Remembering Robert R. Taylor, Founder of Minnetonka Corp., Dead at 77

Consummate entrepreneur started and sold 14 iconic consumer product businesses, from SoftSoap to Calvin Klein fragrance lines Obsession and Eternity

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif.--()--Entrepreneur Robert R. Taylor, creator of consumer products and founder of several companies including Minnetonka Corporation, died Aug. 29, 2013, in Newport Beach, Calif., after a long battle with cancer. He was 77.

Throughout his long business career, Taylor was a visionary marketer who started and successfully sold 14 different consumer product businesses, including two multimillion-dollar businesses during his so-called retirement, Graham Webb International and Monterey Bay Clothing Company. He once told a business audience of his success at building businesses, “Each one gets easier, but it’s never easy.”

“Dad saw opportunities 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 his daughter, Lori Lawrence, of Denver.

“He always had a quote, ‘Whatever the mind of man can conceive, he can achieve,’” added his daughter Karen Brandvold, also 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.”

Taylor started his first company, Village Bath Products, when he was just 28 with a $3,000 investment. His first product was old-fashioned hand-rolled soaps wrapped in cloth. Trained as a salesman for Johnson & Johnson during and after college, he called on 25 soap manufacturers, all of whom turned him down. Undeterred, he matched the soap colors to a leading towel manufacturer and received his first orders from department store bath departments and gift shops. Eventually renamed as Minnetonka Corporation, the company became a $200 million, publicly held manufacturer of gift soaps, bath oils, shampoos and candles through continued product innovation and savvy marketing.

Taylor has been credited with numerous marketing concepts, including the first liquid hand soap with a pump, SoftSoap, after pondering how messy a bar of soap became sitting in a soap dish in his home. Because he knew the product would likely be copied in the highly competitive hand soap market dominated by large players, he bought out a full year of pump manufacturers’ inventory to stave off competition – a huge gamble that paid off. As recently as May 2013, Inc. Magazine termed it as one of the “top three shrewdest business moves.” SoftSoap grew rapidly, going from zero to $25 million in six months, and to $100 million in year two.

In addition to SoftSoap, Taylor is credited with introducing the first anti-plaque toothpaste delivered with a pump, Check-Up; the first fruit-fragranced shampoos; and the development of the home fragrance phenomenon under the name of Claire Burke, a small maker of potpourri he acquired and developed.

In 1980, Taylor’s Minnetonka Corp. acquired Calvin Klein Cosmetics. He and his team developed the Obsession fragrance with the industry’s largest and most provocative ad campaign at the time, with sensual ads that proclaimed “between love and madness lies obsession.” Minnetonka Corp. repeated the success with the Eternity fragrance.

Known for being an aggressive marketer, he also possessed a wonderful sense of humor, said his daughters. Lawrence recalled, “When Saturday Night Live parodied the Obsession ads, Dad just loved them.”

In 1987, Minnetonka Corp.’s Village Bath and SoftSoap brands were acquired by Colgate-Palmolive. In 1989 Unilever acquired the rest of Minnetonka Corp. for $376 million, keeping the Calvin Klein fragrance lines and selling the rest of the Minnetonka line to the Japanese company Tsumura. Today, a Minnesota firm, The Village Company, once again owns many of the original Minnetonka brands – still leaders in their respective categories.

Taylor once said his retirement “lasted two minutes.” His next venture was to team up with Graham Webb, one of London’s leading hair stylists and educators, to launch Graham Webb International, a line of professional beauty care products for high-end salons. The company was sold in 2001 to Wella AG. He also developed Monterey Bay Clothing Company.

More recently, he served as chairman and CEO of Robert Taylor Companies, continuing his involvement in various business and philanthropic ventures. He has been the recipient of many awards, including Entrepreneur of the Year by the Stanford Business School Association of the Twin Cities in 1972, and Marketer of the Year by the State of Minnesota in 1981. In 2012, he was inducted into the Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame at Miami University, his alma mater.

Taylor was born Sept. 1, 1935 in Baltimore and grew up in Cincinnati. His first business transaction was to sell a homing pigeon to a pet store – numerous times – and later affixed decals to store windows for the princely sum of $10 a day. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in business from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and received his MBA from Stanford University Graduate School of Business in 1959. After working with Johnson & Johnson both during and after college, he formed the Howe-Taylor Marketing Agency in Minneapolis with John Howe, a Stanford classmate. He soon decided that he not only wanted to market products, but develop his own, which led to his founding of Village Bath Products in 1964.

Taylor remained active and creative throughout his life, involved in many business and philanthropic ventures. He and his wife Mary Kay relished their time together with family, especially with their grandchildren, golf and traveling.

The Taylors have long been active in charitable organizations involved with youth, health care and education, from the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Twin Cities, to the Hoag Hospital Foundation in Newport Beach, Calif. They helped Miami University’s Farmer School of Business build the David R. Taylor Auditorium and establish an endowment fund, both named in David’s memory.

Taylor was predeceased by his son, David. He is survived by his wife, Mary Kay, of Newport Beach; daughters Karen Brandvold and Lori (David) Lawrence, both of Denver; and six grandchildren. A celebration of his life will be held at 2 p.m., Nov. 24, 2013, at The Vintage Club, Indian Wells, Calif.

PLEASE NOTE: A photo of Robert R. Taylor is available by emailing


Mary Lilja for the Taylor family
612-590-1522 (cell)

Release Summary

Entrepreneur Robert R. Taylor, creator of consumer products and founder of several companies including Minnetonka Corporation, died Aug. 29, 2013, in Newport Beach, Calif.


Mary Lilja for the Taylor family
612-590-1522 (cell)