The White Company: Chrissie Rucker

The entrepreneur reveals plans for a £100m business

Two London hotels. Each with a team of store staff down for a training weekend. One offers fantastic customer service – lovely bath products, bath robes, efficient room service etcetera. The other offers a miserable experience – no towels, beds not made properly, malfunctioning key card, no bath products, ordered coffee failing to arrive. Neither team knows they’ve been set up.

This is how The White Company’s Chrissie Rucker works and sums up why her 12-year-old business turned over just shy of £50m last year. Customer service and quality products for great value are the three principles she has built her white empire around.

The training initiative was the brainchild of the company’s head of retail, and when the two teams met the next morning, still unaware of the cunning ruse, it prompted a fantastically lively and open discussion about the value of Rucker’s founding ideology. If they hadn’t understood beforehand what The White Company was about, they certainly did after that.

Her business isn’t particularly unusual in claiming great customer service and good value. Execution is what makes it more than an empty promise. If you say your company’s this or that, you’ve got to back it up. And she does. In spades.

Starting her business

The White Company wouldn’t have existed if a designer department store Rucker entered had given her what she desired. Faced by a snooty shop assistant who doubted her ability to buy from the more expensive range and made her feel distinctly unwelcome, she decided she could offer more, for less.

It no doubt helped enormously that her partner, Nick Wheeler, had already started his own mail order shirt business – you’ve probably heard of Charles Tyrwhitt. So, only 24 and an assistant health and beauty editor for Harpers & Queen, Rucker sold shares left to her by a grandmother, pooled some cash and started-up with £20,000. At Harpers it was her job to organise shoots and pages of editorial, so putting a brochure together was a cinch, she recalls. “From November 1993 onwards I wrote to exhibition centres – NEC, Olympia, Earls Court asking for past trade show catalogues. Between November and March I secured a supply base using UK-based people or importers. I started with a very small range – the brochure was only 12 pages and featured china, towels and bed linen, among a few other things.”

That left her with five grand. With her publishing skills she put together a business plan and a press release, sending it to all the journalists she knew. Then she scribbled down a mailing list of 800 names, including her mother and mother’s friends.

The week the brochure was printed the Financial Times picked up her story and penned a piece. “The phone lines went ballistic, and in the space of three days I had another 1,000 names and addresses. Journalists loved the idea – no-one else had done anything that was just white.” It’s an interesting point. Henry Ford famously said, “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.” That was before consumer choice became a real selling point.

It seems incredible that quality white items were a commodity, hard to find. And to have an entire business around a colour and succeed remains unusual. But scarcity or uniqueness, after all, are among the most valuable assets you can have.

She was packing a couple of orders a day from a rented attic room where she’d set up a small office. “It was fine until the boxes started arriving and filling the spare bedroom and bathroom. By the time the kitchen was full, Nick had had enough. I moved it into a warehouse and took a spare room in the back of his office. My sister helped out, and in the beginning we looked like a couple of blonde bimbos loading up a Mini Metro and queuing up in the Post Office with enormous boxes.”

All pretty standard entrepreneurial fare, you could argue. Equally, her admission that there was no early formal strategy is common. “I was incredibly young and naïve. I had an idea and left on a whim. I had no formal business sense – just young and gung-ho.”

Like her husband, she chose mail order – a national market with a relatively low overhead, she reasoned.

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