In Conversation With… Chrissie Rucker

In Conversation With… Chrissie Rucker

The White Company is a household name, founded over 25 years ago by Chrissie Rucker. As well as turning the simplest of ideas – white bed linen – into a multimillion-pound business, she has raised four children, nurtured a happy marriage, been awarded an OBE, and become the founding patron of the Change A Girl’s Life campaign. We caught up with Chrissie over coffee to talk about her work, her family, her charities and how she relaxes…

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How do you balance your busy work life with family life? 
The truth is, with four children, dogs and horses, sometimes it works brilliantly and at other times it all goes pear-shaped! It’s something I have learnt to navigate over time. Our family life is run off a spreadsheet with a column for each of us – the school term dates in first, then family holidays and any other important dates, and then work has to fit in around these. I have to say that after running the business for about six years, I took the decision I was not the best person to be the CEO. I worked out where I really added value – or not – and then set about trying to build a team better than me. I am lucky to have an incredible PA who makes sure I can fit it all in, and an amazing nanny who helps keep all the wheels on at home. I’ve also had to learn to prioritise when to say no.
You’ve been married to Nick [Wheeler, founder of Charles Tyrwhitt​] for 26 years. What is your best piece of advice for a successful marriage?

Marry someone who inspires you, is your best friend and makes you laugh. Have enough interests that you share, and make sure you carve out proper time for just the two of you – Nick and I walk the dogs together and talk often.  
What has motherhood taught you?

That making time to get together and have fun as a family is so important; that lots doesn’t go to plan, but it really doesn’t matter; that our children are more responsible than we might imagine – and now they are older, they are a wonderful source of advice too.

I don’t really think about success on a personal level, but I do feel incredibly proud of the team and what we have achieved together over the last 27 years.

How do you feel about them flying the nest? Any plans for just you and Nick?
They all have things they are passionate about and I’m really excited for them. We are a close family and, thankfully, they come home often – sometimes at very short notice so keeping the freezer topped up is essential! Nick and I would like to travel more when the world opens up again, but apart from that we want to enjoy watching the children and businesses continue to grow. We are also passionate about helping the next generation and, hopefully, we will be able to give more time to that.
As one of the UK’s most successful female entrepreneurs, you must be extremely proud of all you’ve achieved… 
I don’t really think about success on a personal level, but I do feel incredibly proud of the team and what we have achieved together over the last 27 years. I value each and every one of them – some have been with us for over 20 years now, and it’s been a joy to watch the individual journeys they have been on. Seeing the team united, excited and working towards the next goal is hugely rewarding – we are constantly looking for new ideas and ways to improve, and that’s what keeps us motivated. There have been many small but special moments along the way: from printing our first brochure, moving into our first office, opening our first store, to launching online, growing internationally and writing a first book. And, of course, there is still nothing better than hearing from a happy customer. 
Did you ever think about selling your business?
The White Company is like my first child really. Of course, there have been many difficult moments when it has all felt too much – I remember once telling the children I was going to sell the business as I wasn’t being fair to them, and they said: “No! Absolutely not, Mum, we are really proud of what you do.”

What is your best piece of life advice?
There are two. Firstly, ask yourself: when I look back in five or ten years’ time, what do I want to have achieved? Write it down. Realistically, you won’t be able to achieve everything on your list, so choose the five most important things each year, and do them fully, enjoy them and know this is success! It’s always better to do five things well than 20 things half-heartedly. Secondly, actively seek out mentors as you go through life. These will change over time, of course, but having at least two people whose advice you really trust is invaluable. 
Is there one thing you would tell your younger self?
When you stand at the door of a crowded room and feel daunted, know that at least half the people there feel the same way. Just be brave, walk in, smile and say hello. You will be amazed at how many interesting new friends you will meet and what might happen.
On the business circuit, Nick is well known too. How much have you had to think about your image as a couple while both building businesses?
Both businesses are our passions. We haven’t created them to sell them – we do what we do because we love it. We don’t really think about nurturing any particular image. It’s been a gift to really understand each other’s businesses and to have a trusted sounding board at home every day. There have been plenty of stiff G&Ts consumed solving a problem either one of us may have had.
You were awarded an MBE, then an OBE – such an honour. How did that feel?
My MBE in 2010 for services to the retail industry was awarded by the Queen, which was very special. I really admire the incredible work she has done throughout her life. My OBE in 2017 was awarded by Prince Charles – this, too, was especially lovely as I am the founding patron of the Change A Girl’s Life campaign for Women Supporting Women at the Prince’s Trust, which he founded. It was a doubly happy day because Nick also received his OBE, and we were able to share it with our children and close family. 

When you stand at the door of a crowded room and feel daunted, know that at least half the people there feel the same way.

Tell us a bit about this campaign…
I’ve been heading up the Change A Girl’s Life (CAGL) campaign for three years now. Even before Covid-19 young women in the UK were disproportionately disadvantaged compared to young men. This inequality has been exacerbated further by the pandemic and life is harder than ever for them. Many of the young women who reach out to the Prince’s Trust have faced enormous life challenges – domestic or sexual violence, loss of a parent, long-term unemployment, bullying, homelessness, single parenthood, caring responsibilities, or simply not having any emotional support at home. Our campaign has brought together some amazing female founders, entrepreneurs, professionals and philanthropists who, together with Prince Charles, want to make a substantial difference to young women who have had a tough start in life. These young women arrive at the Prince’s Trust completely broken and, after they’ve been through the programme, they come out with their confidence restored. It is literally life changing – from having no future to having a real future ahead them. Some of them go on to do amazing things and quite a few start their own businesses. The trust also helps them find jobs.
Who has been an inspiration to you?
I started The White Company because I was so inspired by Nick, watching his passion and energy as he got up every day and went to work in a tiny basement and began to grow his company. He made me want to feel that too. I loved my time working on magazines at both Brides and Harpers & Queen (as it was then known), it was invaluable experience. Although I wasn’t good at writing, it taught me a huge amount: how to research; how to organise a shoot; how a consistent newness for every issue is so important; how when an opportunity is given to you, and it terrifies you, you just have to get on and do it! 
Other people who have inspired me include Estée Lauder. I think she was incredible; her brand began with just one red lipstick and it is still family run today. Harry Selfridge was an extraordinary retailer, putting experience at the heart of the store. I admire Coco Chanel for her perfect elegance that never dates. My riding teacher, Rob Hoekstra, taught me that falling off was just part of the process – he later became the Olympic coach for Team GB. My mother, Rosie Calcutt, was very wise and always made the world a better place – she had this incredible ability to give everyone she spoke to the confidence to just keep putting one foot in front of the other, however difficult things felt. She also made our home the safest and most magical place. 
Today, I’m inspired by many business leaders and founders, and am often really inspired by the younger generation too – the world has changed a lot and so have the traditional routes to market. 

Who are your mentors?
I’m lucky as I have a really good network of girlfriends who run businesses. Anya Hindmarch is one of them. She and I have breakfast about twice a year and we always end up having a mammoth session, chatting about what’s going on, what the challenges are and so on. She always gives me a fresh lease of life – in fact, I’m reading her book If In Doubt Wash Your Hair at the moment – it’s brilliant! I’ve also got a circle of people who I can go to at any time to ask what they think about something – and, of course, there’s Nick at home. The other person I trust hugely is my sister-in-law, Susie Cummings, CEO of Nurole. She is a rather brilliant headhunter and also a patron of my CAGL charity. She is someone I find really easy to talk to, who will always put me back on the straight and narrow if I’m worrying about something.
How has the last year been for you and the company? 
The last year has thrown incredible challenges at us, and I’m so proud of how everyone has pulled together in an almost war-time spirit. The beginning was very difficult and extremely stressful. As the whole world ground to a standstill, our sales dropped off dramatically, and there was so much uncertainty and fear about what was coming. We had to close 60 stores quickly (happily all of them are now open again) and face all the complexities head on. There was a massive amount of work and extra costs incurred because of new operational and supply chain challenges. We all worked phenomenally hard and wanted to make sure that everyone in the business felt safe and that we would look after them. We set up everyone who could to work from home and had to switch from being a 50:50 retail and e-commerce business to 100% commerce overnight. We re-forecasted, assuming no sales from retail, and focused hard on what we could do to grow our online sales and protect our suppliers. Thankfully, as things settled into a lockdown way of working, our sales began to pick up and grow again. Our next challenge came when we started selling out of things and the warehouse couldn’t keep up with the extra demand as all the stores were closed. The delivery companies were also struggling and, unfortunately, our service levels began to creak and were not where we like them to be normally. 
How did you cope with WFH and how did you switch off? 
Nick and I both have a home office and we were in constant contact with our colleagues via Microsoft Teams. We had all four children at home, too – Tom, who is 24, was working remotely, Ella (23) was doing her university finals, Indie (21) her uni exams, and Bea (17) her GCSEs. We became a hard-working family with laptops all over the house. We tried to balance things out with family walks and did all sorts of funny exercise apps together. We also took it in turns to cook and became addicted to sourdough! In the evenings we settled into some fun movies – everything from Marvel movies to environmental documentaries and easy box sets. I look back now and feel it was such a gift to have gone through it together with all four children at home with us, and I think it made us closer as a family too. I think we have all come to value the importance of our homes and health more than ever. There are so many simple pleasures from everyday life to be enjoyed and slowing down a little feels good – eating well, sleeping well and being very disciplined about keeping work time and home time separate is so important. 

I love a quiet, candlelit bath at the end of a busy day and I also try to exercise four to five times a week, usually to Abba playing full blast.

What do you do to relax and de-stress?
I love a quiet, candlelit bath at the end of a busy day and I also try to exercise four to five times a week, usually to Abba playing full blast. I love spinning, playing tennis, walking, yoga, swimming – I try to mix it up and I always try to read for half an hour before I go to sleep. 
What’s your passion apart from business?
Horses. Our three girls all ride and compete, so I spend a lot of weekends getting up early and in the horsebox. I rode competitively as a child too, and it taught me so much about resilience. We also  all love travelling, and we try to do one family trip every year to somewhere we haven’t been before – and I often find lots of new product ideas along the way. And, of course, I have my charity work which I am truly passionate about. Apart from the work I do at the Prince’s Trust, I started our company charity, The White Heart Foundation, in 2014. We focus on supporting vulnerable women and children. I am also an ambassador for Everywoman, which is a support network for women in business – we sponsor the Everywoman Brand Of The Future Award and offer mentorship to the winner.
What brings you joy?
Happy children, a happy husband, and good times with family and friends; our horses and dogs; seeing one of the children, one of the team or one of our Prince’s Trust young women trying something challenging (slightly dreading or fearing it) and finding they can do it brilliantly; and, of course, the business going well – seeing the team thrive makes me feel enormously proud and happy. 
Why do you like white so much?

I love the perfect simplicity and versatility of white. It’s classic, yet modern – and whoever you are, whatever your style, white always works in some way. It’s a great canvas to build on and a wonderfully peaceful colour to live with. I love its almost spa-like quality which, in our hectic world, is a lovely thing to have. In a predominantly white home, choosing warm whites for the walls and layering in soft textures is key. I love to add in natural elements and texture – a soft rug underfoot or a diaphanous drape at a window can transform how a room feels. Natural materials, such as weathered wood, slubby linen or marbled slate, connect us back to nature and add interest. I do have one sofa that is made from the softest slate grey velvet, which I love! And I do like a little black dress, too, as it’s also wonderfully timeless.

Fireside Candle
Fireside Candle
Italian Wool Coat
Italian Wool Coat
Cable Throw
Cable Throw

Tell us about your style…
I love a relaxed, modern, comfortable look and stick to shapes that I know work for me – pieces that are going to last and that hang well to flatter my shape. I love a white boho blouse or a great simple white tee with jeans. And you can’t beat a black cashmere polo neck or a beautifully designed knit with a pair of relaxed black trousers or joggers. I love a palette of white, ivory and greys with black as a foundation. Plus, good white plimsolls and great earrings are essential.
Some of my favourite designer pieces include blouses from DVF, and I also love Ulla Johnson for summer and Stella for classic tailoring. For my 50th birthday, I wore a sequinned top by Alice Temperley.
Do you like entertaining?
We love entertaining and organising get-togethers, but I’m a great believer in opting for a relaxed, enjoyable time, rather than being stuck in the kitchen producing a complicated meal. So, simplicity and quite a lot of cheating goes on! For example, a simple green salad will look fantastic in a really great bowl, or a selection of cheeses can look very special on a good-looking board. Ottolenghi does the best takeaways, and Diana Henry’s pistachio cake is the best pudding in the world and tastes even better after freezing. I always lay a beautiful table with lots of candles and several small holders of flowers down the middle. I use a combination of tall and short candle holders, and keep flowers simple, usually just mixing one type of white stem with greenery or herbs. Rosemary or mint always smell amazing or even just a few small bunches of eucalyptus will look great. Big, scented candles in the hall and downstairs loo are always essential too. I also make a good cocktail and like good music turned up loud – I am a notoriously embarrassing mum dancer! 

I love a relaxed, modern, comfortable look and stick to shapes that I know work for me – pieces that are going to last and that hang well to flatter my shape.

Where do you love going on hols?
We love our home in Klosters, Switzerland, because it is so unspoilt and quite old-fashioned in many ways, and we love the charm of that. It’s a great place to switch off, get lots of exercise and fresh air, and there’s always something magical about being in the mountains with big log fires. 
Which shops do you have in your little black book?

  • Rose Uniacke in Pimlico – it’s always full of the most beautiful antiques and upholstery fabrics. 

  • ​Egg in Belgravia, which is owned by Maureen Doherty, for special pieces of jewellery and ceramics.

  • Anya Hindmarch in Pont Street – I love her bespoke gift shop where you can have a personal message embossed on a beautiful jewellery box or bag. 

  • Selfridges – for the personal shopping service and the fact it offers the best of the high street to international designer brands. Plus, I often also go to Blink Brow Bar and Face Gym when I am there.

  • Wilson Stephens & Jones Gallery – Rosanna Wilson Stephens’s shop for lovely Hugo Guinness prints and great old frames, plus some lovely ceramic and decorative pieces. 

  • I have many favourite shopping haunts in New York City, too, including the wonderful ABC Carpet & Home, which has a particularly good kitchen department and jewellery. 

If you could choose three favourite items from your own new autumn range, what would they be? 
I love the large Fireside candle – it’s one of my favourite scents and I often give one as a gift. With its wonderful warming and woody notes, it really is the next best thing to lighting an open fire. I also really like the funnel neck, boxy shape and soft oatmeal shade of this lovely Italian wool coat. It looks great with trousers, dresses or skirts, and I know I’m going to wear it on repeat. And finally, I think that nothing says autumn is here more than a cosy cable throw. This one is such a beautiful neutral and works on a chair, sofa or bed. Made in Peru from the finest alpaca wool blend, it feels beautifully soft and will last for years.

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