You have been a highly successful business entrepreneur for many years. Over the last 12+ years as Founder, CEO and now Executive Chairman of Stylus, a global consumer research and trend intelligence for world-leading brands, you are still only 61! Since you may live to be 90, do you think of entrepreneurialism as part of your future?
I left school when I was 16 years old with no qualifications. I had failed every exam I’d taken. I had no interest in studying and couldn’t wait to leave. I joined the family textile business which I’d always intended to do. My brother Julian had already been working in the business for 2 years when I joined. This is something I had always wanted to do. This was also the start of a 30-year partnership with my brother. We were both very fortunate that my late father allowed us to learn from our mistakes (and there were many) and within a year or so we were running the show and he had pretty much retired.
Throughout our partnership, Julian was always the sensible one (many years later the Financial Times referred to him as the boring one – that made me smile). He had a good head for figures and got off on reading contracts. Like me he had no qualifications. I was the one that was customer focused, loved to experiment with new ideas with little regard to how much things were going to cost. He was always the sense check. Together we built a great trend forecasting business which we sold in 2005 for $200m. We split the proceeds 50-50 and went our separate ways (in business).
I took a few years out – after all, I don’t think I’d taken more than 2 weeks at a time off work. During that couple of years, I dabbled with a few things. I relaunched a vintage high-end fashion label called Ossie Clark. Whilst I had been in the fashion industry for 35 years, I knew nothing about that side of the industry. I blew £4m. I should have known better. Stick to what you know. This is something that I’d tell young entrepreneurs that I would mentor. I do still beat myself up as to why I was so stupid.
In 2010 I founded Stylus, another trend-forecasting business that looks at consumer lifestyle and behavior rather than fashion trends. Because I had a successful exit, I was able to employ some very talented people so in many respects this was easier (my first business was strapped for cash for much of its first 5 years) but I think that’s something that every good entrepreneur should be able to do – identify great talent.
I’m hoping to exit Stylus in the next year or so by which time I will be 64 or 65. So the big question….would I do it again?
The simple answer is (I’m afraid to say) NO.
I think after nearly 50 years it’s time to play.
I have a new wife (having divorced after 32 years) who I hope to travel the world with and see the remaining countries on my bucket list. I have (at the time of writing) 3 gorgeous grandchildren who I’m very lucky to be able to see often.
I have 4 great kids of my own who all live close by. I really am a family man and that to me is more important than anything. You can keep all those spoils – my wealth is my family.
Now, if any of my kids came to me with an idea and needed my help that would be a great excuse to do it all over again but working alongside them. But if I do the same as my dad – I’ll let them get on with it and learn from their mistakes.
Whilst I have been very successful in my business career, I have also been very lucky. Not everyone has a business they can join at 16. My first business, WGSN, raised money at massive valuations in 1999, right at the height of the dot com boom. We sold the business just before the dot com crash (literally days before).
Every entrepreneur needs a little luck.
The ROAR manifesto is all about lifelong learning and right now, you have embarked on some interesting new ways to learn about the arts world. Tell us what you are up to?
I guess I have ADHD. I could never concentrate on my studies at school. I could never really concentrate in meetings, getting bored very quickly. I could never read a legal document or contract. I don’t think I even read the share purchase agreement when I sold WGSN. I sit in meetings and zone out after 5 minutes. Apparently, I do that in social situations too. My kids accuse me of it, my wife Kelly does too. So why then did I choose last year to sign up to a History of Art course at Sotheby’s? I am not actively involved with Stylus anymore. I’m still Executive Chairman but that only involves a few hours a week.
Over the last few years, I attempted to learn Hebrew twice (I have a home in Israel and thought it might be useful). The first attempt lasted less than an hour and the second, 2 hours.
But art has always interested me, and I know very little about it. I’m trying to understand how an upside-down urinal can be one of the most important pieces of art in the last 100 years. I’m trying to understand how a blank canvas painted blue (Rothko) can be worth $80m. It is fascinating and I haven’t given up yet! I did a 12-week course on History of Art 1860-present day, and I’ve just completed another one – 8 weeks – on an Introduction to Contemporary Art.
There are around 12 hours of studying a week which consists of 7 or 8 online lectures, reading material (oh vey), and discussion groups. I’ve received 2 “certificates of completion” which more than shocked my family who didn’t believe I’d get past week one. Next month I start a 12-month diploma course with Christie’s which is a bit more challenging and requires me to do an exam paper at the end. It also includes some in-person lectures – I suspect I will be the mature student……although my kids would dispute that description.
Business was all-consuming for 40 years. I never really had a hobby and golf has been a fairly recent thing. Although I enjoy it it’s not exactly mentally challenging. I’m really enjoying the art course.
It’s never too late to start something new.
Lifelong learning seems to be a family affair! Your wife has also embarked on her own journey on this front. Tell us about that.
My lovely wife Kelly has decided to challenge herself and is studying for a degree in psychology. Kelly is younger than me and didn’t achieve much academically. She worked in property for several years and then devoted herself to being a full-time wife and mother (and very successfully I hasten to add). But two of her kids have left home for university and her youngest is at home for another 6 years at least. Kelly is not one to lunch with the ladies, go to the gym, etc. She’s way too clever for that. She’s just completed her second year and achieved a first. I have no doubt that she will finish with a first overall next year and then maybe carry on with a Masters and even a PhD.