Entrepreneur Q&A: Nick Wheeler, Charles Tyrwhitt Shirts

The entrepreneur behind shirt-maker Charles Tyrwhitt on the horror of 100% polyester shirts, Stuart Rose's dress sense and why he prefers to be a tortoise - rather than a hare - in business.

by Rebecca Burn-Callander
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2013
MT: So, why shirts?

Nick Wheeler: It wasn’t so much that I chose to start a business selling shirts, it was more that all the other things I tried to do didn’t work. I’d tried running a photography business, I’d made shoes… I wanted a product that I could love, sure, but I didn’t really care what it was.

How did you get the business off the ground in the early years?

The early years were a complete disaster. But that’s one of the great things about starting a business at 21: I had no responsibilities. It didn’t matter that I made no money. I was in my second year of university doing a geography degree, so I ran the business around my lectures. In the first two years, I turned over £12,000. The fabric came from Lancashire, and the shirts were made in Essex. It was a tiny little business back then, more of a hobby, but gradually I learned about manufacturing, doing accounts, negotiating prices…

Why the name Charles Tyrwhitt?

Well, my full name is Nick Charles Tyrwhitt Wheeler and I liked the sound of Charles Tyrwhitt – it’s very olde worlde Jermyn Street. But, yes, it was great until the internet came along and no one could spell it. Luckily, Google seems to guess you mean us no matter what version of the name you put in.

Is it a very competitive industry?

The great thing about shirts is that almost everyone wears them so there’s a lot of business to go around. And we have an interesting product in that it’s high quality at a relatively modest price. People who want excellent quality cotton and tailoring and don’t mind spending £100 for four shirts. People don’t come to us if they want a 100% polyester shirt, for example. We would never sell them. Although I’m sure that there are people who don’t sweat or have sensitive skin, don’t want to iron and only want to spend £10 per shirt that love them.

Does focusing on quality reduce margins?

It does. We sell a low-margin product, which means we need to sell high volumes to make any money. But I’m not going mad going for growth. On paper it’s easy to roll out store after store when you have a store concept and a formula. But when the music stops and customers stop coming, you’re saddled with high rents and rates and have lots of people working for you, and the business falls off a cliff. We’ve always grown slowly and organically. Entrepreneurs are either hares or tortoises. The former is in a mad rush, raising money, building the business, floating it, exiting. I’m a tortoise, plodding along. For me, compound growth is the most a wonderful thing.

How many stores do you have at the moment?

We have four shops in the States and we’re about to open our 16th UK store in Glasgow. But if we don’t find a really great location, we don’t launch a new store. In fact, 70% of our revenue actually comes from online so really, it’s more about managing databases than opening lots of shops. The plan is to grow 20-25% every year and we made £106m last year and are on target for £130m this year. So we’re doing pretty well.

Has recession been a challenge or a growth driver?

If you are offering good value for money and a product people need then a recession is always a growth driver. No one wants to be at work with a frayed collar, it looks bad, and a bit desperate.

Whose dress sense do you most admire?

Prince William dresses beautifully, although I know that’s a rather boring choice because he gets all his suits bespoke. That’s my old-fashioned Jermyn Street background talking; he hasn’t got huge flair and panache by any means. But Stuart Rose takes dressing very seriously. Now he’s no longer at M&S I can admit he always looks quite smart.

Nick Wheeler appears on The Ideas Exchange on Thursday 1 November at 8pm on Bloomberg Television, Sky channel 502 and Virgin Media channel 609.

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