Cardiff Business Club interviews Nick Wheeler OBE

Date Posted: 15 May 2019 Cardiff Business Club interviews Nick Wheeler OBE

On Monday 13th May, the Club was privileged to be given the opportunity to interview that evening's guest speaker, Nick Wheeler OBE, Founder and Chairman of Charles Tyrwhitt Shirts.

The event, kindly sponsored by The ICAEW was attended by over 200 people from across the Welsh capital.

Nicholas Charles Tyrwhitt Wheeler had the idea for Charles Tyrwhitt in 1986, whilst studying Geography at Bristol University. He is also a non-executive director of The White Company and is married to its founder Chrissie Rucker. They have four children and live in Oxfordshire.

Nick’s story is an aspirational one, taking business failures in his stride, he has managed to build a highly successful company centred around the employees, the customer and the relationship with his suppliers.

Before taking to the stage Mr Wheeler, spent a few moments to be interviewed by Paul MacKenzie-Cummins and Kara Buffrey from Clearly PR & Marketing Communications on behalf of the Club.

If you would prefer to listen to the podcast version of the interview, click here.

Paul MacKenzie-Cummins (PMC), Nick Wheeler (NW)

PMC: Why shirts?

NW: I did shirts because all I knew was that I wanted my own business. I wanted to do a business with a product - one that I liked. First, I had a photography business, a shoe business and a Christmas tree business – which was pretty much a disaster – and then I ended up doing shirts. I didn’t really want a people business because people are much more complicated than a product, so I decided to settle on shirts.

PMC: You were at university at the time, weren’t you?

NW: Yes, I was. I had a shoe business and was trying to make an import/export business, without really knowing anything about it. I then thought, when the shoe business was an absolute raving disaster, what can I do instead of shoes? Nowadays they call it ‘pivoting’. So, I pivoted, I went from shoes to shirts. I was doing a degree at the time, so it was a great opportunity to start a new business.

It’s funny because a lot of entrepreneurs say, ‘Should I go to university?’. It’s a good question because you waste a lot of time at university, but it does give you that umbrella of having an excuse to be doing something. Your parents don’t give you a hard time, because you’re doing a degree. So, off I went trying to sell my shirts.

PMC: Did you face any resilience for not following the traditional corporate job path?

NW: I think my father was very good, he never put any pressure on me to do anything. He was quite an entrepreneur himself and would always support me but wouldn’t tell me what to do. Very few people started their own businesses when my father was young, but later on in life he did a management buyout of an agricultural business – he would have been an entrepreneur if he could have been, so I think he kind of liked the fact that I was doing something different.

Most of all he wanted me to do something that I really wanted to do. When I said I was going to leave school and go straight into business he said, ‘Look why don’t you go to university.’ So, I did. When I left university, I was going to go into business full time, but he said, ‘Why  don’t you go and get some real experience?’

I went to work for Bain & Company [management consultancy] and at the end of that I really wanted to start my own business. At this point I was 24 and I suddenly thought I was getting really old, if I didn’t start now I never would.

PMC: How did you finance the business?

NW: I have been incredibly lucky. My great aunt died and left me £8,000 and I needed some money for the business. At this point the business had been running for three to four years and we had been making £12,000 a year, each year.

I didn’t have any money; I couldn’t buy any stock so therefore I couldn’t sell any stock. It was back in the late 80’s and there was a classic car boom. I found this car which was £25,000 and I went to see the bank manager. It was utterly absurd because this would never happen now. But the bank manager lent me the money. I bought it for £25,000 and the following year I sold it for £100,000 and had £75,000 for the business – I lost it in the next year.

PMC: How did you manage to bounce back from that?

NW: A lot of people are in a real rush when they start a business – they think that having a successful business is all about having the money to buy the product. It really frustrates me when people now start a business because they go out and raise loads of money, and they usually give away their equity to quite unsuitable people. They go out and do all of the hard work and somebody else gets all the benefit.

It’s about getting the wisdom and knowledge. With my business everybody told me to give up, they said this is just not going to work. But I just learned a lot and it was mail order so I could manage the cash flow. As long as you don’t try to grow too fast – where one mistake could make you go bust – slow and steady and you can build a great business.

PMC: A few years after you started, the internet came into full use. How did that impact your business?

NW: I knew that was pure luck. I was a down and dirty mail order business which at the time was quite downmarket. Suddenly it became quite sexy. People started selling good quality stuff and it completely transformed the business. We now do 70 per cent of the business online.

PMC: You have a strong high-street presence too, how do you entice customers to visit the stores as well as purchasing online?

NW: It’s a tough ask. We have a saying in the business which is ‘be the customer’. What does the customer want? A lot of companies talk about that but a hell of a lot of companies don’t actually do it.

From our point of view what the customer wants they get. If they want to shop online, or instore, or use a brochure then we will make that as good as possible. Until our customers actually say, ‘We don’t want to shop instore anymore,’ we will keep giving them whatever they want.

PMC: Was there a moment when you thought ‘this is really going to work’?

I think that if you’re an entrepreneur you always believe. When I was doing £12,000 a year, I always believed it would work. You have this slightly ridiculous self-belief and confidence nobody else shares – everyone else thinks you’re absolutely crazy.

But if you don’t have it, it will always be difficult. There were points where people’s opinions started to change. But for me, even when it was a tiny business, I thought it was going to be a billion-pound business.

I’ve always been optimistic. As an entrepreneur you want to be an optimist, but you’ve got to be careful because you have to be a realist as well – you don’t want to waste your whole life doing something you don’t love. I mean, I could still be selling Christmas trees!

PMC: Is there a danger of becoming complacent?

NW: Absolutely, the most dangerous time in a business is when things are going well, because you start to believe you’re really good at it. There were two times for me where things were going absolutely ‘tickety-boo’ and it all seemed very easy. I was finally making more money than all of my boring friends who had gone and got proper jobs, and I thought this is a piece of cake.

I went off and bought a chain of children’s clothes shops which was idiotic. I lost more money than I had made in three years and went bust, so that was a bit of a lesson. Then in 2005 I got to £40 million sales and I thought the same – this is easy. I went into women’s and children’s clothing and very nearly went bust again.

PMC: Did you ever get mentored by anybody?

NW: I never did really – I think it’s a fairly modern thing. It really annoys my wife because I always say I made all the mistakes and told her what not to do with her business [The White Company]. But she’s had a fantastically smooth path.

Both of the businesses are pretty much exactly the same size now and she’s had a perfect growth curve every year. There were some mistakes that I probably stopped her making. Mentors are important, getting the right mentor can make a huge difference to a business. One bad mistake can put the business back years.

PMC: Do you think making mistakes has put you in a better position now than you would have been?

NW: Yes, it has. I think it’s very important in business not to have a fear of failure. If you have a fear of failing, you will never grow or push the boundaries or take the risks. You have to go out and make mistakes, but the important thing is to learn from them.

PMC: With all of the funding available now, it seems to be easier to secure the capital you need to start and scale a business. Do you think you would have taken advantage of that and would the business have been as successful as it is now?

NW: I’m very anti-outside-funding. I think the reason for that is that I’ve always said that entrepreneurs are split into two types; hares and tortoises. There’s a lot of hares out there: they think of the idea; they rush out spend loads of money; they sell and off they go they start something else.

I’ve always thought that if you can grow your own business steadily, over the long term you can grow a very successful business. The really difficult thing in a business is taking it from one to 10 million compared to 10 to 100 million. Hares tend to take it from one to 10 million then sell it out and someone else comes along and make much more money and benefit.

I think if you bring in outside investment you end up being the person that is taken advantage of. If you make a mistake, they end up taking control.

PMC: After 33 years in the business, what keeps you going and motivates you?

NW: I just want it to be a great business – which is a bit wishy washy – but I want a business where the people who work there love it. The other thing is having customers that love the business too. The mantra is easy, we want men to dress well and we want to make it easy for men to dress well.

Our business is about making men feel better about themselves, feel happier in the morning and just generally feel good. I love it when customers come and tell us we are doing something right. I also want the suppliers to love the business and that gives me a buzz. It’s all about creating something special.

PMC: With success comes the opportunity to do good, tell us more about the Wheeler Foundation.

NW: I believe in education and youth. When it comes to charitable giving there are so many great ones. I think the whole concept of taking somebody and giving them an education that will change the way they react in the world is amazing. I have a small number of charities which I believe do a fantastic job. The Princes Trust in Wales is one of them.

It’s about giving people that little bit of self-belief to children and young people. So, what I do is support the Princes Trust and I have a programme where I support 100 kids to go through to Wellington College – a private school. These are free school meal kids in the area, and they don’t need the full immersive experience of a scholarship, they just need a leg up.

A lot of children are on social media and they don’t feel good about themselves. It doesn’t take much to just make them realise that everybody is equal and can do amazing things. That’s what the Wheeler Foundation tries to do, it’s trying to help people believe in themselves.

PMC: What’s the one lesson you’ve learnt that you would pass on to the next generation of entrepreneurs?

NW: I think the most important thing is to focus. To make a business work you have to be good and to make it work well you have to be the best. If you focus on one thing and you try your hardest to be the absolute best at that one thing – you’re going to have much more chance.

Just be the best.