Mike Clare: how sweet dreams led to a £200m fortune

When he opened his first business selling beds, Mike Clare was delivery driver, accountant, salesman and store manager. Twenty years later, he's enjoying the fruits of his hard work.

Mike Clare decided from an early age not to become "one of those people who always talk about starting a business but never do". After leaving college at 18 he worked his way up to area manager of a national furniture chain. Then, with more than a decade working in general furniture under his belt, he decided the best bet was to specialise in a particular piece. He chose beds because, unlike, say, carpets, "people always need a bed in a recession they just buy a cheaper one".

Clare estimated that he would need £20,000 to lease a property, buy stock and hold out until sales rolled in. Unfortunately he only had £1,000 saved. So he remortgaged his house, took out a loan for a phantom kitchen refurbishment and sold his car. With £7,000 in his pocket, he approached Lloyds: "in those days it would match any figure you put down".

Still short, Clare and his wife saved money by renting a former car spare parts shop that was "covered in oil". They fitted it out themselves, only calling on outside help for the shop sign. "We worked very hard. I was the delivery driver, accountant, salesman and store manager. The shop, Dreams, was open six days a week and Sunday was spent doing the books." The hard work paid off and within six months Clare had opened another store. By the end of the year turnover was £500,000.

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Clare concedes that in addition to hard work, he was helped by a bit of luck. "It was Thatcher's Britain and the country felt optimistic." Dreams also received a boost when one of its products, the "bed settee", was rebranded in America as a sofabed "and suddenly became very fashionable".

But Clare had "never wanted to be the owner of just one bed shop" and quickly opened new stores as soon as the business finances would allow. His tactic was "to drive to the next town and look for a good location". Once he had chosen a site he would fit it out with the distinctive blue carpet, advertise for sales people, arrange an opening with the local mayor and "start thinking about the next place".

It was the start of a two-decade growth story that would see Dreams open more than 200 stores across the country.

But he soon hit a challenge, "perhaps one of the biggest for any successful entrepreneur" how to grow with the business? As Dreams added stores Clare found he had to change his role. He not only had to delegate but learn how to act as the CEO of a now sizeable company. "I went on courses, read books. It changed a lot from the early days."

In March 2008, Clare sold a £200m stake to a venture-capitalist firm. "After 20 years of working six to seven days a week I was ready to enjoy the fruits of my hard work." So he retired, went travelling and bought a country mansion, "all the usual things for someone who has just sold a business". But after a year Clare, now 53, was "bored" and ready to re-enter the commercial fray. His new company, Amazing Retreats, buys unusual, historic properties, such as monasteries and castles and leases them out for functions and special occasions. "Flying around the Scottish Highlands in a helicopter, looking at castles doesn't really feel like work and that's the way I wanted it."

James graduated from Keele University with a BA (Hons) in English literature and history, and has a NCTJ certificate in journalism.


After working as a freelance journalist in various Latin American countries, and a spell at ITV, James wrote for Television Business International and covered the European equity markets for the Forbes.com London bureau. 


James has travelled extensively in emerging markets, reporting for international energy magazines such as Oil and Gas Investor, and institutional publications such as the Commonwealth Business Environment Report. 


He is currently the managing editor of LatAm INVESTOR, the UK's only Latin American finance magazine.