Pete Boyle: from the car boot to a 22-shop empire

Pete Boyle built up a business turning over £5m a year from a beginning flogging jewellery out of the back of his 1978 Austin Maxi.

Ever since Pete Boyle, 38, realised he could make £1,000 in a weekend "just standing around drinking Guinness and chatting to people", he's been selling jewellery. The son of a schoolteacher, in 1991 he began flogging ear-rings and bracelets out of the back of his 1978 Austin Maxi at Irish music festivals. "I thought, this is marvellous certainly better than making £1 an hour in a bin-liner factory, which I was doing at the time. Career-choice-wise, it was an obvious decision."

A native of Strabane, County Tyrone, "where to own your own house meant you were upper class", Boyle was studying business at the University of Ulster in Jordanstown at the time. After graduating in 1994, he settled down with a regular pitch on the Royal Avenue in Belfast, selling goods he'd bought wholesale in Dublin. It was at the start of the peace process, he recalls. "We were regarded as a sign of normality" in a city where being able to enter the main shopping area without being searched was still a novelty. "So the council kind of ignored us at the start." But soon fines were levied, so Boyle decided to set up his own store.

He was inspired by a shop he'd seen in London's Covent Garden. It was "all glass, no velvet and very modern looking". It was also very expensive, "charging £200 for a silver ring, which I knew I could buy for a fraction of the cost in Mexico. So all we had to do was get the jewellery designed in Mexico and do a Covent Garden-style shop fit."

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Loading up on travellers' cheques, Boyle booked a flight for Mexico City, where he bought £10,000 worth of silver jewellery, and brought it back through Heathrow in his suitcase. "Everyone was at it. There was no searching of bags in those days." In Christmas 1997, he spent £5,000 fitting out a 100 sq ft shop that "you couldn't swing a cat in", just off Royal Avenue in Belfast. He bought his cabinets from Ikea ("we still do"), and installed a counter he'd found in a skip. "Shopfitters are very wasteful. If you hang around long enough, they'll throw out something useful." After upping his prices "we were just too cheap in the first week" the shop got off to a "flying start". At the time, shoppers had a choice between just two kinds of jewellery, he says: investment-type gold rings, which a mother would hand down to her daughter, and costume jewellery, "which at the time was made from nickel and was making people's ears itchy. So our silver filled the gap perfectly."

Within a year, the shop was turning over £250,000 and Boyle opened a second store in Derry City. By 2001, he had four, turning over £1m. It hasn't all been easy, he admits. Eighteen months ago, as silver prices "went through the roof", Mexican silver fell out of fashion, being seen "as too heavy and clunky". Argento was forced to cut its stock, "and I had to go to Asia to learn how to buy costume jewellery. It was a steep learning curve." Today, Argento turns over £5m across 22 stores in Britain and Ireland. His advice to budding entrepreneurs? Focus on the essentials. "People think they need a posh business card and then to pay a graphic designer to get a website started. But then they have no money left. All I care about is that my shops are all in profit."

Jody Clarke

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.