UK: PROFILE - QUEEN OF SOAPS.

UK: PROFILE - QUEEN OF SOAPS. - They say that we come to look like our masters, and Miss Ann Rossiter lends eerie credence to the theory. Sitting in her showroom off London's Bond Street - hair set in an implacable coiffure, legs tucked under a damask-ba

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

They say that we come to look like our masters, and Miss Ann Rossiter lends eerie credence to the theory. Sitting in her showroom off London's Bond Street - hair set in an implacable coiffure, legs tucked under a damask-backed banquette - Miss Rossiter looks for all the world like a racier version of Her Majesty The Queen. She also shares HM's forthright views on the appeal of northern cities, and voices them in those same glaciated vowel sounds so long extinct in the rest of the English speaking world. 'You know, we won Northamptonshire Business of the Year last year,' confides Miss Rossiter, with a disquietingly regal smile. 'It was such a surprise. I mean, there were people there from Corby and all those other ghawstly towns, and I just assumed that one of them would get it. I could hardly get out of my chair when they made the announcement.'

Ladies and gentlemen, pray be upstanding for Her Majesty The Queen of Soaps: for by such title is Miss Ann Rossiter, chairman of H Bronnley & Co Ltd, known to the fragrant world of British toiletries. To those of you unfamiliar with the Bronnley story, Miss Rossiter and her family - descendants of the eponymous H Bronnley - have for three generations been entrusted with the burdensome task of ensuring that the British monarchy emits a faint but patriotic odour of herbaceous border when forced to stand upwind of its subject peoples. It is not a duty to be taken lightly. Ask Miss Rossiter whether the present royal dames favour English Fern over Blue Poppy for their olfactory footprint and she will fix you with that a cocked eyebrow similar to that with which her regal mentor is famed for freezing uppity commoners. 'We', says the Queen of Soaps, 'do not talk about things like that at Bronnley.'

But similarities between the parallel kingdoms of Britain's two reigning queens are more than merely cosmetic. It might, for one thing, reasonably be argued that the most notable feature of both is that they should continue to exist at all. Miss Rossiter may still reign as de facto Queen of English soapdom, but she does so - as does her royal dopplegenger - against a background of turbulent times. In the case of Bronnley's chairman, these stem from the monarchical ambitions of an unarguably potent pretender: Ms Anita Roddick, creator of the Body Shop, an empire whose democratising, environmentally concerned values have threatened to replace the ancien regime of British toiletries with the commercial equivalent of a cycling monarchy. 'People's conceptions of toiletries have changed because of the Body Shop,' concedes Miss Rossiter, with a faint air of distaste. 'More people are using them now but not - I'm afraid to say - the better ones'.

A brief tour of the institutions in question suggests two very different ideas of just what 'better' means in terms of modern marketing. Where the average Body Shop boutique makes a moral point of eschewing fancy packaging (bad for rainforests) and unrecyclable containers (bad for the ozone layer), Bronnley's display remains an unashamed example of the art of self indulgence: soaps called Daffodil and Pink Bouquet displayed in brazenly tree-guzzling boxes covered in chintz covered in flowers covered in ribbons covered in royal warrants.

Nevertheless, Miss Rossiter dismisses the idea that her rival's strident right-on-ness is itself anything more than skin deep. 'I was actually the first person to put jojoba in soap,' she notes, briskly. 'I was also the first with honey and beeswax. We don't go around saying that we don't test products on animals either, but of course we don't. Anyway,' hmphs Miss Rossiter, 'no one has to these days. All the main constituents in the industry have already been animal tested, and I'm jolly glad they were.

'Soap is a very old-fashioned commodity,' she continues. 'We're not very avant garde at Bronnley, and in fact in terms of our marketing I think we're actually rather naive. We haven't gone for short-term gimmicks. We've kept our product very conservative and, I like to think, rather dignified.'

Her managing director, John Sheppard, even proposes the existence of a commercial rationale behind this apparently self-immolatory marketing strategy. 'You know,' says Sheppard, 'one of our longest-lived fragrances was called Rose Geranium. Demand was declining, though, so a couple of years ago we decided to withdraw it. But we had so many letters from our customers saying that they couldn't live without it that we've now had to reintroduce it on individual demand.' Where Sheppard reads consoling auguries into these commercial runes, however, a less optimistic interpreter might equally well discern prophecies of doom. One imagines, somehow, that the letters calling for Rose Geranium's stay of execution were written in an unsteady Edwardian hand by a clientele whose menfolk had fallen in the trenches of the Somme. Miss Rossiter admits that the law of diminishing returns is one whose mortal implications have recently been taken on board by product strategists at her Northamptonshire factory. 'We are trying very hard to create a younger product without alienating the older lady,' says the Queen of Soaps, discreetly. 'We're currently trying to bring down our age range by five years every year, but I don't think we're ever really going to cater for the teenage market - unfortunately.'

If the Grim Reaper threatens to circumscribe Bronnley's British markets in one direction, then its chairman's insistence on that old fashioned (and expensive) desirable - the maintenance of standards - also acts as a block to potential mass-market appeal. 'If you buy cheap soap, it's gone in a minute,' reasons Miss Rossiter. 'Ours is perfumed all the way through - not just dipped - and it's triple milled.' While this traditionalism doubtless gives an aesthetically superior product, it does also mean that an individual bath-sized tablet of Lemon Thyme will set the retail buyer back £2.55: a price point that nudges the same tablet - allowing for likely sales margins - firmly onto the less lucrative and more cyclically attuned gift shelves.

Given all of this, the emphasis at Bronnley's Northamptonshire HQ has understandably of late been less on the expansion of existing markets than on the acquisition of new ones. One handy fillip in these difficult economic times has been the growing demand for own-brand products from the hotel industry: a novel earner that will this year account for approximately 10% of Bronnley's total sales. While the firm's Victorian all-under-one-roof manufacturing policy may defy conventional business-school wisdom - 85% of goods, including catalogues and floriated packaging, are still made in-house - it does, says Sheppard, allow for commercially useful short product runs 'when and how we want them'.

Even more promising has been the growth in Bronnley's export business, now responsible for a third of total sales. Whatever the tribulations suffered by the royal image back home, Miss Rossiter stoutly maintains that there is still nothing like the appearance of a Dieu et mon droit or an Ich dien or two (the Prince of Wales - unusually for a man - is a Bronnley fan: you read it here first) on a box of soap to set foreign pulses racing.

After a year when her regal double has publicly buried the hatchet with Russia over that nasty business with the Romanovs, therefore, Britain's soap queen has masterminded a piece of rapprochement of her own. 'Our products are regarded as being very, ah, sexy in Russia,' says Miss Rossiter, with an air of distant bewilderment. 'We've been asked to supply a chain of Moscow boutiques called Wild Orchid, and we've just sent off four tons of stuff this week. Apparently,' adds Bronnley's chairman, doubtfully, 'it will be sold next to - how does one put it? - what I suppose we over here would call "high-class, exotic lingerie". All very exciting.'

Nor will this be Bronnley's only contribution to the rebirth of civilisation east of the Urals. 'We had a terribly interesting interview in this room recently,' confides Miss Rossiter, gesturing at the flowered acres of White Irises and Blue Poppies. 'We were chosen with Sainsbury to show a group of Ukrainians how capitalism works. They came and spent a day here, to talk about how we run small businesses in the West.' One wonders, rather, what the Ukrainians made of their day. For all Bronnley's county prizes - something of a surprise, as Miss Rossiter readily admits - the company can hardly claim to be in the vanguard of neo-capitalist thought. Turnover has held steady - Sheppard suggests a figure of around £6 million for 1994 - but profits, where they have existed at all, have of late tended to be, in Sheppard's words, 'modest'.

If Bronnley's MD explains this lack by referring to the costs of establishing an international marketing presence, Miss Rossiter proffers a different answer. 'This is first and foremost a family firm, and I've always felt that it is our duty to employ as many people as we commercially can, to give them jobs they can enjoy doing. You know, my first job was in Conservative Central Office, and people there were absolutely foul to each other. I thought then, "If I ever have my own concern, it won't be like this", and it hasn't been. Our average length of employment here is 11 years, and many of our ladies have been here for over 25.'

It is a piece of old-fashioned commercial High Toryism that - like Bronnley's products and its marketing mores - pre-dates the harder heads and hearts of post-Thatcherite British business. Miss Rossiter's trenchant opinion of Margaret Thatcher ('got a bit above herself') speaks volumes. It is also curiously like the view reputedly held by the (other) Queen. And HM and Miss Rossiter share a further quality, too: problems with their heirs.

After 112 years as a family business, Bronnley has a chairman who has no children. Arrangements, she says, have been made for her shareholding in the firm to pass to her co-directors. Will things at Brackley remain the same when its queen no longer reigns? Miss Rossiter ponders the question and says: 'I don't think the business has been any different for having had a woman at its head.' Then she pauses for a moment and adds, 'Well, the garden's probably nicer than it might have been.'.

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