Q&A with Nick Wheeler – Founder and Chairman at Charles Tyrwhitt

Lynn Barlow
Assistant Vice-Chancellor, Creative and Cultural Industries Engagement | UWE
10th April 2018

UWE, in partnership with Business West, runs an annual lecture series that brings top business leaders to Bristol. We caught up with Nick Wheeler, Founder and Chairman at Charles Tyrwhitt, before he gave his address:

1. What makes a great shirt?

A great shirt is in the eye of the wearer - everybody has a different view on what a great shirt is.

Ultimately, I think a great shirt makes you feel good. 

What we want to do is to make it easy for men to dress well. We want men to feel really good about themselves when they put on a Charles Tyrwhitt shirt because when you feel good about yourself and go out into the big bad world you do good things.

2. How many shirts do you think you’ve manufactured?

I look so young that you’d think my business is older than me! In fact, its 32 years old, I started it when I was at Bristol University.

We’ve probably manufactured about 50 million shirts I should think.

3. Can you spot one wherever you are or when you meet somebody?

I can spot that you’re not wearing one…

I’m getting worse at spotting them as I get a bit older and forgetful, but I used to be able to spot them from a mile off – quite often in the early days because the collars looked so terrible!

Now they all look absolutely perfect, so it gets harder.

4. I understand you started your business in your student flat. How did you make a success of it?

I was studying geography and the great thing about geography is that it’s not very many lectures a week, so you have a lot of spare time - at least you did in the 1980s.

I always wanted to have my own business. I knew that’s what I wanted to do, and I just started lots of little businesses.

I had a photography business, a Christmas tree business and a shoe business and they were all complete disasters. Then, I thought what can I do next? I said “I’ll try a shirt business” and off I went – even though I didn’t know anything about shirts.

I think a lot of people don’t start a business, even though they want to, because they can’t think of the idea. You know, we can’t all think of a Google or a Facebook, unfortunately. Shirts are not a clever or original idea, it was just starting a business. It’s just getting on and doing it.

From the very beginning I wanted to do better quality, better value and better service than anyone else, and I thought if I do those few things I’ll have a great business.

Very simple, and I think applies to whatever you do. If you make chairs or pens or pads of paper, just do better service, quality and value and you’ll have a great business.

I set off on my little shirt journey and here I am 32 years later.

5. Do you think quality, service and value are key things to think about for the entrepreneurs studying in our business school?

One of the big things you need to do as an entrepreneur is decide how committed you are.

I think entrepreneurs are split into two camps.

You’re either a hare or you’re a tortoise.

If you’re a hare – and we all know hare entrepreneurs – you start a business, you have your idea, you go and raise a load of money from some idiot, you give away a load of the equity, you make lots of mistakes - it might work, it might not work. Maybe it goes bust? Maybe it shoots for the stars? Either way you go off and do something else. Rush up, rush down, rushing all over the place.

Alternatively, you’re a tortoise like me. I just plod along.

Every year I just think I want to do something a little better than I did last year. As Warren Buffet said, the 8th wonder of the world is compound growth. 

People say to me ‘gosh, you must be very able and very clever because you built this big business?’ But all I’ve done is do it for 32 years. 

I never went to business school. I’ve never had any theory. You apply practice. 

Each year you get better and better and you grow. You have to be committed to that though. If you ask somebody now, do you want to do this for 32 years? They say “no way”. A lot of people want to be entrepreneurs because they want to make a load of money this year or next year. 

It’s not about making a load of money. If you start with that view you’re going to come unstuck.

But if you stick with it properly, all good things come with time.

This series of free public lectures brings top level business leaders to Bristol. You can discuss these events on Twitter using the hashtag #BristolLectures and view further content from Nick Wheeler's lecture here. For more information please contact events@uwe.ac.uk.

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