How a 20-year-old went from a one-man band to running a business with a balance sheet in excess of £9m

SME catches up with James Whiteley, the man behind White Stores, the outdoor living company

James, perhaps you can start by giving us a brief history of White Stores. When did it come into being and what do you remember of the early days?

I launched White Stores in 2005, at just 20 years old. I started out by selling garden furniture, cushions and parasols. I had some experience working in the garden furniture industry and saw an opportunity in these areas. I soon expanded into popular garden furniture at the time, like beanbags and rattan. In 2011, I opened our first bricks and mortar store, and from there I have been able to grow into five different areas across the UK and launch my own wholesale and logistics companies that work in tandem with White Stores to provide our customer with the best experience possible.

I remember working incredibly hard – I still do – and being extremely passionate about what I had to offer the industry. As a young entrepreneur, I remember a lot of people believing I couldn’t do it. But I wasn’t one of them, I always believed I could.

What were the main challenges when you started up?

In order to survive and thrive, a business needs good margins. I didn’t have that. I couldn’t order the volumes required to bring product costs down and therefore I couldn’t make a profit or reinvest it in my business. For the first five years, I couldn’t make the margins I needed for this, which also made acquiring external funding impossible. I remember, finally being able to order the quantities that allowed for good margins and feeling like I was on to something!

Cash flow was another huge challenge. Learning how to manage cash flow and keep everything rolling is an artform in itself. Any young entrepreneur needs to spend an extensive amount of time building a simple yet informative cash flow model that works 3-6 months in advance.

How have customer demands changed over the years?

Customer expectations are higher than ever, and service levels continue to be more and more demanding. You have to put the customer first. Always. Not just in the product you create, but in communication and delivery, too. Access to the internet and social media has made procuring a product or service easier than ever before and with so many more options, customers don’t have to accept bad service, they have the opportunity to take their business elsewhere and never look back. So not only do you need to provide a quality product, but you must ensure you are providing quality service, too.

What is the secret to good customer service?

Always envision yourself as the customer. How would you like to be treated if the shoe were on the other foot? Implore your staff to embody this mindset and treat customers as if it were their mum on the end of the line or visiting a store. What service would you want for yourself and your family? Deliver that to every customer.

How would you describe your own approach to business? What route did you take to where you are now?

My approach is: Don’t stop. Believe in yourself. Follow your gut. It’s important to always listen to feedback and advice, whether that’s from customers, employees, business advisors or friends and family, but don’t just blindly follow other’s advice – make sure it aligns with your vision and is going to result in something you want or need. Whenever I find myself doing something I always put it in a process or system then identify who within the business can take that on, or if I need to hire to fill that role. I am always looking to make myself redundant from the position I’m currently doing so I am able to move on within the business.

What advice would you give to someone thinking of starting their own business?

Make sure you know what you’re getting into! Running a business is not a simple 9-5 job, you don’t switch off from it, ever! You must understand that whether you are successful or not, it will consume you, mentally, emotionally and physically. It is important to surround yourself with people who get it. Ensure you have a strong support network in friends and family and also make sure your family has a strong support network too – it takes a strong person to love a business owner!

You also must make sure you can rationalise and make hard decisions. You won’t always be everybody’s favourite person – not even your own. You must be able to take criticism, from others and yourself, as well as roll with the knock backs. Always have the bigger picture in mind because there will be challenges along the way and if you aren’t looking at that long term vision, you’ll be consumed by the challenges in front of you today.

Looking back over your time in charge, what are you most proud of? And what might you have done differently?

I am most proud of taking a business from conception and growing it to have over 160 employees. I launched White Stores on my own, I didn’t have shareholders or outside investment, and I have taken that one-man band and turned it into a business with a growing balance sheet in excess of £9 million. I am proud that I never doubted for a second that I could do that. I speak to so many people today who don’t think they can launch their idea without capital. You can! It takes a lot of hard work, and I mean working 24/7, but you can do it by working hard and making smart decisions. The one thing I wish I had done differently is acquired more property as I went. Every warehouse and office space we took on, we have leased because we needed that cash to invest in more stock, but I wish I had been able to invest in these buildings as my own.

What are your plans for the future? Where do you hope to be in, say, five years’ time?

The goal is to maintain our position as the UK’s leading outdoor living store, but with larger and more diverse experiential retail outlets. I want to continue to mentor my management team to the point that day-to-day business is taken care of by them, allowing me to focus exclusively on strategy and always look to where we are heading next!

White Stores