September is when my favourite magazine, Red, hosts its annual ‘This Is A Smart Women’ week. And this means I get the opportunity to meet the founders of some of our most iconic British brands, and put my questions to them about how they went from kitchen table to global business. On Wednesday, I put my glad rags on and went to One Belgravia for lunch with Chrissie Rucker, founder of The White Company.
Here in the UK, The White Company represents simple, affordable luxury, and is synonymous with fluffy white towels and Egyptian cotton. But its genius resides in the idea that peace and tranquility in our noisy world can be found in the simple pleasure of a Seychelles scented candle, with its notes of fresh bergamot, bright orange and tropical coconut – and the crispness of a freshly laundered, high thread Egyptian cotton sheet. The White Company is without doubt one of my favourite brands!
The White Company’s Origins
The White Company started life, back in 1994, as a 12-page mail order catalogue, with start up funding from a £6,000 legacy and a small government grant. Over the past 22 years, Chrissie Rucker has quietly and steadily developed the brand to one that turns over £180 million, employs 1300 staff, includes 56 stores here in the UK, 13 overseas franchise outlets, a UK and a US e-commerce site. She will shortly launch her first US store in New York. And the company is forecast to turnover £500 million in the next 5 years!
Chrissie Rucker started The White Company during the recession of the mid-1990s. On the surface, a recession is not the best time to start a business. But it served to reinforce a point of difference in the market. Rather than competing solely on price as is often the case in retail, The White Company competed on quality and customer experience. Here’s why.
At the time, if you wanted white linens, you had two choices; cheap, Chinese imports or expensive, designer products. Chrissie wanted to create a beautiful home for her then boyfriend, Nick Wheeler, but lacked the confidence in her interior design skills to do so. She decided to stick to a simple, white colour palette. But it was only when out shopping that she discovered a dearth of quality white home accessories at affordable prices.
Chrissie’s experience as a fashion journalist proved invaluable in the early days. It meant she knew how to plan a photoshoot, write copy and create a consistent brand message. Once she’d done her market research and discovered that 50% of linens sold in the UK were in fact white, Chrissie used her journalist’s skills to pull together a 12-page mail order catalogue, cobble together a mailing list of 800 people (that included her mother and her mother’s friends) and distribute a press release to every journalist she knew.
Chrissie ran out of cash after the first week! But fortune struck when she won £5,000 in a business competition and the Financial Times picked up her story. The phone lines went crazy, and within just three days she had added another 1,000 names and addresses to her mailing list.
During Wednesday’s lunch, what struck me was how incredibly humble and understated Chrissie Rucker is. She is the embodiment of the restrained nature of her brand, and incredibly down to earth. These were my key business lessons from Chrissie Rucker and The White Company’s success.
1. Be the Best You Can Possibly Be
Always be alert to ways in which you can improve and innovate, whilst staying true to your brand. This was Chrissie’s message; and it’s also a central tenet of Jim Collin’s book, ‘Good To Great,’ which sets out the core principles of the most successful and enduring companies.
Chrissie’s success is founded on three key principles. Deliver quality products with exemplary customer service at a price that represents great value. She has delegated the operational management of her business to a CEO and leadership team, leaving her free to focus her energies on:
- Keeping the brand vision clean and true;
- Product development;
- Ensuring customers have great experience.
Chrissie’s desire for continuous improvement is demonstrated in a new concept for the Norwich store which delivers a lifestyle-led retail experience and is modeled on a journey through the home. Following the success of this format, existing stores will be upgraded to recreate a home from home.
2. Decide What You’re Not
When building a brand, it’s vital to know what you’re not as well as knowing what you are.”
The White Company products are predominantly in shades of white. In fact, it was 5 years before other soft neutral tones were introduced into the colour palette. Whilst there was a brief dalliance with blue shirts and aubergine bedspreads, Chrissie quickly realised the importance of staying ‘on brand.’ That’s why Chrissie personally signs off on all new products, ensuring that they are consistent with the brand’s mantra of ‘perfect simplicity.’
3. Stay Connected To Your Customer
Chrissie’s inspiration for The White Company came about because she decided to decorate and equip her boyfriend’s new house, and prove what excellent ‘wife material’ she was. To disguise her lack of confidence in interior design, she decided to keep it simple – white bed linen, white towels, white china, white bathrobes, white walls. But she couldn’t find affordable high quality, white sheets. Shops either stocked expensive designer linens, or cheap embroidered products from China. Out of her quest to find beautiful but affordable linens sprang one of our most iconic and ironically aspirational brands.
Chrissie continues to put herself in the shoes of her customer, thinking about what ‘real women’ want. Each product extension has come about organically as a result of changes in Chrissie’s own life. See point 6 below.
4. Create A Business Plan
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 used that experience to help Chrissie put together her first business plan. (Note, many entrepreneurs are of the view that a business plan is unnecessary. This is not true. A business plan sets out your roadmap, and writing one is an essential early activity).
That business plan meant that Chrissie was able to stay on track, survive the recession and consistently double turnover every year during her first ten years in business. Together with her CEO and Finance Director, they re-forecast growth every quarter – something I recommend the businesses I work with do. Based on the business plan, the team utilises profits to invest in the company’s infrastructure e.g. a new warehouse so that it can meet customer demand in the years ahead.
5. Have A Clear Vision
Chrissie started out with a high level 5 year vision, and worked up a more detailed 3 year vision that formed the basis of her business plan. This enabled her to decide the right products, the right marketing mix and the right people to take the business forward. She now has a 10 year vision for The White Company which is executed with support from her CEO and leadership team.
I talk about why it’s so important to set out a clear vision for your business in my article, 6 Steps To Casting A Compelling Business Vision.
6. Grow Organically
The company developed naturally according to the different phases in Chrissie’s own life. After the birth of her first child in 1996, she started The Little White Company, offering children’s bedding, clothes and nursery furniture. The desire for pretty nightdresses when she was pregnant led to a nightwear line. Each year, 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. In an interview with Red magazine, Chrissie said:
We’ve always grown strong and safe. We’re only just launching as an online company in the US now, as a 20 year old brand. You must establish yourself in your home country first, before getting distracted by global ambition.”
7. Build The Best Team You Can
Chrissie is very aware of how 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. That’s why she moved quickly to bring in a CEO who put in place company structure, allowing her to ‘quietly get on with her job’ as custodian of the brand. This led rapidly to the appointment of a Director of Marketing.
She wisely appointed 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 and expansion plans.
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. She says:
Hire people with the skills to do what you can’t. Delegation and knowing who to employ are key: I went on courses to learn the art of both.”
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. Note how these actions prove what a smart, savvy businesswoman Chrissie is!
From A Seed Of An idea to Global Brand
The White Company started life, like all of our businesses, as a seed of an idea. By following sound business principles, and learning the art of delegation, Chrissie Rucker has built out an iconic and fast growing brand.
Whilst we may not all aspire to run a global multi-channel business empire, following the exact same principles as Chrissie will serve us well as we build out our own businesses.
Join The Conversation
Questions: What was your key takeaway from this case study? 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.
Explore These Additional Resources
Did you miss?
- How To Build Brand Admiration Like The White Company
- How To Build A Brand like Anthropologie
- Why Passion Is Essential For Business Success
- Business Focus: The Truth About Business Success
Work With Me
I’m Denyse Whillier, a Sussex and London based business coach and consultant. I work with responsible business owners to build profitable and successful brands of the future. To do so, I draw on Built To Succeed™, my proven success system, developed during my 8 years in the trenches as a CEO.
I’d love to start a conversation about whether we’re a good fit to work together. Simply use this link to arrange an informal Skype coffee chat. There’s no hard sell. Just solid advice and a straightforward, honest assessment of whether 1:1 business coaching (or business consultancy) would be right for you.
FREE Download: Create A Brand Your Customers Love
Download my FREE 'How To' guide, complete with worksheets, and turn your brand into one that customers love, trust, and respect.