By Ashley Coates. Published: 16/11/2013
“From the moment the idea happened I believed so passionately that it could work”.
During a refurbishment of her boyfriend’s home Chrissie found it was impossible to find white home-wares in national retailers that were both affordable and good quality. After extensive market research she found that white bed linen, table covers, towels and china, were generally either poor quality and cheap or luxury items that were too expensive for the majority of consumers.
Chrissie launched The White Company as a mail order business in 1993 with the aim of providing excellent quality white products at an affordable price. She left her job as a beauty journalist on Harpers & Queen and started to build the business from scratch.
20 years later, the company has evolved enormously, opening up its own retail stores and expanding its product range to include women’s clothing and nightwear as well as a wide range of gifts, home accessories and furniture. The Little White Company was also launched in 1996, after the birth of Chrissie’s first baby to offer children’s bedding, clothes and nursery furniture.
In 2012 Chrissie was awarded the PWC and Financial Times Private Businesswoman Of The Year Award, in 2013 the White Company had over 50 stores in the UK and an annual turnover of £120 million
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On the face of it, setting up a business that sells only white products seems like a bizarre business plan. What is the background to how that idea came about?
I often joke that really I was just trying to show Nick (who was then my boyfriend) what excellent wife material I was! I went off shopping to look for lovely white linen, towels, bathrobes, china and napkins for his new home – because I just love the aesthetics of these items in white. However when I arrived at the big department stores, I found it wasn’t easy to find. At that time, there was a lot of colour and pattern and not a huge amount of white.
The white I could find was either cheap, poor quality embroidered designs that looked like it might fall apart quite quickly, or big brand, fabulous quality with high thread counts and fine yarns that were very expensive. At the designer end I also found that the sales assistants were a bit snooty and some looked down their noses and directed me to the cheaper ranges in the store! So the shopping experience wasn’t great either.
Shortly after this, we went to stay with Nick’s sister Susie and she had just been through exactly the same thing, and then she said “wouldn’t it be brilliant if there was a company that just sold white things?”. So that was it, and I couldn’t sleep for the next couple of weeks because I was so excited.
I was a journalist, so I started to research. I rang a number of department stores and I spun them the yarn that I was doing a piece in the Sunday Times about ‘white in homes’ and I asked them what percentage of their bed linen sales were in white. The great news was they consistently said it was over 50%.
It was a convergence of my genuine love for all things white and then finding it really hard to find. My mission therefore with The White Company was to offer first-class designer quality but at affordable, high street prices – ‘affordable luxury’, because it just wasn’t there. Secondly I wanted my company to make everyone feel welcome, there would be no snooty sales assistance and we would be there to help and give great customer service.
One example that explains quite well what we do is that one of my first products was a beautiful bedspread made in Portugal. It had previously been sold by a big brand for the £250, back in the 90’s. However we could retail the same bedspread, exactly the same quality for just £85. So that’s really what is at the heart of the business, we source directly from some of the best factories in the world and we don’t add high designer margins.
How did you feel about leaving Harper’s & Queen?
I loved my time at Harper’s and all the other magazines I had worked on before, but I wasn’t a very good journalist! The great thing about working in that world is you learn how to put an article together. You also learn a lot about styling so it was a fantastic foundation of knowledge that I could then apply to the business. I started it as a mail-order business which in many ways is like putting together a little magazine so it was an invaluable experience to have had.
I was also mentally in a place where I was ready for a change. I remember getting off a plane after a holiday, Nick went back to work full of excitement and anticipation whereas I had more of a “going back to school” feeling. From the moment the idea happened I believed so passionately that it could work, so I just went off and made it happen.
I am not a traditional business person, I have a C in maths O-Level! I didn’t think about numbers, I just believed in the idea so much and thought “right I’m going to leave my job and give it a year, if it doesn’t work I’ll just get another job”.
I was 24 when I started and I also did a short three day business course with an organisation called Centec which was the government scheme backing enterprise back then. They gave me a grant of £50 per week for 6 months, this paid for my food and I sold some shares that my grandmother had left me for £6,000 and I started the business with that.
Walking into a White Company shop is a great visual experience. What sort of effect do you hope to achieve? Do you have an idea of how someone is supposed to feel when they go into one of your shops?
We want it go be a great experience the minute you walk through the door. To be inspiring and exciting, inviting and welcoming, yet calm and serene. Some of our customers actually tell us they love it so much they often pop in just to calm down if they are having a bad day! We want it to be somewhere you love to spend time in, a bit like home really and somewhere you know you can trust the quality, advice and service.
When it comes to running the business, would you say you are an instinctual person when deciding the product range or the design of the shops, or are you more methodical?
I am definitely a very instinctive “from the gut” sort of person. My passion and strength is on the product side, I am hopeless at operations and structure! My real focus today is on looking after the brand and the overall brand experience we deliver for the customer.
Have you found it easy to delegate as the business has grown? Especially in a company that is so personal and very much something that is about your own passions.
Yes I have and I think it’s because I am very aware of where I can add value and where I can’t. Many years ago I also went on a delegation course, it was just a one day course, but it was transformational and it taught me how to hand things over.
It’s something you get better at with time and experience but I am a great believer in seeking advice and guidance from people who are experts in their field. I believe you are only ever as good as the team of people you have around you. In a fast growing business, it is crucial to have the right people in the right place at the right time.
Coming from a non-business background, what did the process of setting up and running the business teach you about business? Were there any significant surprises along the way?
As a business grows, it constantly presents different challenges. When I was young I used to ride competitively and with this you have days when it goes really well and you have days when it goes really badly! You tend to have more days of it going badly than really well, but you just get back on and have another go and try not make the same mistake again.
I just tried to apply that to difficulties as they have come along in the business. I’m a great believer in never being afraid to ask for help, of course I was also very lucky to have my husband who had already started his business 3 years ahead of me. A lot of the teething problems he went through, I went through as well and I was very lucky to have that mentorship at home.
You mentioned your husband, Nick, did you have any other role models to speak of when you were starting your business?
Back then, Nick had started Charles Tyrwhitt and Johnnie Boden had started Boden so those were the two similar mail-order businesses I looked to. I admire hugely what Estée Lauder has achieved, she started life selling one lip stick and the business has gone on and become this fabulous global brand and still remained family run.
I have never sold any shares in the company. Today I seek a lot of guidance from our Chairman Tony Campbell and my CEO Will Kernan. Plus I love talking and sharing with other business owners.
What personal qualities do you think you have needed to make the business a success?
It really depends on what sort of person you are and where you can most add value in your business. I am very focused on three things. One, keeping the brand vision clear and true. Two, doing everything we possibly can to give our customers a great experience. Three, building a brilliant team across the business and our supply base to make it all happen.
We also always have a clear vision and goal for the future, usually a five-year plan. I believe it’s vital to constantly listen to our customers and our team to help make good decisions going forward. It’s also really important to celebrate the good days and keep everyone smiling.