Obituary: Robert R. Taylor launched iconic product firms

  • Article by: JOY POWELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 19, 2013 - 9:46 PM

Entrepreneur Robert R. Taylor created SoftSoap, the first mass-marketed liquid soap pumped from a plastic bottle.

Photo: Photo provided by Taylor family,

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Robert R. Taylor risked millions — and put his entire company on the line — when he and his team developed the Obsession fragrance with the industry’s biggest and most provocative ad campaign at the time.

It was such a marketing phenomenon that “Saturday Night Live” parodied the sensual ads, which proclaimed that “between love and madness lies obsession.” Taylor, who had a keen sense of humor, couldn’t have been more tickled.

That coup was among his crowning achievements: starting and selling 14 iconic consumer product businesses, from SoftSoap to Calvin Klein fragrance lines Obsession and Eternity.

Taylor, formerly of Minneapolis, died Aug. 29 in Newport Beach, Calif., after a long battle with cancer. He was 77.

“Dad saw opportunities that others did not, and he took risks to bring new consumer products to the marketplace, from the first liquid hand soap with a pump, to perfumes that would prove to be unforgettable,” said daughter Lori Lawrence of Denver.

Taylor was a visionary marketer who even in his “so-called” retirement started and successfully sold two multimillion​-dollar businesses, Graham Webb International and Monterey Bay Clothing Co., his family said.

His acumen is viewed as a model at Harvard Business School and beyond.

“He always had a quote: ‘Whatever the mind of man can conceive, it can achieve,’ ” said daughter Karen Brandvold of Denver. “He lived his life that way as a risk-taker and trendsetter in everything he did, trusting his gut instinct instead of relying on lots of product research.”

After working with Johnson & Johnson during and after college, where he was selected for Phi Beta Kappa, Taylor formed the Howe-Taylor Marketing Agency in Minneapolis with John Howe, a classmate at Stanford, where Taylor earned his MBA.

At age 28, he used a $3,000 investment to start his first company, Village Bath Products. Later renamed Minnetonka Corp., it grew into a $200 million publicly held maker of gift soaps, bath oils, shampoos and candles.

Savvy in marketing and innovations, Bob Taylor also was tremendously generous to charities, including Boys & Girls Club, where he and wife Mary Kay chaired the annual gala and met their longtime friend, Cliff Lake of Wayzata.

Lake called Taylor highly decisive and competitive.

“He was driven and confident,” Lake said. “He was a salesman; he was a marketer. The biggest ability he had was to see something and envision how it would be a huge home run … He had the ability to look at a product and say, ‘People are going to buy this, and here’s how I’m going to sell it.’ ”

In the early 1970s, when Taylor owned his small soap company, he considered how soap bars would melt in dishes. He wanted to sell liquid soap in pump dispensers, but those two products were patented.

To keep big companies from swiping his idea, Taylor raised $12 million, exceeding the net worth of his firm, and ordered 100 million of the pump dispensers from the only two manufacturers making them in the United States, tying up their production.

Within two years, Soft​Soap dominated the market. He later sold it to Colgate-Palmolive for $61 million.

Taylor was preceded in death by son David, killed in a Colorado avalanche. In his memory, Bob and Mary Kay helped build the David R. Taylor Auditorium at Bob’s alma mater, Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and established an endowment.

In addition to his wife and daughters, Bob Taylor is survived by six grandchildren.

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