Robert R. Taylor

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LOS ANGELES - With one stroke, entrepreneur Robert R. Taylor made a fortune, changed the way America washed up and doomed the bathroom soap dish to virtual obsolescence.

It was Taylor who turned hand soap from a slippery lump to a dab from a pump.

Taylor, who created Softsoap, the first mass-marketed liquid soap pumped from a plastic bottle, died of cancer Aug. 29 in Newport Beach, Calif., family members said. He was 77.

Softsoap was one of his many successful ventures, which included Obsession, a fragrance he developed with Calvin Klein and promoted in steamy ads that stimulated both sales and controversy. But it was Taylor's famously bold gamble on Softsoap that still is the stuff of business school case studies. The problem, as he saw it, was that larger competitors would quickly copy his idea and sweep Softsoap off the shelves.

In 1980, the small Minnesota company he founded, Minnetonka Corp., introduced his new soap line with a $7 million ad campaign. By comparison, the yearly ad budget for Dial, the biggest soap of the day, was $8.5 million.

While the ad blitz drew consumers, "the threat of imitation was real," wrote business professors Adam M. Brandenburger and Barry Nalebuff in their 1997 book "Co-Opetition."

"Softsoap was hardly a patentable invention," they noted. "Pumps had been around since Archimedes."

In what the authors called a "bet-the-company move," Taylor secretly ordered 100 million of the little plastic pumps that were at the time used to dispense various lotions. That tied up a full year's production of the pumps' only manufacturers, giving Taylor time to establish his brand without rivals. In 1987, a few years after the soap giants caught up, he sold Softsoap to Colgate-Palmolive for $61 million.

"The best way for an entrepreneur to compete in today's marketplace," he told The New York Times, "is to avoid competition - or at least find ways to circumvent it."

Born in Baltimore on Sept. 1, 1935, Robert Ridgely Taylor grew up in Cincinnati and displayed a flair for business early in life. As a boy, he sold a homing pigeon to a pet store several times. After graduating from college, he worked for Johnson & Johnson before starting his own business with a $3,000 investment in 1963.
Published in Union Leader on Jan. 1, 1900
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