After leaving school at 16, Liverpool-born Mike Welch set up his own tyre business from his bedroom with a grant from The Prince’s Trust. He subsequently sold to Kwik Fit where he was hired as the group’s first head of e-commerce in the lead up to Ford’s (F) £1bn ($1.1bn) acquisition.
Twenty years after launching Blackcircles.com, the world’s first click-to-fit tyre retailer, Welch became president and CEO of Tirebuyer.com in 2021, one of America’s largest online tire retailers with over 18,000 installers across the US.
I left school with no qualifications at all. I was a tyre fitter and at weekends I would stack shelves in Tesco (TSCO.L) to earn money to get my mail order tyre business going. I was the ‘cat food guy’ and the pallets always used to break, meaning that I would invariably come back home smelling of Kitekat.
Every day I used to pass portraits on the staff room wall of Ian MacLaurin, the former CEO, and Terry Leahy, the then CEO. Terry used to walk the stores and sometimes would stop to speak to me. He kind of helped me out and once organised for me to get a new set of gloves.
His attention to detail was another level and, coming from a humble beginning without a leg up, so was his ability to relate with staff.
I knew how to buy and sell tyres but I didn’t know much about retailing. So I decided to go to Terry, who was flying in business at the time. I wrote him a letter and a few days later he invited me down for a cup of tea. Terry was very amenable and here I was relaying a story from one Scouser to another, albeit a god of retail.
I was motivated by the chat, after all it can be lonely setting up on your own. As the business grew — the online tyre company ultimately became Blackcircles.com — I asked whether Terry would be keen on investing. Over the course of the next 12 years, he was an incredible mentor and taught me everything about the customer. Above all, he made sure he had the time, which I try to do for others today.
What he always used to say to me was that ‘You have to own your numbers’. I’m dyslexic and with a spreadsheet I still have to reinterpret the numbers. I used to show them to Terry and he used to say again that I had to be underneath the numbers. What I realised was that he could look at a complicated spreadsheet and be able to pinpoint the one number hanging out.
How would Terry be able to see it? Well, when you understand the construct and the build up to the numbers, they dance off the page. When they’re not right it’s obvious, as you know where they come from. He would say, ‘Why is that sitting like that?’ or ‘Your product margin — why are you expecting to see an increase of 5% and still grow? Surely your conversion will drop?’ That for me was the tipping point. I went from a sales person to a CEO. I could make decisions and set direction for my team.
Terry had helped launch the Tesco Clubcard and his favourite phrase was ‘Reward the behaviour you seek’. The simple principle that mattered was what the customers thought. If I became really good at my niche early on, then there was a potential that I could become the best in the world. Sometimes, though, you have to take a leap of faith and give it a shot. I guess it does help that it was a teen who showed up at a CEO’s desk.
The innocence of not knowing is sometimes a blessing. After all, it took me 15 years to start to sell Blackcircles.com. If I had known some of the pitfalls ahead of me, there’s a good chance I may not have bothered.
I’m now in Miami and have started another business, Tirebuyer.com. It is the next generation on from Blackcircles. We have built a network of 18,000 installation points across the US, wiring up hundreds of distribution centres. It's a $58bn a year market in the States, and we can offer the customer the opportunity to buy, schedule and install their tyres anywhere in the country — the first time that’s ever been achieved. We’ve been going for 18 months and our sales have skyrocketed.
It is seven years since Terry and I exited to Michelin (MCHA.F) for £50m. When we sold the business from nothing, I phoned Terry and said ‘We did it’. It had felt so unattainable sitting in the staff room before a long shift as a 15-year-old looking at these business icons on the wall — and later to count Terry as a friend and colleague.
I felt like we had come a long way since he had got me those new gloves. I’m just a normal guy, who's tried as hard as he can, but one who had the balls to ask the question to Terry. It has just been an unbelievable journey for me.
Mike Welch OBE is also founder and chairman of Atterley, as well as The Welch Trust.