Nick Wheeler OBE, 57, started his shirt business in 1986 from his room at Bristol University. He spent £99 on 5,000 leaflets, £199 on an Amstrad word processor and started selling shirts via mail order.
For the first four years, he earned £12,000 a year in sales. Today, Wheeler is founder chairman of multi-million pound company Charles Tyrwhitt, the name born out of his two middle names. The company halved its profits during the pandemic, while 2022 is expected to see turnover of £180 million. He is married to Chrissie Rucker, founder and owner of The White Company.
I always knew that I wanted to run my own business as I never really liked being told what to do. That was a bit of a problem when I was at school.
I initially had a photography business but went to university on the advice of my father. I did so under peer pressure and I’ll never know if it was a good decision or not.
It meant that I had a year off and so I got a job at Harrods. I was stationed in golf wear and started my first day during the January sales in 1984. I met my boss, who told me that he had run the spot for 20 years and that he knew what he was doing.
I kept on coming up with silly ideas and, at the end of the first day, he became quite annoying. I went away and made a list of all the things that could make the golf department better. I knew nothing about retail, golf or Harrods and was probably being a slightly obnoxious school leaver.
I soon had about 10 improvements on the list and handed it to him; I thought I was being helpful and this was how business worked in terms of collaboration. The next day I came in and was probably expecting a promotion. It was a real shock when I discovered that he had moved me to luggage. I didn’t last very long there either. I was sent down to the basement, which was great fun and where I was moving stock around.
But I vowed then that I would never have to suffer the same if I ever owned my business. I hate that phrase in business ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, rather than looking at ways to change for the better. Today, when I meet new recruits at Charles Tyrwhitt, I say ‘look around you, look at things that you think are wrong’. Quite often, we may have done things for 20 years which need change. So it’s about challenging them to think ‘if this was my business, what would I do?’
The lesson I learnt was to be grown up as a business owner and to respect the skills people had coming in, regardless of their experience. Nine of my ideas for the golf department were probably rubbish, but there was surely one that would have come good with some lateral thinking. The same philosophy applies in shops when I hear stories from customers who say they came in wearing ripped jeans and a T-shirt and that they were treated as if they weren’t going to buy a suit, not like a king.
I really do feel like I learned from my Harrods experience and I have repeated this story so many times to recruits. That one day has certainly made Charles Tyrwhitt a better business 35 years later.
Getting a little bit better every year is also key to any business growth. Building a business is hard, but we never read about the thousands which don’t grow quickly. If you can grow a little bit every year, be happy at the same time and do it for 30 years, then you will end up with a decent business.
I stuck at it. I had simple rules: for the people, customers and suppliers to love the business. You have to create something special and it is easy to do that over the long term. I’ve made mistakes along the way, but I’ve never had any outside investment.
What I was doing was slightly reinventing the wheel; I was learning stuff that others knew already and the business perhaps grew slower than it should have done. In the early days you are selling 10 shirts and every year you move along that is increased to a million. On top of that, if you give customers good service and product then everyone is happy.
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