I wasn’t particularly encouraged by the online reviews for My Fight To The Top. One reader said, ‘There’s not much to learn on business in this book,’ inferring that it was much more of a biography than anything else. To be honest, the lessons are not obvious but that does not make it any less interesting. There is much more ‘between the lines’ than there is in blatant outline. It’s Michelle Mone’s rags to riches story and while there might not be a million lessons in business there’s quite a bit for any person in business. In her own words, she shares her personal journey from growing up in poverty in the East End of Glasgow, to building Ultimo, the £39 million pound bra empire.
The book starts off with her childhood days. She was born in the Gallowgate area and grew up in Dennistoun, Glasgow. Being Glasgow based myself, this made the book immediately engaging. I lived in Bridgeton for several years, which is a stone throw away from Dennistoun, and so I could easily ‘map’ her childhood stories. It was tough. Her bedroom was a cupboard and her mother had to take her to the Whitevale baths to get washed and to do laundry about once a week. Yes, you read right, once a week! Her childhood in Dennistoun is clearly the backdrop of the tenacity and drive in her adult life and business. It was there that she was beaten black and blue by a gang of girls, there she survived a possible sexual assault, there she began her first business selling papers (Daily Record) and employing other kids, and that is also where she got her first job working for a fruit shop. Often in the book when she writes about a predicament in her business, she ‘travels’ back to her days in Dennistoun and borrows particular traits she developed then, and uses them to overcome.
Here’s what stood out to me:
- Everything can be figured out. How does a woman with two young kids, no fashion experience, no degree or contacts build the Ultimo bra empire? She figured it out! The idea came to her at an evening occasion where after much fidgeting with her uncomfortable ‘cleavage enhancing bra,’ she announced to the table, ‘ I’m going to design a bra.’ From then on, there was much traipsing and calling around stores in USA while on holiday there, looking for bra fillers and manufacturers. Eventually she became the distributor for the in demand ‘chicken fillet’ bras and the ‘bra tycoon’ was born. When she needed to learn how to manufacture her own bra, she took on a job that enabled her to get inside knowledge on how to do that. If it came to her mind, she found a way to do it.
- Train your mind to persist and to dream big. ‘Training your mind is vital for success because once you get your mind sorted out, you can do almost anything you want to do,’ Michelle says in her book. Even in the book, she constantly gives herself a pep-talk. ‘Your family needs you. Your business needs you. You need to fight your way out of this.’ On training her mind to see a bigger and better picture , she says, ’I kept dreaming and dreaming. Every night I would wake up and take more notes.’
- Business is not the place for a facade and getting to the next level often involves putting all you cards on the table, even the bad ones. To sell her first ‘chicken fillet’ bra samples, she ran around boutiques in London with a suitcase filled with samples. To get her first bras sold in the upmarket Selfridges, she showed up desperate, and unannounced at their buying office on Oxford Street in London and begged them to try on her samples. After somewhat of an emotional breakdown by the pregnant saleswoman, they ordered over six months worth of stock.
- The book is also a great reminder that having money does not solve all your problems. Despite the success of Ultimo, Michelle battled personal problems just like everyone else. Her weight was constantly fluctuating, there was depression, parental insecurities, a failing marriage and a lot of financial pressure business-wise.
- Money can change you for the worse. She became a self confessed diva, citing, ‘Nothing was ever good enough. The hotels I was staying in weren’t good enough and the restaurants I was dining in weren’t good enough. I once asked to change rooms at the Dorchester because I didn’t like the way it was decorated. I found fault in everything. In the same way, I bought more things because I thought they would make me happier….Very expensive things.’ It took an intervention from her parents to force her to face the person she was becoming. This leads me to the last lesson.
- Hold on to the honest and trustworthy people you have, few as they may be. Between her parents and best friend, she managed to keep her feet on the ground and always circle back to what was important. When it came to business, for a long time, she could lean on the honesty and advice of Sir Tom Hunter.
She shares a lot of things that do not necessarily make her look good. For example, she manages to make an enemy out of one time close friend, Rod Stewart, by hiring both his current and then ex wife as spokes models for Ultimo, a move which caused a media frenzy. Although this garnered great publicity and sales for Ultimo, it does come across as unscrupulous and calculating.
The book also details the incident in which she was robbed at knife point plus the decline of her tumultuous marriage, that she alleges, ended in adultery between her husband and one of her most trusted employees.
Eventually, Michelle sold all her shares in Ultimo by the end of 2014, but not before being made a Conservative peer by David Cameron, being appointed an OBE for ‘services to the lingerie industry’ and amassing £50 million fortune.