Nick Wheeler

It all began with flowers

HOF Entrepreneurs Nick Wheeler 1920X1080

Published: 19/06/2020

Nick Wheeler, is the founder of shirtmaker Charles Tyrwhitt (his middle names), which he established in 1986. Today, it has grown to be the UK’s largest mail-order shirt business. He tells Smith & Williamson how it started with selling flowers.

While some entrepreneurs will insist that forensic market research is the key to long-term success, that was never Nick Wheeler’s style. He wanted to do something he liked and it just so happened he liked shirts - “the smell of crisp clean cotton”.

Despite an otherwise conventional upbringing – Eton, Bristol University, a graduate traineeship at a management consultancy – he always had a hankering to be an entrepreneur. His first venture was to sell flowers at Wolverhampton market. “My father was a closet entrepreneur. It wasn’t his day job, but he loved to wheel and deal. I always wanted my own business. I knew it would be tough, but I knew I couldn’t work for anyone else.”

He had a number of false starts. At school he set up a photography business, which saw him standing on Putney Bridge taking pictures of rowing boats, sending the picture to every school and university and encouraging them to buy. While this was a good business and made money, later ventures in the shoe business didn’t prove as fruitful.

When I got to university, I decided that shoes were the way forward. I’d been travelling and picked up a pair of made-to-measure shoes in India. They were well made and great value. I thought I’d see if my friends were interested and before I knew it I had 50 orders. I carefully measured round their feet and faxed the measurements to India. Fax technology let me down and the shoes that came back were fit for pixies and clowns. None fitted. I knew it was time to move on to shirts.
Nick Wheeler

Self-confessedly, Nick may not have been ‘big on research’, but he did start with some basic rules: they had to be great quality, great value for money and the business had to give great service.

The next few years were an exercise in persistence. Pretty much everyone told him to give up. He struggled to gain traction, but it came good and, he believes, showed an important truth about entrepreneurship: “Don’t give up, become the best at what you do. Anybody can definitely do it, but most just give up. You’ve got to stick at it. Big time.”

As an entrepreneur, you might just know it’s going to work but a lot of people don’t really want it to succeed. Corporate types tend to go for the safe option. They just want security and don’t get being an entrepreneur. They may not be the best people to give advice or encouragement.
Nick Wheeler

The business has had its ups and downs. Notably when it went into receivership in 1994. Nick bought it back from the receiver for next to nothing and admits it was a huge shock: “We got let down by a supplier, but I also made a big mistake when I bought a chain of children’s clothing shops. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is focus. We should have focused on being the best shirt company in the world rather than diluting our focus with kid’s clothing.”

He says there will often come a point when the entrepreneur is no longer the best person to run the business. He has seen too many entrepreneurs fail to understand this and end up hitting a glass ceiling. The result is that the business fails to reach its full potential. As he sees it, it is often this decision that defines the entrepreneurs that do well versus those that don’t.

Nick’s wife is also a successful entrepreneur, having founded the White Company in 1994. He believes this was useful: “I think it was definitely helpful to have both of us with our own businesses. It meant we could take risks that we might not have been able to take if both of us were in the same business.” His experience informed her experience: “I made a load of mistakes that she didn’t then have to make. I hope I persuaded her to steer a less choppy path.”

His lessons for other entrepreneurs? “Focus on what you’re good at, why you’re different. Don’t get distracted. When I sold men’s shirts to men, the business went well. For some reason I thought I could sell children’s clothes. It was a different business altogether and I lost more money in three months than I’d made in the previous three years. Entrepreneurs can sometimes believe their own hype. They start a business, it does well and they think it’s because they’re really clever. A lot of the time it is because they are in the right place, right time.”

He also believes entrepreneurs should keep a ‘not to do’ list, to remind themselves of what not to do. Growth needs to be for the right reasons and shouldn’t come at the expense of quality, value or service. “It’s all about the people who work in the business – customers, workers, suppliers – and getting them really engaged. Get all that right and you end up with a great business. If a business isn’t growing, it’s difficult to make people love it. You need to create opportunities for ambitious people.”