17 years to compile and though he never goes anywhere that doesnt have working toilets he happily endured baking temperatures in a tin hut looking for vultures in Spain and minus 17C in Finland in a hide waiting for a white-tailed sea eagle to be lured by his bait of frozen pig carcass.
His new book took just five years. Dorset is one of the most beautiful places in the world. And I love Poole Harbour. My perfect holiday is renting a National Trust cottage on Brownsea Island for a week its just idyllic.
But work remains his passion. The years from 55 to 75 are the most creative of your life. The pleasure of working with my children thats what drives me now. Even if it all comes down to scrubbing lemons out back, I want to keep playing.