Praise: The New York Times hailed Chrissie Rucker as the UK’s answer to Martha Stewart
Britain has produced its fair share of glamorous power couples. Liz Taylor and Richard Burton; David and Victoria Beckham; Chas and Dave.
To that heady mix we can also add the names of entrepreneurial husband and wife, Chrissie Rucker and Nicholas Wheeler.
She is the founder of soft furnishings firm The White Company, he’s the man behind affordable haberdasher, Charles Tyrwhitt.
Together they have amassed a combined fortune of £400m and now enjoy a roost inside the top 25 wealthiest couples in the Sunday Times Rich List.
But it is Rucker’s success story which is the more intriguing. While her husband’s business career was forged via Eton, Bristol University and a solid grounding in management consultancy, she left school aged 16 not knowing one end of a spreadsheet from the other.
Since launching as a mail-order firm in 1994, The White Company now has more than 50 shops in the UK, with profits at £17.6m.
When she opened her first American outlet on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue last year, the New York Times hailed her as the UK’s answer to Martha Stewart.
The premise of the business is, in many ways, a reflection of its stylish owner. Simple, attractive designs – ranging from bed linen to cashmere jerseys – belying accessible prices. And nearly all of it, of course, in white.
Her father was a commodity broker while her mother was obsessed with horses, a passion now shared by Rucker’s three daughters. After finishing her O levels, young Rucker enrolled at Lucie Clayton finishing school, studying dressmaking, and generally lived the life of an Alice-banded Sloane Ranger.
In 1987 she was a debutante at the Berkeley Square Ball alongside socialite Plum Sykes. Designer Jean Muir was on the judging panel, and Rucker, showing an aptitude for self-advancement, convinced her to give her work experience.
A succession of jobs on glossy magazines followed – Vogue then Tatler. After undertaking an ill-fated journalism course (‘a complete waste of time’) she became a PR girl at cosmetics firm Clarins before moving to Harpers & Queen in 1991 as a beauty writer.
And then she met Wheeler. Handsome as her new beau was, his taste in interiors left much to be desired. Spotting a chance to show what perfect wife material she was, Rucker took it upon herself to kit out his flat, but noticed how difficult it was to buy plain white sheets on the High Street. The germ of an idea was sown.
Rucker began meticulously researching her market, even posing as a journalist so she could quiz department stores on how much white linen they sold. Armed with £6,000 she had inherited from her grandmother, and a £5,000 investment from Wheeler (in return for 25pc of the business), she produced her first catalogue on a computer in her attic, delivering initial orders in her sister’s Mini Metro.
The firm took off, turning over £258,000 in its first year.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Somehow, inbetween the gruelling 16-hour days she worked to begin with, she’s had time for four children. Meanwhile, she and Wheeler enjoy a bulging portfolio of properties, including a £12.5m 17th century manor house in Buckinghamshire and a beautiful schloss in the Swiss Alps.
It is a measure of her lack of ego that she happily admits she could never have done it all without her hubby’s expertise. He helped write her first business plan and expand in the US, having already launched a number of shops in the States.
The path of love, however, has not always run smoothly.
A year after the firm launched, Wheeler failed to propose to her during a trip to Thailand. An irate Rucker stormed into his office, handed back his investment, and told him it was over. When they married, as a wedding gift she gave Wheeler back a stake, but this time just 1 per cent. Chrissie Rucker is a wife, mother and designer – but a businesswoman to the core.