LOS ANGELES – Robert R. Taylor, who took soap out of dishes, put it in pump bottles and forever changed the way people wash up, has died. He was 77.

Taylor’s family said Thursday the entrepreneur died of cancer Aug. 29 in Newport Beach.

An entrepreneurial visionary, Taylor created and sold more than a dozen businesses during his lifetime, including those that produced toothpaste, shampoos and popular fragrances.

Most well known among the latter was likely the Calvin Klein fragrance Obsession, which Taylor 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 his 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 said Thursday.

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

He planned to begin selling SoftSoap in 1980 through his small company, Village Bath Products, but realized that if it caught on, huge home products manufacturers such as Johnson & Johnson, where he had once worked, would copy the soap-in-a-pump-bottle idea and quickly put him out of business.

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

In six months, he had sold $25 million worth of SoftSoap. Earlier this year the industry trade publication Inc. Magazine declared his cornering of the hand-pump market one of the three shrewdest business moves ever made.

Taylor, who earned an MBA from Stanford University in 1959, worked as a salesman for Johnson & Johnson for a few years before he and a college buddy formed a marketing company in 1963 with a $3,000 investment. He started Village Bath Products himself the next year.


He initially ran the business out of his Minnesota home, making hand-rolled soap balls marketed in 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 the Village Bath and SoftSoap brands to Colgate-Palmolive in 1987 and, two years later, Unilever 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.


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