Nicholas Wheeler: “I lost more money in three months than I’d made in the past three years”

The Founder of Charles Tyrwhitt tells us all about his biggest mistake...

Even as a schoolboy, Nick Wheeler was a natural entrepreneur — he ran a photography business, made bespoke shoes, and flogged Christmas trees to his friends’ parents. In his second year at university, Nick founded Charles Tyrwhitt, a mail-order shirt business. His friends and family thought he was mad.

Thirty years later, the company is a bastion of British menswear and a heroic success — but at one point, it very nearly folded. Here, Nick tells us how a single lapse in focus almost cost him everything he’d worked for.

One danger of running your own business is that as soon as you get good, you get bored...

As an entrepreneur, it’s important to focus on what you’re doing and try to do it well. My biggest mistake was forgetting that and losing focus.

At the start of Charles Tyrwhitt, I was plodding along, part time, while I was at university. Everyone thought I was mad for trying to do mail-order menswear. I was turning over about £12,000 a year, and it wasn’t growing.

But by 1994, after running Charles Tyrwhitt for about eight years, I had a business that was doing £2.5m in sales and making £250,000 in profit. I was still just doing menswear mail order. I thought: “I’ve cracked this!”— and I was bored. It suddenly felt easy.

I was 29, and I thought: “Is this all there is?”

Then, I was introduced to the people at Patrizia Wigan, a children’s clothes retailer. It was interesting, and I thought maybe I would go on the acquisition trail. At that time, Lord Hanson and Lord White were completing their buyouts. I thought: “If they can do it, so can I.”

Patrizia Wigan had five shops selling children’s clothing — I still don’t know what I was thinking. It was a disaster. I lost more money in three months than I’d made in the previous three years. Charles Tyrwhitt went bust, and we went into receivership.

There was a pub across the road, and I took our five employees there on the last day before we closed...

I stood on the sofa with the idea of making some rousing speech but suddenly, I burst into floods of tears. I thought I was finished. That feeling lasted for about five hours, and then I started to think: “This is ridiculous.”

Charles Tyrwhitt was a successful company. It had worked, we could do it again. As an entrepreneur, you have to have an almost crazy level of self-belief. I knew we could make it work.

10 years later, we were doing £40m in sales and making £4m profit...

I got bored again, and brought in someone new to run the company. They had worked at Ralph Lauren, and they made a big plan for the business. The idea was to dramatically increase our product range, and start doing women’s and children’s clothes, too.

Essentially, he wanted to turn it into Ralph Lauren. It didn’t work. A year later, we had £9m worth of stock we couldn’t sell, and we very nearly went bust again.

I always used to say to people in the business that it’s fine to make a mistake. Just don’t repeat it...

Learn from it and move on. Now, when people ask me for advice, I say: “It’s fine to make a mistake twice — but never three times!”

Every entrepreneur hears the horror stories, and dismisses them. People think they’re different. We’ve gone from strength to strength, and those two mistakes are part of that.

They taught me the power of focus. I won’t forget it again.

This feature first appeared in our March issue, click here to subscribe and get your copy sent to your door today…


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