Baroness Michelle Mone, entrepreneur czar for the government, spoke at the Elite Business Live show at Excel yesterday (21 September), and told a remarkable, and indeed a genuine rags-to-riches tale. What a tale it is.
These days, Baroness Michelle Mone is Mrs successful, she stands as an inspiration to budding and struggling entrepreneurs, and to those from poorer areas as a remarkable example of what you can do. But there was a time when she lived in the broom cupboard.
“It’s not in my genes” she told her audience at Elite Business Live, but maybe it is in her childhood, brought up in a one of the poorer areas of Glasgow, and that old adage ‘necessity is the mother of invention’. Her brother died when she was 10, a tragic event that clearly had a major impact upon her. It also hit the rest of her family hard, especially her father. A few years later her father become seriously ill, and was confined to a wheelchair.
At one point, soon after the death of her brother, times were so tough, that the broom cupboard became her bedroom, she says. Well, it didn’t seem to do Harry Potter any harm, but Michelle has a different kind of magic, hers’ is the dust that conjures entrepreneurial spirit.
She managed to blag her away into having a paper round when she was just ten, but managed to recruit local kids to help her, culminating in a ‘team’ of 17, distributing the newspapers in different streets. And when some of the older boys complained and wanted to know why a little girl was ordering them around, and demanded a higher cut, she responded by saying “I have the distribution rights.”
From there, she was working in a fruit shop, but on a commission, the more fruit she sold, the more she was paid.
She left school at 15, worked her way up a local company, until she was made redundant.
It was then, via a career in modelling, that the idea for Ultimo, the bra company that made her name, was born.
But it was not a simple story of success begetting success. You could say it was hard work, but if you if said that you would be understating the reality rather drastically.
The company grew, and Michelle Mone was feted by the rich and famous, but things were not easy.
Like many entrepreneurs, she had to juggle money – “yes, I had ten credit cards” she said.
The business was struggling, the bank gave her one week’s notice to foreclose on the overdraft, it seemed to be all over. And for all her entrepreneurial genius it seemed as it things really were all over. She said she that stood in her bathroom, and contemplated taking all the medication she could find. Help came from her mother, who she rang in desperation – “surely you must know someone” said her mother. And Michelle recalled a networking event she attended where she was introduced to someone whom she thought was a local bank manager. She got on well with him, and by the end of the event he was an “expert on bras,” she said. But this was no bank manager, it turned out it was Sir Keith Whitson, chair of HSBC, who had given her his mobile phone number. She rang for help, and Sir Keith said that ‘we need six weeks to do our due diligence’. She pleaded with her bank for more time, but was refused, despite all, she faced bankruptcy. Help came at the 11th hour – or maybe a better way of putting it: help came at 4.45 in the afternoon – when Sir Keith rang, and said “welcome to HSBC.”
Michelle Mone is a master of PR, one of her earlier tricks was to send her bras to famous women across the world and when a call came in from the US saying that Julia Roberts was wearing one of her bras she thought it was wind-up from one of her friends. Until she received a fax, from the US caller saying words to the effect ‘I am sorry but I was thrown by your Scottish accent and there may have been a misunderstanding.” The PR that followed was massive. In total she reckons that in the history of Ultimo she received free publicity worth around £1 billion.
But then she is also tenacious and not at all lacking in courage. In the early days of her business, she tried to sell her bras into Selfridges, but not for Michelle Mone polite phone calls to a hierarchy of people, trying to get an appointment with the buyer and playing that game we all know too well, of getting around obstacles. No, she just went to the store and said “can I see your bra buyer” please? To which came the reply “you mean lingerie buyer and have you made an appointment.” And then came the inevitable response, “the buyer is busy can you make an appointment.”
Did Michelle let her shoulders drop, and say on, “okay then?” No, her response was “I am pregnant, I am going to give birth any day, I have got all these bras, this is urgent.”
So, the meeting happened and the orders came.
But even then, and for all the PR scoops, it was never easy, the company struggled more than once and for Michelle Mone herself, happiness was not the inevitable result.
At one point she was a size 22, she was making money, but in herself she was not in a good place, but a friend suggested to her that she treat her body like a business, and that is what she did, and the pounds fell off, and she lost six stone rapidly.
One gets the impression that the Mone story is far from over and maybe it has a few more oscillations to go. She says that at one point – but in the last few years – she had lost sense of reality – in hotels complaining about the service, or lack of choice on the menu. Her mother told her “she had lost the plot”, and in 2010 she went on the TV show 71 Degrees North, battling with other celebrities to reach the 71st parallel, north. She said that changed her, made her a better person.
Today Baroness Mone, having sold out from Ultimo, sits in the House of Lords, is the government’s special advisor on trying to encourage entrepreneurism in the UK’s poorer areas, an investor, business mentor, and example of entrepreneurism par excellence.
But it has not been an easy journey, and the twists and turns have not always taken her to the right place, and it is a journey that is set to continue – one wishes her a smoother journey from now on, and the happiness that eluded her for much of her career.