Robert R. Taylor, creator of SoftSoap, dead at 77

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LOS ANGELES – Soft soap in a bottle that could be dispensed by a convenient little pump handle on the top.


Robert R. Taylor knew he had a phenomenal product on his hands the day he invented it, one that would revolutionize the way people wash their hands.


He was so certain, in fact, that he worried that as soon as word got out about what he called SoftSoap, a much bigger company would put out its own rival brand, shoving his right off the nation’s store shelves.


There was only thing to do: If a big company started putting soap in a bottle, figured Taylor, who died last month at age 77, he’d have to make sure they couldn’t get it out — at least not conveniently.


Leveraging his company for $12 million, every penny it was worth, he ordered 100 million little bottle hand-pumps from the only two U.S. manufacturers that made them. That created a back order so huge the companies couldn’t make pumps for anybody else for more than a year, giving Taylor’s brand time to become established.


The risky gamble paid off handsomely. In six months, Taylor had sold $25 million worth of SoftSoap. Earlier this year, Inc. Magazine declared his cornering of the hand-pump market one of the three shrewdest business moves ever made.


Taylor, who died of cancer in Newport Beach on Aug. 29, would go on to create and sell more than a dozen businesses during his lifetime, including those that produced toothpaste, shampoos, various kinds of soap and several hugely popular fragrances.


Most well known among the latter was likely Calvin Klein’s Obsession, which he marketed in the 1980s with what was for the time a winkingly risque ad campaign.


“Between love and madness lies Obsession,” became the fragrance’s popular and sometimes parodied catchphrase.


It was SoftSoap, however, that made Taylor’s reputation as a business genius.


“He was just driving to work one day and he had been looking at the soap in the sink and seeing how messy it was and he was like, ‘There’s got to be a way to not have to deal with that,”’ his daughter, Lori Lawrence, told the Associated Press on Thursday.


He came up with the marketing concept first. Then, through home experimentation and some trial and error, created the soap.


He had been doing business since he was a child growing up in Ohio, his family said, once selling a home pigeon to a pet store several times.


He earned a Master of Business Administration degree from Stanford University in 1959 and, after working as a salesman for Johnson & Johnson for a few years, he and a college buddy formed their own marketing company. In 1964 he formed Village Bath Products with $3,000, later renaming it Minnetonka Corp.


He initially ran the business out of his Minnesota home, making hand-rolled soap balls marketed in homey glass jars and baskets, fruit-scented shampoos and other bath products.


His daughter, who as a child helped him with some of the soap formulas and tested them for him in the bathtub, recalled various failures, including some soaps that would explode.


But, overall, the successes began to pile up.


“He always had a quote: `Whatever the mind of man can conceive, he can achieve,”’ said another daughter, Karen Brandvold. “He lived his life that way.”


After buying the Calvin Klein Cosmetics line, Taylor brought out the Obsession and Eternity fragrances in the 1980s.


He sold his Village Bath and SoftSoap brands to Colgate-Palmolive Co. in 1987 and, two years later, Unilever PLC bought his Minnetonka Corp., which included the Calvin Klein fragrances, for $376 million.


He went on to create several other businesses including the Monterey Bay Clothing Co.


In addition to his daughters, Taylor is survived by his wife, Mary Kay, of Newport Beach. His son, David, died in 1984.


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