Takeaways From My Lunch With The White Company’s Chrissie Rucker
September is when my one of my favourite magazines, Red, hosts its annual ‘This Is A Smart Women’ week. This means an opportunity to meet the founders of some of our most iconic British brands and find out how they went from kitchen table start-up to scale-up. On Wednesday, I put my glad rags on and went to London’s One Belgravia for lunch with Chrissie Rucker, founder of The White Company.
If you’re not familiar with it, The White Company is a premium lifestyle British brand with products across the interiors, clothing, footwear and beauty market. Synonymous with fluffy white towels, Egyptian cotton bedding and scented candles, the brand’s genius resides in the idea that we can find peace and tranquility in today’s VUCA world through the simple pleasure of a Seychelles scented candle, with its notes of fresh bergamot, bright orange and tropical coconut, or the crispness of a freshly laundered, high thread Egyptian cotton sheet.
If ever a business owner personified their brand, it has to be Chrissie Rucker. One of Britain’s most successful businesswomen, Chrissie is softly spoken, gentle and considered. She has the meditative presence of a Zen yoga teacher. Despite her success – her 2010 MBE was upgraded to an OBE in 2017 - I was struck by how humble and understated Chrissie is. She’s the embodiment of the restrained nature of her brand, and incredibly down to earth.
When we look at a successful brand like The White Company, it’s all too easy to forget its humble origins. Like so many businesses, The White Company was, in fact, launched from the spare bedroom of her then boyfriend, the businessman Nick Wheeler, with a 12-page mail order catalogue and a £6,000 inheritance from her grandmother.
I took so much inspiration from Chrissie’s after-lunch talk that I figured it would be fun to share my key takeaways.
HOW DID THE IDEA TO SELL ONLY WHITE PRODUCTS COME ABOUT?
Chrissie joked that she was trying to show Nick Wheeler (her then boyfriend) what excellent wife material she was by volunteering to decorate his first home. Because she loved the aesthetics of white - and to disguise her lack of confidence in interior design - she decided to keep it simple opting for a palette of neutrals. She set off shopping for white linens, towels, bathrobes, china and napkins for his new home and discovered these weren’t easy to find.
The white items Chrissie did find were either cheap, poor quality embroidered designs that looked like they might fall apart quickly, or luxury brand, fabulous quality with high thread counts that were very expensive. At the designer end of the market, Chrissie found that the sales assistants could be snooty. And some even directed the 24-year old to the cheaper ranges in the store!
Shortly afterwards, Chrissie and Nick went to stay with his sister who explained that she’d had a similar experience. When she said “wouldn’t it be brilliant if there was a company that just sold white things?” Chrissie realised that she had the kernel of an idea.
A journalist by background, Chrissie rang a number of department stores and spun them the yarn that she was doing a piece for the Sunday Times about ‘white in homes.’ She asked what percentage of bed linen sales were in white and discovered that it was consistently over 50%. After visits to a trade show, she found that she could buy the same Egyptian cotton bedding sold by designer labels and sell it at more affordable prices by cutting out the middleman. In fact, one of her first products was an embroidered bedspread made in Portugal which had previously been sold by a big brand for the £250, back in the 90’s and which Chrissie retailed for just £85.
Chrissie’s mission became twofold. Firstly, to offer first-class designer quality at affordable, high street prices. And secondly, to create a company where everyone feels welcome and gives great customer service.
IN WHAT WAYS WAS A BACKGROUND AS A JOURNALIST HELPFUL?
Working on magazines like Harpers, Vogue and Brides taught Chrissie a lot about how to put an article together as well as styling. She was able to apply this knowledge and experience to her new mail-order business which, in many ways, was like putting together a mini magazine. She also drew on her copywriting skills and contacts book to put together press releases to try to get editorial coverage as she had no money for advertising. This resulted in brilliant coverage in magazines which was an important factor in bringing in early sales.
WHAT WAS CHRISSIE’S BUSINESS EXPERIENCE?
Chrissie was 24 when she started The White Company. She did a three-day business course with an organisation called Centec which was the government scheme backing enterprise at the time. They awarded Chrissie a grant of £50 per week for 6 months, which paid for her food. She sold some shares her grandmother had left her for £6,000 and used this as working capital.
Chrissie’s early mentor in business was her husband, Nick Wheeler, founder of the Charles Tyrwhitt shirt company. He’d already started his business whilst at university and he used that experience to help Chrissie put together her first business plan. (Note, many founders are of the view that writing a business plan is a waste of time. This could not be more untrue. A business plan is an essential early activity as it sets out your best thinking about your business, your goals, aspirations and creates a roadmap.
That business plan meant Chrissie was able to stay on track and consistently double turnover every year during her first ten years in business. This is also how she’s survived four recessions. Together with her CEO and Finance Director, they re-forecast growth every quarter (something I strongly recommend the businesses I work with do). Based on the business plan, the team utilises profits to invest in the company e.g. a new warehouse to meet customer demand in the years ahead, its digital-first strategy, omnichannel marketing and overseas expansion.
HOW DID THE WHITE COMPANY GET STARTED?
Chrissie started with a list of friends, friends of friends, her mother’s friends and sent out a 12-page brochure which she put together herself to about 500 people. She also sent out press releases to get editorial coverage, which led to features in magazines that generated new customers.
Growth was very gradual but started to increase as customers recommended the brand to other people within their circle of influence. As sales went up, she gained cash flow and invested in more marketing and products. In its first year, The White Company turned over £80,000 and just about broke even.
The first store opened after six years and Chrissie took on her first Managing Director. Having a bricks and mortar store meant the brand really started to make an impact. But the growth came from constantly looking after old customers, looking for new ones and expanding the product range.
The company developed naturally according to the different phases in Chrissie’s own life. The desire for pretty nightdresses when she was pregnant led to a nightwear line. She started The Little White Company, offering children’s bedding, clothes and nursery furniture, after the birth of her first child in 1996. Each year, new fragrances, clothing, gifts, Christmas products, home and garden furniture were added to the mix. What started as a 12-page brochure now runs to 130 pages.
WHAT PERSONAL QUALITIES HAVE MADE CHRISSIE SUCH AN EFFECTIVE BUSINESS LEADER?
Chrissie believes this question very much depends on what sort of person you are and where you can most add value to your business. Chrissie has always had a CEO who can focus on the financial and operational side of the business. This enables her to be very focused on four areas:
1. Keeping the brand vision clear and true.
2. Doing everything possible to give customers a great experience.
3. Building a brilliant team across the business, including the supplier base.
4. Driving continuous improvement.
Chrissie also draws on her experiences as a child of riding competitively to help her manage the challenges of running a business. “Riding means you have days when it goes really well and other days when it goes really badly. You just get back on and have another go and try not make the same mistake again.”
WHAT DOES CHRISSIE MEAN BY KEEPING THE BRAND VISION CLEAR AND TRUE?
When building a brand, Chrissie believes it’s vital to know what you’re not as well as what you are. For example, The White Company products are predominantly in shades of white. In fact, it was five years before other soft neutral tones were introduced into the colour palette. Chrissie personally signs off on all new products, ensuring that they are consistent with the brand’s mantra of ‘perfect simplicity.’
There have been times when the products have wavered away from the vision – when bits of colour have snuck in. So, every three years, the company does a very thorough brand audit of all its products. They also do a lot of customer insight and focus groups and put customer feedback at the heart of everything the company does.
WHAT HELPED CHRISSIE TO SCALE THE WHITE COMPANY?
Chrissie is cognisant of where she can add value to the business, and where she can’t. By her own admission, she’s ‘hopeless at operations and structure,’ nor is she very good at numbers. She has a C in Maths O-Level. This explains why she moved quickly to bring in a CEO whose role was to put in place company structure, allowing Chrissie to ‘quietly get on with her job’ as custodian of the brand. This led rapidly to the appointment of a Director of Marketing.
Chrissie is firmly of the view that you are only as good as the people around you, employing a team of experts at the top of their game. In common with many entrepreneurs, Chrissie confesses to having been a control freak until she went on a course to learn how to delegate. Once she learnt how to brief her key reports properly, Chrissie was able to let go of those parts of the job that were not her forte to focus on those areas that are her strengths.
She also appointed the respected retail executive, Tony Campbell, to act as Chairman. Campbell comes with very significant retail experience at senior management and non-executive director level and is therefore well placed to advise on trends within the retail industry as well as on expansion plans.
AT A CHALLENGING TIME FOR THE HIGH STREET, HOW HAS CHRISSIE MADE SURE THE WHITE COMPANY IS RELEVANT?
The company has traded through four recessions and in fact, started in a recession. Chrissie believes that having a clear brand vision means you have something to stick to when times are hard. This clear brand vision means really knowing what your brand is and what it isn’t, having a distinct point of view, differentiating yourself from the competition and then sticking to your position.
With customers currently very cautious and choosing their purchases wisely, this strong brand ethos enables The White Company to stretch across multiple categories in the “premium lifestyle” space and feature highly in the minds of their loyal customers.
The White Company started life, just like any of our businesses, as a tiny seed of an idea. By following sound business principles, and learning the art of delegation, Chrissie Rucker has nurtured and built an iconic and fast-growing brand. Whatever our ambitions for our own brand, following the inspiring example of Chrissie Rucker will serve us well as we launch, grow and scale our own business.
OVER TO YOU
Questions: What was your key takeaway from this article? If you shop at The White Company, what is it you love most about the brand? I LOVE reading your feedback so please do reply in the comments box below.
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