"I think self-belief is very important for entrepreneurs," says Nick Wheeler, the Eton-schooled founder of Charles Tyrwhitt Shirts. The 43-year-old has certainly never been short of faith in himself. Fresh out of school, on his first day working in Harrod's golfwear department, he told a colleague: "I know you've been here 20 years and I've been here a day, but I think there's a few things you're not doing as well as you could be." The tactless young upstart found himself shifted to the basement, away from customers and staff alike. Unimpressed by life as an employee, he resolved to be his own boss.
One of his first ventures, as a student at Bristol University, was to import cheap custom-made shoes from India. It seemed a great idea. But his order system, which involved tracing around customers' feet then faxing the result to the factory on a dodgy phoneline, left a lot to be desired. "It was an absolute disaster. Not one shoe fitted." So the next year he turned to shirts. A friend's cousin, who'd been in the army, had an address book with a list of ex-officers. After tracking down a Lancashire mill and a factory to make the shirts, Wheeler typed out 600 A5 mail inserts, which he then hand-signed and "pelted out" to the names. Within weeks, he had 30 responses. He continued to track down more lists of names, and by the time he left university, was turning over £12,000 a year.
He was keen to continue, but his father suggested he get some business experience. He went to work as a consultant, but when his great-aunt died two years later and left him £8,000, he took a huge gamble. It was 1986 and the classic-car market was booming. He borrowed £17,000 from the bank to buy an Aston Martin DB1, aiming to resell it and invest the profits in the shirt business. The gamble paid off a year later he sold it for £100,000. He immediately spent £70,000 on shirts from Hong Kong, "which was just a massive mistake" as all his money was tied up in stock.
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Cash flow was tight he had to sell a shirt every time he wanted to buy more fabric. But his keen prices and high-quality material drew more and more custom. Valuable new names came from small ads in The Daily Telegraph and The Times. Wheeler would book late to get space at £300 a pop instead of the usual £1,500. "Mail order is about filling up your databases." By the second year he was selling £250,000-worth of shirts and breaking even. By the third, he made a small profit on £750,000.
The business grew gradually until, in 1996, he opened a shop on Jermyn Street in central London, famed for its shirtmakers. The idea was to give "customers a belief in the brand instead of a funny address in north London. And it did really well."
Today Charles Tyrwhitt has six branches in the UK, two stores in New York and one in Paris, and turns over £50m a year. Wheeler is aiming to hit the £100m mark within the next four to five years. "People say, gosh, you've done very well but I've always said that anybody can do it." You just have to have faith.
Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.
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