Nick Wheeler: From failed photographer to Jermyn Street's king of the shirts

Charles Tyrwhitt is the top-choice label for many of the suited and booted. Its founder tells Sarah Arnott the story of its success

Nick Wheeler certainly knows his shirts. "I would hope one of ours would drape better," the founder of the Charles Tyrwhitt shirt company says thoughtfully, surveying my own "shabby" article with a critical eye. He has just correctly identified it as coming from one of his main rivals. "Puckering around the stitches is not a sign of a good shirt," he says, "although it may also be a sign of someone who doesn't like ironing."

Such attention to detail is perhaps not surprising. Mr Wheeler has been selling shirts since 1986, having started the company that bears his two middle names as a mail-order outfit while at Bristol University. Twenty-plus years later and Charles Tyrwhitt is a staple for the suited and booted, with the UK's largest mail-order shirt business and 12 shops and four franchises from Glasgow to Singapore.

Shirts were not Mr Wheeler's first choice, though he says he loves them and now sells more than a million a year. "I tried all sorts of things, and they were all disasters," the 44-year-old says with boyish enthusiasm. First there was a photography venture, while still at school: "I wasn't very good in the dark room." Then a Christmas tree delivery business: "Great until I realised it was seasonal." Then a scheme to sell handmade shoes from India: "Instead of making £1,200, I lost £300."

But he was undeterred. "I knew I wanted to control my own destiny," he says. "I needed the choice to stay in bed if I wanted." Given the spectacular growth of Charles Tyrwhitt, there cannot have been much lying in bed. The company was started on an £8,000 inheritance and a bank loan, multiplied several times over by canny investment in an Aston Martin. To start with, the work was part-time, fitted first around university lectures and then around a job as a consultant for Bain. The first shop, on Jermyn Street, came in 1997 and turnover now tops £50m a year.

After two decades in the business, Mr Wheeler is a convincing evangelist for the not-so-humble shirt. "They're a really important part of how you feel," he says. "And if you feel good you have more confidence. Look at Barack Obama – he's a very sharp dresser and you can tell he feels good."

Dressed head to toe in his own stuff – "cufflinks to boxer shorts" – Mr Wheeler himself is confidently doing his best to make the most of the recession. "When times are hard everything is cheaper except cash," he says. The latest addition to the chain – opened in August in London's Canary Wharf – is a case in point. "We've wanted shop in Canary Wharf for a long time, but we couldn't get in there," he says. "Recession is a fantastic opportunity because it flushes the weaker people out." Another big move is next summer's shift to a new flagship store, twice the size, just a few doors further up Jermyn Street. "That space wouldn't have been possible if we hadn't had the recession," Mr Wheeler says. "One of the big luxury houses would have taken it."

Given the company's market – and that its two New York shops were underneath Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns – you might expect the downturn to have hit Charles Tyrwhitt harder. But although shirt sales plunged by nearly a fifth during last autumn's post-Lehman turmoil, business is now booming again with overall sales, in cash terms, up by 28 per cent up since August.

But no progress is entirely smooth. Before recession engulfed Charles Tyrwhitt's customers, the company had a crisis of its own. In 2005, Mr Wheeler handed over daily business to a new managing director, brought in to "take the company on to the next stage". But the diversification into casual wear and clothes for women and children foundered – and by the end of 2007 Mr Wheeler had to step back in and return the company to its original successful formula. "I went back to selling clothes for men at work," he says.

By early 2008, there was talk of listing on the Alternative Investment Market (AIM) and building a chain of 50 shops. The financial crisis killed the flotation idea, but it also gave the company an extra 18 months to recover from its ill-judged expansion. "We wouldn't go to AIM, not now or in the foreseeable future", Mr Wheeler says. "When I was looking at that, we had £9m of stock no one wanted to buy, the banks were banging on the door and we had no cash."

Now the situation is different and plans for new shops are moving apace. Obvious targets include the City and Regent Street in London, as well as Manchester, Edinburgh and Dublin. But with more than half the company's revenues already from overseas, the biggest prize is outside the UK. Franchise discussions are already under way with a department store in Mumbai, and the focus is very much on finding other outlets in India.

Mr Wheeler says twice that he "likes things to be simple", but even with turnover at £50m, he does not consider Charles Tyrwhitt to be a success. "It never stops," he says, acknowledging the possibility he may be a rather unsatisfied human being. "I have thought about that, but it's just exciting." He jokes about wanting everyone in the world to have his name in their collar. "I suppose that is a bit megalomaniac, but in a very understated way." He laughs. "It's just that there is such a long way to go and it is so much fun."

But with everything back on track Mr Wheeler is once again stepping back from the daily running of the business and focusing his energies elsewhere. "I used to be a workaholic," he admits. "You start off thinking you are the best at what you are doing and you are the only person that can do it. But at some stage in life you realise that, unless you are Roger Federer or Usain Bolt, everything you do someone else could do better. Our managing director, who effectively runs the business now, is so much better at it than I ever was."

So he works just two days a week at Charles Tyrwhitt, turning instead to a string of other ventures including online clothing business Mywardrobe.com and web feedback site FeeFo.com. But the passion is clearly still there. "My role is to love Charles Tyrwhitt as a business," he says. "The company feels like my fifth and oldest child, but there are times when you have to give [your children] space."

As we leave the interview, a man walks past us along Jermyn Street carrying a Charles Tyrwhitt bag. "I love it," enthuses Mr Wheeler. "I just love seeing people with our bags."

Nick Wheeler CV

* Nick Wheeler is not in business to get rich. "Money was not the driving force, it was much more long term than that," he says. "Rich people tend to be in a real hurry. I am the tortoise rather than the hare."

* He's married to Chrissie Rucker, the founder of The White Company and has four children aged between five and 12.

* 2000-2002: Opens shops in Paris and New York.

* 1997: First Charles Tyrwhitt shop opens on Jermyn Street.

* 1989: Quits Bain to work full-time at Charles Tyrwhitt.

* 1987: Joins Bain & Company as a strategy management consultant after university.

* 1986: Sets up Charles Tyrwhitt as a mail-order shirt supplier while studying for his geography degree.

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