Welcome to Kind of a Big Deal, a series dedicated to introducing powerful women who are breaking boundaries in their fields. You’ll meet the rising stars and get the inside scoop on how they made it, what they’re working on now, and what’s up next.
The New York Times has called her Britain’s Martha Stewart, and Chrissie Rucker certainly lives up to the comparison. The 48-year-old businesswoman is the founder of wildly successful lifestyle brand The White Company (last year alone, the company racked up 200 million pounds in sales). Now Britain’s richest self-made business woman has her sights set on a new territory: North America.
Last week, Rucker christened her first stateside store in NYC and there are already plans underway to open a second location in Short Hills, N.J. We caught up with Rucker at her new flagship to talk building a successful business, being a working mom, and what’s up next for The White Company.
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Your first jobs were working for GQ and Brides magazines, then in the PR department at Clarins, and eventually as the assistant health and beauty editor at Harpers & Queen (now Harper’s Bazaar). Did your background help you in your business at all?
Yeah, it was fantastic training. So much of what I learned from that industry, I drew on for this. In magazines, you learn by getting thrown into the deep end. If someone disappears on a photo shoot, you have to do the shoot. You need to style. You need to write. Everything. When I left Harpers & Queen, the first thing I had to do was shoot a brochure, and since I had no money at all to pay other people, I did it all.
The idea for The White Company came from furnishing your then boyfriend’s new home?
Yeah, before he’d been living in a rented flat. But his taste was awful. He had a sort of burgundy and brown patchwork quilt, brown towels—it was a classic bachelor pad. So when he bought his first house, which was completely empty, I thought I’d furnish it and show him I was wife material—we’d been dating for four years by that point. And then I had this big confidence crisis when I went shopping because I didn’t have a clue how to do this or where to start.
So you started with white.
I just kept it simple with a “less is more” approach. I bought white duvet covers, white china, white towels, white napkins, white bathrobes, and that got the basics of the house up and running.
Did he like it?
He did actually! And now we’re married, so my tactic worked.
What was your initial goal?
What I found when I went shopping was that there were clearly two ends of the scale. You had designer, beautifully made, lovely fabrics, that were very expensive or you had high streets, which had much poorer quality, not very well designed, quite often much cheaper pieces. There was nothing in the middle. Funnily enough, my sister-in-law had just bought a house and she’d just done exactly the same thing. She bought white towels, white china, white bedding, and she said to me, “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if there was a company that just sold white things?” And that was it!
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How did you get the business off the ground?
I carried on working at Harper’s for six months after I had the idea, but I started traveling on weekends to find factories. And when I found that first European factory where I discovered I could buy a bedspread and sell it for 85 pounds, whereas the designer brands were selling it for 250 pounds, I just thought, “Okay, this can work.” I sent my first brochure to friends, friends of friends, all the journalists I knew, and it very quietly started to happen.
Your husband, Nick Wheeler, founded his own UK-based apparel company Charles Tyrwhitt. Was he a huge help at the start of everything?
He taught me how they’d launched the catalog business and that gave me some confidence that I could do this. There was another moment when I rang a very famous home-orientated London store pretending to be a journalist. I said, “I’m writing an article for The Times” and I asked if they could tell me what percentage of their bed linen sales are in white. They said, “Consistently over 50 percent.” So I thought, if there’s demand like that, then I could do this.
You said you remember one Pretty Woman-esque moment you had while you were searching for those initial pieces.
Yes, I remember when I went to one of the department stores and an employee said something like, “Perhaps you’d like to go to the cheap brand store instead.” I felt like I was in that moment in Pretty Woman when they wouldn’t serve her. So that’s why customer experience is so important to me now. I try really hard to think like the customer.
What do you think is the secret to your success?
We source everything directly and design 99 percent of everything we make, so you can’t find it anywhere else. And we’re obsessive about details and quality. I drive the team mad sometimes. When they bring in the product, I’ll often say, “Ooh, that’s nice, but if we do this to it we can make it even better!”
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How do you build customer loyalty to your brand, especially when you’re specializing in just one color?
I tried to get the right balance of great product, fantastic experience, and moments of inspiration for our shoppers. People should be able to come into the store and browse in a very relaxed way. When they need help, if they want help, we’re there. But if they don’t, we’ll let them be. That’s very unique in the American market. But it’s how we do it at home—that’s just our way.
Do you have any advice for keeping whites crisp and, well, white?
Having grown up in the British countryside with horses, tractors, and lots of mud, I completely appreciate that white can be a tricky color. I would suggest buying a non-biological detergent containing no optical whiteners, bleaching agents or enzymes, as these can cause colors to fade or become patchy.
This flagship store in New York City is your first store in North America.
It’s our first store in America.
What made you want to expand to this market?
We’ve wanted to do it for ages. Then two years ago we started a U.S. website to learn about the American consumer. We discovered that actually, our American customer has very similar taste to our U.K. base. And I still believe hugely that it’s lovely to have something in your hand. People like to see, touch, and feel the product rather than doing everything digitally. It gives you a different perspective and real confidence in the product.
What have been the biggest challenges expanding to the U.S.?
Well for one, your bed sizes are different. We had to remake all the bedding in different sizes. And your laws for children’s pajamas and nightwear are completely different from U.K. laws. They have to fit very differently. So at the moment, we haven’t been able to bring any of our nightwear. But we’re working on that. And then the complexity that comes with opening in another country that’s quite far away. But we’re really excited. We’ve got a U.K. team who have come out here to manage it. And our second store is opening in Short Hills, NJ this December.
What advice can you give someone looking to start his or her own small business?
If you’ve got something you really believe in, just go for it and do it. At home, I see quite a lot of people have ideas, but they don’t ever get the product made. I think it’s just about getting on with it—making your first product. And I think it’s good to start slowly, find reliable suppliers, always hire people that are much better than you are, and see how it goes. At every turn, you learn how to build on your mistakes.
Is that what keeps it exciting for you, learning something new every day?
For me, I genuinely love the things we produce. It doesn’t even really feel like work. And I’ve kept my business private. We didn’t grow very fast in the beginning, we grew slowly, organically. And I’ve never taken in investors. My husband always says, “There are two types of businesses, the hare and the tortoise.” The White Company is definitely the tortoise.
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As a woman in business, did you ever feel that you faced additional challenges on your way to the top?
I just never really thought of it like that at all. I think women are great at getting on like I said and making things happen.
I like to think so, too.
Actually I do remember, there was one supplier. I went to see him and he said, “You’re far too small, I’m not going to supply you.” But then five years later, I came back and they were desperate to supply us. So that was the only “Are you going to really do this?” moment.
Did you let them be a supplier?
We did. I don’t believe in having wars.
You’re also a mother of four. How do you make the working mom thing work?
For me, it’s about having a brilliant team and being really clear about who’s doing what. I know what my strengths and weaknesses are, where I can add value and where it’s much better to leave it to them. I’ve been very lucky. When the business was about eight years old and I’d had my first baby, that’s when I knew that I was going to struggle to run everything alone. So I hired my first managing director and we worked very hard at creating a team—from there it’s all about a clear vision.
How do you handle the stress of running your own business and expanding like this?
I think you tend to feel stressed when your team isn’t quite where it needs to be. For me, six years ago, I had a moment when I was hiring my next CEO and we were growing really fast and lots of things were coming at us. That’s when we decided to consolidate for the following year. We decided what we were going to do and what we were not going to do and then we moved forward.
Are you going to expand to any other countries in the near future?
I’m a great believer in focus and we really want to put our heart and souls into making America work. So we’ll concentrate on that for the next couple of years and do further international expansion when we’re ready.
Visit The White Company online at us.thewhitecompany.com, and if you’re in NYC, visit their new flagship at 155 5th Ave.