A high-street opening offers some pointers to what makes a successful business
Nick Wheeler recalls, aged five, going into work with his father at Wolseley Hughes, the engineering company. With roots in the makers of the iconic Wolseley car, the company had diversified and was also making agricultural products. The young Wheeler saw raw materials going in one end and finished products coming out the other. “I would help open the post in the morning and I always remember when there was a cheque, we both got terribly excited,” he said.
His father probably would have liked to run his own business, he thinks, but post-war Britain was not the ideal environment for start-ups.
Wheeler senior did lead a management buyout at Wolseley, though, and it was probably these formative experiences that engendered an entrepreneurial spirit in his son. “I’ve always wanted to have my own business,” said Wheeler, founder of the shirt-maker Charles Tyrwhitt (pronounced ‘Tirrit’). “I’ve just never liked the idea of being bossed around by anyone else; I like to be in control of my own destiny.” As a youngster, Wheeler would stand on a bridge over the Thames and photograph boats passing during the Head of the River Race and various regattas – then go around schools selling the pictures. He delivered Christmas trees in London and – as an added feature – offered to collect them.
During his gap year, he went to India and had a pair of shoes made that he was so taken by he decided while at university to start a tailormade shoe business. It wasn’t a success. He took orders, tracing around customers’ feet and then faxing the outlines to the makers in Simla, in northern India. But the faxes often shortened or lengthened the outline, depending on the quality of the telephone line and Wheeler found himself with a consignment of shoes, none of which fitted.
Undeterred, Wheeler wondered: “What else can I do? And I just literally thought ‘shirts’.” A friend told him about a cotton supplier in Lancashire and Wheeler asked him who the best shirt maker in England was (it happened to be in Clacton-on-Sea, in Essex). Beginning with a mail-order business in 1986, Wheeler now has seven stores in London, seven around the UK (including one which opened in George Street, Edinburgh, last week), one in Paris and two in New York, as well as a thriving online outlet; in all turning over around £85m last year, up 35 per cent on the previous year and budgeting £104m for this year.
It is bucking the trend; retail sales dropped in August as consumers remained concerned about their jobs and incomes, according to the British Retail Consortium. Sales at stores open for at least 12 months, measured by value, fell 0.6 per cent from a year earlier. Consumer confidence fell for a third month in August as turmoil on the stock markets and signs of a faltering economic recovery shook sentiment.
“Poor consumer confidence, high inflation and the on-going squeeze on personal finances remain the biggest threats to the retail sector,” BRC Director General Stephen Robertson said in the report. “Sales of big-ticket items are very dependent on discounting and many retailers’ margins are being cut to the bone.” Wheeler is defying the miserably downward trend of high-street retailers, but he is refreshingly frank about why he thinks the business is thriving: “I’m a great believer in keeping things simple.
Provide the customer with what they want; a great product at a good price. Make sure you have in stock what they are looking for and make it easy for them to speak to someone if they need to. I’ve found that the more we have focused on doing the basic things right, the better we do as a business.” While the company’s main product sits above those of the larger retailers, such as Marks and Spencer and Next, it still places store on offering value with its ‘buy four shirts for £100’ offer. It also occupies a fortuitous position; in the good times, M&S shoppers tend to treat themselves to Charles Tyrwhitt and when times are tough, the brand is a comfort for Thomas Pink aficionados.
Wheeler describes his approach to growth as that of a tortoise rather than a hare. And he cautions against this year’s go-to for ambitious businesses; developing markets: “You’ve got to be careful; there’s an awful lot of people who have tried and failed. If you are thinking about somewhere like China, India or Brazil then you should find a very good partner in that country.” Although Charles Tyrwhitt’s main international markets are the US and Germany – both relatively low-growth economies, post-recession – Wheeler is happy with incremental growth.
“I don’t want to have a lot of stores. George Street is a fantastic street that allows us to stand out,” he said. The location, number 52, came up when The White Company decided to move to bigger premises a few doors along (Wheeler is married to White Company founder Chrissie Rucker). “A shop is like a billboard, really, a way of positioning the brand in people’s minds.”
He added: “Having said that, the internet can’t fully replace the experience of the physical shop.
There are plenty of people who actually find it more convenient to come in after work, before their train home, and buy their shirts and so on.” But Wheeler acknowledges that for independent retailers on ordinary high streets, times are tough: “If you are an independent retailer without a web presence, then you’ve got a problem. The internet is going to change our lives even more than we think, so you’ve got to embrace online.” He’s looking forward to having a Scottish shop: “There’s a real buzz. The English can be a bit blasé, the Scottish are more passionate. There are a lot of entrepreneurs in Scotland who like our story and I think the country in general is very welcoming to entrepreneurial business.”