His shops trade under the name Miss Attitude and sell fashion accessories - hair scrunchies, clips, scarves, cheap jewellery, bags and sunglasses. He is also branching into own-brand cosmetics and launching a set of 69 nail varnishes, with names like "Gold Digger" and "Miss Guilt". He employs some 400 staff and his shops dot the country, from Bridlington to Oldham, Hammersmith to Maidstone.
Singh had the idea for Miss Attitude in the sixth form at William Hulme's grammar school in Manchester. He was 17. At 18, four months before his A levels, he opened a shop in the city's sprawling Arndale Centre. Three days later he opened a second in the same place. Three months after that he opened a third shop, in Oldham. He has opened a new shop roughly every fortnight ever since. When I saw him last month he had 64 shops, but by the time you read this he expects to have 67, and by Christmas he says that figure will be 90 "at a conservative estimate".
Singh's office, on a light-industrial road in Manchester, is entered through an unmarked and unpromising door on a side street. I could hear his voice booming into reception while I waited for his meeting to end, and when I was shown in I came face to face with a large-framed man in a white Versace suit who could as easily have been 40 as 20. This ageless quality is partly due to the fact that he is a Sikh and wears a turban and a thick beard.
Most people make some attempt to placate interviewers from the national press, but not Singh. After a business-like handshake he started trying to take over the interview - "I'll start with a rundown of my life, okay" - and was a little put out at being deflected. Our talks were squeezed between meetings, throughout which his miniature mobile phone bleated with calls. Often he broke off abruptly to convey commands through his hands-free office phone. "Beverley to my office. Beverley," he would bark, or "Kelly to my office. Kelly." If he didn't want to answer a question, he would say so without the slightest effort at apology. He refused to talk about his family, for example, except in the sketchiest terms, and later declined to take off his jacket for the photographer ("No. Too casual").
In short, he is extraordinarily self-confident, issuing orders and chairing meetings with a certainty beyond his years. I could find no evidence of his young age in his manner or lifestyle except, perhaps, that he still likes his mother to cook him dinner - as is traditional for young Sikhs, he lives at home with his parents. He said he did occasionally go to the student bar at his university but as he does not drink or smoke this hardly constitutes your average student piss-up.
Later, though, I wondered if he felt he had to seem super grown-up for the press. Certainly when I talked to him by phone three days later he was far more relaxed, reporting enthusiastically that he was off to a Miss Attitude marketing shoot with "lots of beautiful models" and that he had had no sleep the night before because he had stayed at a restaurant until 3am with a group of friends. "We had to order three bottles of Dom Perignon so we could stay on even though no one could drink any more," he explained excitedly. "It was just mad. I'm still on a high. I think I was the only one who could walk when we left."
SINGH CAME up with the concept for his empire at 17, probably, he thinks, while doodling on his politics folder. "I just had this vision that I wanted a fashion-jewellery store. I love shopping, and I used to go at lunchtime with friends. I noticed that the boys could go to one shop and buy everything they needed - shoes, trousers, shirts - but the girls would have to tramp across town for four hours."
Shortly afterwards he came up with his brand name 4U2NV (say it aloud) and told his friends about his idea. They laughed at him. Undeterred, he arranged a meeting with the landlords of the nearby Arndale Centre, explained his concept, and asked to rent a shop. Their reaction was identical. "They laughed at me. They were like: `How old are you?' `Eighteen.' `Where's your company?' `I don't have one.' They blasted me out completely. I thought: `I'm going to show you.' "
So he took himself off to a London retail-property consultancy, Hammond Phillips, met a senior partner and explained his idea. "He liked it. He said, `Let's go with it.' " Singh told him there was one condition. His first shop had to be in the Arndale Centre, because it had previously turned him down. When he heard that they had found him one, he was "ecstatic. It was the biggest adrenaline rush I've ever had. I rang the agent from the school payphone, and he said to me, `Reuben, you've got a store in the Arndale Centre.' I've never been so happy in my life. Even today, when the game is in millions and deals are done weekly, I don't get that rush. It will never be repeated. It was in the face of everyone. I'd done it."
He signed a 15-year lease for a rent of pounds 40,000 a year in January 1995, and had three weeks to get the shop ready for opening. "It was manic. The week before I slept three hours total a night. Me and my friends ran around buying second-hand fittings from all over. I'd seen other jewellery stores and I knew you had to put hooks on the walls, and I knew you had to have slat walling. We got the names of places from Yellow Pages. I was at the shop after school till 2am, doing my homework on the floor and the concrete was being mixed around me. But the position was amazing: right opposite McDonalds. Where else are you going to find the young crowd?"
Singh's success is extraordinary for any age, but his background does help to explain his precocity. From the age of 11 he hung around his parents' Manchester-based business, Sabco, an importer and distributor of fashion accessories. He would go after school and wait for his mother and father to finish work at 6pm. At first he messed around playing football in the warehouse and sitting in his father's chair pretending to have business conversations. But later he got more interested. By the time he was 16 his father had put him in charge of the sales department on a salary. This sounds rather strange, but apparently Singh did the work before and after school.
From this salary he claims to have saved "tens of thousands" of pounds by the time he set up his first shop, most of which went on the rent, stock and refitting. He bought half his stock from his parents, but says he paid for it in cash with his own money. (His father told him he shouldn't borrow from him or the bank if he was determined to go ahead.) Largely through the school grapevine - there were five grammar schools in the area - Singh's first week was a runaway success. His friends flocked to the shop and cleared it like locusts.
"The day I opened that store and answered the first phone call, and said, `Good morning, Miss Attitude Manchester', that was the ultimate," enthuses Singh, dropping for the first time his distant and preoccupied air. "It was the ultimate experience you could have with your clothes on. The rush of people we got was amazing. Five thousand people wanted to come. It was mad. We made more money on the first day than I'd predicted we'd make in the first month. On Sunday I had to run around getting more stock."
But his parents were less than happy about the activities of their teenage entrepreneur. His father was particularly concerned when Singh signed the deal for a second shop before the first was off the ground. "With the first shop they were breathing down my neck. With the second my father said, `That's it. Two's enough. They're both in the same shopping centre, so you're all right.' Then I got a third. But the sales were flying in: the sales were mega. I knew enough business to know that sales minus costs equals profit. When I opened the third shop I didn't tell them for days, I was too scared."
According to Singh, his parents are very traditional and family-orientated. He won't talk about their history, even refusing to give their names - "This is nothing to do with them" - but I was intrigued to notice a picture of his father meeting a young-looking Margaret Thatcher on the wall of his office. Singh told me reluctantly that his parents emigrated from India to England in the early Seventies. When asked why they left India, he said, "Don't know," and changed the subject. Did he really not know, or did he not want to say? "I really don't know." He conceded his parents were comfortable but not rich when they came to Manchester, where they set up "various businesses" and eventually Sabco, in 1980.
Singh's office is actually in the Sabco building in Manchester, and given the similarity between the companies, one obviously wonders if they are interlinked. I suspected Singh didn't want to discuss his parents because he didn't want to admit the connection - thereby diminishing not only his achievement but what is, PR-wise, an excellent story. When I tackled him about it, however, he maintained there was "no link between my parents' business and Miss Attitude. The privilege I had, when I started the business, was that I didn't have to worry about a roof over my head or getting money to live. And I had experience from working in the business. I also took a few risks in the knowledge that if anything went wrong I could take a degree and work for my father. But there's no interlink between my father's company and mine. I don't even buy from Sabco any more, because everyone else does and I have to be different."
Another suspicion is that Singh's mother and father might have given him money to set up his first shops - not that there would be anything wrong with that. When I asked why his office was in the Sabco building Singh's answer was that he had bought it. From his parents? He kept avoiding the question until finally he said: "No." So who did he buy it from? "A small company." And that was the end of that.
If Singh was cagey about Sabco, he was more forthcoming about how he was brought up. Apparently his father insisted his sons accompanied him to every social occasion, and if they weren't invited, he wouldn't go either. His mother took Singh and his brother alternately with her on buying trips to the Far East, where Singh was blooded in business, cutting buying deals from the age of 14 (under strict supervision). He was sent to a prep school called Ramillies Hall, which had a school day that lasted until 6pm - useful, because it meant his mother did not have to arrange childcare. Then Singh went to William Hulme's grammar.
He did his GCSEs, then studied for Politics, English, Business Studies and General Studies A levels. He says proudly that at school he never did more work than absolutely necessary - "If I had to get 60 per cent to be put in the top stream, then I'd get 60.1 per cent; I didn't want to work too hard, there's no profit to be gained" - and claims he was an average student. His big passion was cars, and when he passed his driving test just after his 17th birthday his father gave him one as a present.
"This was where my life changed, this was a big turning point in my life," Singh told me between manically checking the time, Tannoying his staff and taking calls. "As soon as I passed my test my father bought me a BMW 3-Series Coupe, with the full body kit, spoilers, the lot. It was a black car, beautiful. I was ecstatic. I thought I'd get a nice car from him, maybe a Peugeot 205, not this. But it wasn't as big a shock to my friends as it was to me. They were like: `We knew you'd get it.' I was like: `I didn't know, so how did you know?' They said: `Your father has wealth, you like cars, we knew you'd get a BMW.' Then it hit me. My friends thought anything I got or could get was because of my father."
Shortly afterwards there was a family row over Singh's future. His parents were adamant that he went to university even though he knew he wanted to start his own business, and his mother was determined he should study in Manchester rather than London, which was Singh's preference. "My mother was like: `You have to stay close to home.' " So he gave in? "I didn't actually... my mother is more like a sister to me, I can talk to her about anything. My mother and father are at different ends of the scale. My father is very thoughtful, very calm, he doesn't need to shout to make himself known. From a very young age, my mother would scream, tell us what to do and after an hour we'd do it. My father would just look at us and we'd obey. Mum said, `Stay in Manchester,' and I rebelled... but then I opened my shop and it suited me to stay."
What did Singh get in his A levels? "An A in Business Studies, two Bs, and a C or D in English, something like that." He must know, surely - it was only two years ago. "I got a D or an E, I mean a C or a D. I think so," he said vaguely. This was a characteristic evasion: he doesn't like to dwell on things which show him in a less than successful light. "Anyway, I was fighting with my parents and the careers office over my degree. They were saying: `You like politics, why don't you do a politics degree?' `Because I want to be a businessman.' `Why don't you do an accountancy degree?' `Because I want to be a businessman.' I wanted to do my own thing.' "
Under duress, he applied for several of the business-related degrees on offer locally and got into the Manchester Metropolitan University to study Financial Services. But not before Singh gave back his car to his father in a fit of pique sparked by his opposition to his business plans. "I gave Dad the BMW back. He said: `A year ago I bought you the BMW and you loved it. Why?' I said: `I want to open a business.' He said: `You're mad.' We had a big fi... discussion about it. I gave the car back. I was in, like, a sulk."
SINGH REACHED for his phone and started barking at it again. "Kelly to my office. Kelly." He had a quick debate with her, then said we would go for lunch - a quick lunch, he added sternly. I was vaguely expecting to be taken to some seedy caff, but Singh surprised me by guiding me into his cherry-red Roller. It was baking hot and Singh winced as he tooled the car into the traffic. "Usually my chauffeur drives me in the Mercedes," he said, "but he's not around today." We inched along and the gold statuette on the bonnet winked and flashed in the sun. Was the Rolls some kind of statement? "No," said Singh vaguely, "I don't think so." What did his fellow students make of it? "Well, I've taken time out in the last couple of months, and next year too." So the degree's on hold? "Exactly." He couldn't do it and run the business? "I thought I could, but..." He twiddled the wheel coolly behind the imposing windscreen.
Did he think he behaved like a typical 20-year-old? Singh scrutinised the streets for a parking space. "I think I behave as if I'm younger. Everything a 20-year-old does, I do." I was intrigued by this. Having sex? Getting pissed? Taking drugs? "I drank a bit when I was 17, 18. I don't now." What about girls? "I have had a few girlfriends. But I could not give them 100 per cent commitment. I'd want a 100 per cent commitment from them, but I couldn't give it, so..." (Later, when I quizzed him again about this, he changed his mind and said he had never had a girlfriend.)
He guided his tank of a car with impressive insouciance round the narrow bends of a multi-storey car park and led the way into the dark interior of a trendy but deserted cafe bar - the other customers were lounging outside in the sun. Over his vegetable melt, he lowered his defences infinitesimally, admitting that he was "sceptical" - by which he meant untrusting - of everyone except his very close friends.
By this time, I was pretty stunned: I have never encountered anyone quite so unresponsive. It was not even rude. He was just not there - his mind appeared to be entirely bent on his business. "Miss Attitude," he said at one point, "is my baby. To me she's a person. I'm very possessive. That's why I've never given her a face in my in-store marketing campaigns. She's mine." (This jealous possessiveness was also evident when we returned to his office. "My chair's warm. Someone's been sitting in my chair," he said sharply, in a rather good Goldilocks and the Three Bears impression.)
This possessiveness will be a challenge for his wife, if he marries. He says he will not necessarily choose a Sikh girl, although I frankly doubt this, and added casually that she would come and live in what he grandly terms "the family residence" with his parents and younger brother. What about if they then had children? No problem, he indicated. He wouldn't move out? "No. It would be joint. We'd live jointly."
I was wondering how big the family residence was when his mobile rang and he actually sounded quite human, though he rang off with his ubiquitous (and as I was discovering, usually true) excuse that he was "in a meeting". "My brother," he explained. "He's 18. We've opened a shop-fitting company called Desire Designs and he's in charge." What was his brother's name? "Bobby. But I don't want you to put that in." I told him not to be ridiculous, and he unexpectedly backed down. "Okay. Bobby had the idea and set it up for me. He fits out all my shops."
One step towards global domination. But just the first of many, apparently. "I've got lots of ideas for expanding the business," Singh continued confidently. "I want to do a Baby Attitude [his current shops already do a popular line in be-ribboned kiddy hairbands and clips], a Designer Attitude, a Club Attitude..." Would these offshoots be based in his present shops? "No."
His ambition knows no bounds, and presumably this is partly because he is so young - it has yet to be squashed out of him. But I heard the sound of a warning bell in a meeting I sat in on that afternoon between Singh and a London recruitment consultant. Singh explained, in what struck me as a rather incoherent way, that his business was expanding so quickly (he seems to view this as something he is forced to endure, rather than his own policy decision) that he was unable to find enough store managers. He had been promoting them up from assistant manager or transferring them from other shops, but that was no longer feasible. The agent asked him sensible-sounding questions, like what his company benefits were with regard to holiday and pay and so on, to which he didn't always appear to know the answer.
It also seemed as though Singh had not thought through the complexities of employing a large staff: how to deal with shrinkage, how to best use his area managers, what kind of ethos he wanted the staff to embody, whether he wanted an in-house training unit. As the consultant talked about these issues, Singh stared at him warily, his index finger flicking his bottom lip. At one point the recruitment man said: "Presum-ably you want staff with retail experience?" "I want young people," said Singh. "That's my ethos. If they're over 25 I won't look twice." "Yes," said the man, "but presumably some retail experience is helpful?" "No," said Singh stubbornly. "With respect," the consultant said, "you don't have a great deal yourself-" "Yes I do," contradicted Singh, then he paused. "Well, two years."
This conversation made me wonder if Miss Attitude had the structures to deal with its rapid expansion - I had already observed Singh's reluctance to delegate. But Singh was characteristically dismissive of this. "People like to suggest it's a major hurdle because they're the people who think they're going to gain," he said. "I never do something I don't believe I can achieve."
Perhaps because he was "still on a high", he was far more forthcoming when we talked by phone three days later. The day before, a 20-year-old had come up to him in the street and said he had been inspired to start a business - he had bought an ice-cream van - after reading about Singh's success. "I was so happy about that," Singh confided. "Perhaps it's a bit premature to tell you this, but I want to set up a personal company, nothing to do with Miss Attitude, called Dream On Attitude. I'm going to use my own funds and ask anyone under 21 who has a business idea to bring it to me. If I like it I'll invest my own money and they can become the director." And Singh would own half their company? "Something like that. It would be negotiable."
What a brilliant - and potentially profitable - idea. Singh himself, of course, owns 100 per cent of the shares in his own company and says he hasn't borrowed a penny to pay for it: the expansion has been funded by the profits. "What I've done is all down to self-confidence," he said. "The amount people hit you down when you're young, you've got to be self- confident. If you have an idea and you leave it, then you don't believe in it. But if you believe in something you've got to do it, even if it goes wrong. Just do it. Whatever everyone says: parents, teachers, whoever."
Well, it seems to have worked for him. Singh's achievement is literally inspirational. I wish him the best of luck, and, while I think about it, a happy birthday. He's 21 on the 20th of September. I wonder what his dad will get him this time?Reuse content