Wheeler dealer: the art of selling 5 million shirts

Business, Editor's Choice, Interviews | Tue 18 Jul | Author – Business & Finance Wheeler dealer: the art of selling 5 million shirts
Nick Wheeler, founder, Charles Tyrwhitt  Shirts

Ruraidh Conlon O’Reilly talks to Charles Tyrwhitt Shirts founder Nick Wheeler at the KPMG Inspire Series in Dublin’s RHA Gallery.

Art galleries aren’t usually places of hustle and bustle of a rainy Tuesday morning, and the RHA Gallery in Dublin is a particular oasis of calm under normal circumstances: somewhere to pop in and open the mind for a few minutes or a few hours.

Popping in today, though, is one Nick Wheeler – and the aim is to open minds to business rather than art. The UK shirt entrepreneur, along with homeware entrepreneur wife Chrissie Rucker, is a staple of The Sunday Times’ Rich List with a combined wealth somewhere north of £400m. Little surprise, then, that Wheeler is in demand for his insight and perspective.

Hence the KPMG Inspire Series, which kicked off by flying the Charles Tyrwhitt Shirts founder into town to share his stories and advice. A few minutes before standing up in front of Dublin’s business community he sat down with Business & Finance to talk about a business that sells over five million shirts a year.

“I think I am one of those people who always wanted to have my own business,” says Wheeler. “So if you set your heart on something and do it, and that’s all you’ve done… You don’t really know anything else. You don’t know anything different.” Wheeler founded Charles Tyrwhitt – Tyrwhitt rhymes with ‘spirit’, and Charles and Tyrwhitt are his family’s age-old middle names – in 1986. It began as a mail order business, in the midst of university and his many other entrepreneurial projects, because Wheeler reckoned he could make a better and more affordable shirt than anyone else. Needless to say, he’s learned a lot about entrepreneurship in the intervening 30 years.

“What it has taught me is that having your own business is like never doing a day’s work in your life because you’re doing what you love doing. And I think people need to find something they love doing where it doesn’t feel like work, and that’s what I’ve done. It’s just been an amazing experience. That’s not to say it’s been all ups. It’s been lots of downs too, but it’s been a constant challenge, constantly changing and constantly different and invariably great fun.”

His advice for Irish entrepreneurs is to have confidence, and to persevere. “The important thing about being an entrepreneur is that things do not always go your way – and you need a lot of self belief. I am a big believer: if you believe in something passionately enough and you have a real passion to succeed, then I think anybody can do it. And you will get kickbacks, you will get people closing doors in your face, but I think it’s really important that you push on through. You just can’t be the sort of person who gives up.

“You have to keep going, and I think one of the wonderful things is like what Warren Buffett [picking up on Albert Einstein] said: the eighth wonder of the world is compound growth. If you just keep going and every year you do things a little bit better, you don’t have to grow that fast. If you keep on growing – small percentage growth; a compound growth – is the eighth wonder of the world and you will end after 30 years… you can be a complete idiot like me and you end up with a great business.”

RECOGNISE YOUR WEAKNESSES

Classy threads

Classy threads

The journey of that self-confessed “complete idiot” is full of stories. Among Wheeler’s various business projects since the age of 16, he has photographed rowing competitions for lucrative reward, sold Christmas trees sourced from Shropshire, was in the shoe business before the shirt business, and bought and sold an old Aston Martin that gave him the means to plough the proceeds into menswear.

This Etonian and signatory of UK Conservative party policy endorsements goes about his work in a distinctive style.

Business is full of clichés and one of them is that it’s all about the people

“I think my style was always… well, business is full of clichés and one of them is that it’s all about the people. It’s about the people in your business and people will always tell you that. And that’s all well and good saying that, but what do you do about it?

“I think my style was that I recognised my weaknesses and I recognised that it was very important to get people into the business who could do things better than I could. And once you get somebody in to do it better than you can, you have to leave them to it. You have to trust them. And you have to go on and do something else. And so I hope people would say in the business that I am a good delegator, and that I let people get on with it. And that I also make people feel that this is their business.

“I’ve always said that I am never going to sell this business and I want people to feel that it is their business. I sit them down when they start and I say: look, if nothing else happens in this business, if you do nothing else, every day when you come in I want you to think: ‘If this was my business, what would I do?’ And if you’d make a change to the business then go ahead and make that change. Don’t be afraid of the change and don’t be afraid of failure. It’s fine to fail once and learn from it. And I think that’s probably been my style. It’s about delegating people who are much, much better than I am.”

Charles Tyrwhitt Shirts started out from unglamorous mail-order beginnings, but Wheeler recognised an opening that would revolutionise the industry and make him a very wealthy man.

“I think the single biggest thing for us in the development of the business was when the internet was invented, because we were a traditional mail order business. Mail order used to be quite downmarket and suddenly it became sexy. Mail order was always a small section of the market and suddenly it was massively growing, and the bricks and mortar declining. I think that transformed the business. We launched our first website in 1998, which was pretty early for websites, and we were right on the cusp and we rode that wave.”

Nick Wheeler narrow

DECIDE WHAT YOU WANT TO BE

And so Charles Tyrwhitt Shirts grew from selling zero shirts to over five million a year, accumulating a chain of stores, including flagships on Jermyn Street and Madison Avenue, in the process. What next for Wheeler’s company, and for the industry? “I think early on you have to decide what you want to be – and I decided early on that I wanted to be the best shirt business in the world. And if you have your own business, whatever area you’re in you need to decide what you want to be… and I think that invariably if you want to be the best in the world at something, it is a good start.

“And so we sell five or six million shirts a year, but there’s a hell of a lot of men out there who don’t wear our shirts. What we say is that we want to make it easy for men to dress well. And I want every man in the world who works in a suit to be wearing our shirt. And it sounds silly in a way: I’d loved to have been an artist or a potter, but I am a shirtmaker and I love the fact that my middle names are in people’s collars, and I just want to sell shirts that customers love.”

We just have to be damn good at what we do and give the customer exactly what they want

Get shirty Charles Thywhitt

Get shirty

Charles Tyrwhitt Shirts has four core markets at this point in time: the UK, US, Germany, and Australia. “We were looking for markets that preferably spoke English; preferably had a currency that we were already used to. We run euros in Germany, and Ireland was an obvious market. About six months to a year ago we started marketing in Ireland. The Irish have been fantastic. They love our shirts, which is great. I hope everybody loves our shirts, but I think the Irish are obviously very good – they have great taste in shirts and seem to love our shirts.”

It’s an unsettled world these days, with plenty of challenges in all sectors of the economy. Brexit is one of them. Wheeler advises fellow entrepreneurs to maintain their focus. “If you’re not careful as an entrepreneur, you can always look outside your business for your challenges. At the very simplest level, as a retailer…. retailers will blame the weather, they’ll blame these funny external factors, when in reality the weather might be bad, it might be too hot when they’ve got lots of winter clothes or vice versa, but ultimately it comes down to how good you are as a business.

“And I think the same with Brexit: there’s a lot of uncertainty out there. People are worried about their futures and jobs and people just don’t really know what’s going to happen. But I think what we have to do is focus internally because we cannot change what’s going on outside. We just have to be damn good at what we do and give the customer exactly what they want. As long as we work really hard on that then I believe we will carry on growing and carry on succeeding.”

He might have loved to have been an artist or a potter, and facetiously confessed to being a “complete idiot” a few moments ago, but Nick Wheeler found his art in the end: the art of selling millions of shirts every year. 

Nick Wheeler landscape

Nick Wheeler pictured at the RHA Gallery ahead of an interview for Business & Finance TV