The launch of her bestselling book, My Fight to the Top, means Ultimo founder Michelle Mone is firmly back in the spotlight. But what will the first lady of lingerie turn her attention to next?
When I meet Ultimo founder Michelle Mone in the lobby of her apartment complex, she’s chatting animatedly on the phone. Ending the call, the immaculately dressed entrepreneur ushers me towards the elevator that will whisk us up to her riverside penthouse apartment in one of London’s most desirable buildings. “Waking up next to the water was always a dream of mine. I love it here,” she muses.
We settle in the living room and admire the view of two of the city’s iconic landmarks, Tower Bridge and the Shard, as she eats a salad. It’s no surprise she’s short of time. After all, she’s a woman in demand: since the launch of her new book, My Fight to the Top, the week prior to our meeting, her schedule’s been packed with press interviews, book signings and speaking events. It’s a far cry from her Glasgow roots: as a child, Mone could only have dreamed of the trappings of fame.
Whereas she now sleeps in a room directly opposite the Shard, Mone's first bedroom was the broom cupboard. “It was where we used to keep the mop and the shovel, pots of paint. My mum moved out all this crap and turned it into my bedroom. My dad cut about a foot off my single bed so it fitted in and then he lowered the ceiling and put shiny stars on it,” recalls Mone. “I used to lay at night just looking up at the shiny stars and thinking that I wanted to start my own business one day.”
She didn’t have to wait long. Mone started her first business delivering papers at ten; by 11 she had 17 teenagers working for her. At the time, her parents were struggling. Their second baby died of spina bifida shortly after birth and her father was suffering from an illness that left him paralysed. Understandably, the budding entrepreneur was desperate to improve her family’s quality of life. “I used to watch Dallas and Dynasty and dreamt about buying my mum and dad a house and a car,” she says.
Mone left school at 15, having decided she wanted to earn money to help support the family now that her dad couldn’t work. “In the household it was just horrible, as you can imagine, and I just thought, ‘I can’t concentrate at school anymore; I need to go and start earning money.’”
After trawling the dentists and doctors surgeries in Glasgow looking for a job to no avail, Mone was spotted by a modelling agency. “They said, ‘do you want to walk up and down a catwalk?’” She started doing promotional work, which included a gig for the James Bond film, A Licence to Kill. At 17, she met her husband, Michael, marrying him two years later, whilst pregnant with her first daughter, Rebecca, now 22.
“That’s when I thought, ‘I need to get some business experience,’” recalls Mone. She started working in admin for Labatts, the beer company. She worked her way up the ranks and within 18 months was running sales and marketing for Labatts in Scotland. But shortly after her son Declan, now 18, was born, she was made redundant when Labatts was sold to pub company Whitbread. “I thought to myself, ‘What am I going to do with my life now?’”
She didn’t have to think for too long. Soon after her redundancy, she attended a dinner-dance with Michael and was wearing an uncomfortable cleavage-enhancing bra. That night Mone decided she was going to invent a new bra. In her book, she recounts that husband Michael had his concerns about her clothing design capabilities. “‘What do you know about bras?’ he laughed. ‘I’ve got a pair of tits – I’ll figure it out,’” replied Mone.
This can-do attitude is what got the entrepreneur through the next three years of work that went into the invention of Ultimo bras. “I was learning on the job. I was £480,000 in debt, my house was up as security to the bank and I had two kids,” she says.
Whilst in the early stages of the business, she also became the European distributor for breast enhancers that had become a smash-hit in the US. Costing an eye-watering £150 a pair, Mone targeted high-end lingerie chains such as Rigby & Peller with her gel pads. The press attention reached fever pitch. “Everyone wanted to know who this woman was who’d launched these ‘chicken fillets’.”
Mone did all of her own PR – to this day she believes that PR companies are "crap" and that she can do a better job herself. Her media savviness came into play yet again when her bras launched into Selfridges in August 1999. “I had £500 left for the launch and I had no idea how I was going to launch a bra with so little money – you can’t even get an advert in your free local magazine for that,” she exclaims.
What Mone did next has gone down in PR history. She hired 12 actors and dressed them up as plastic surgeons waving placards protesting that her bras would put them out of business. It had the desired impact: “We sold six months’ stock in five hours.”
And the appetite for Ultimo’s boob-boosting product ranges extended far beyond the UK. “That’s where it started but then we launched in Saks Fifth Avenue, we launched in Australia, we launched in Canada. It was crazy. Everyone said, ‘You can’t do it,’ and I’ve always said, ‘Yes we can.’”
Despite the success of the brand, things weren’t all rosy behind the scenes. Juggling a rapidly growing business and care of the couple’s three children (youngest daughter Bethany, now 15, was born four weeks before the Selfridges launch) was taking its toll on Mone. She began to comfort eat and gained eight stone in weight. There were bigger problems still in the business. The husband and wife team that had been appointed as the company's US distributors did a disappearing act with six months’ stock and owing Ultimo £1.3m.
“I got into this horrible, dark, lonely place where nothing was looking good,” confides Mone. “I was so depressed. The banks were going to come in and shut us down. I was going to finish it all off, just take some pills and forget about it all.” Then she remembered a conversation she’d recently had at an event with former HSBC chairman Sir Keith Whitson.
“He’d given me his card and said, ‘If you ever need this one day, please come to me.’ I remember I was just about to take the pills and then he came into my mind. So I ran and picked up the phone and called him.”
With just 15 minutes to spare before being declared bankrupt, Sir Whitson came through. “He called about 15 minutes before they were coming in to shut us down and said, ‘Welcome to HSBC’.”
That was the beginning of the business’s return to good health. It was given a further boost by what was dubbed ‘bra wars’ in the press: first Penny Lancaster, married to rocker Rod Stewart, was signed up as the face of Ultimo, followed two years later by Rachel Hunter – Stewart’s ex-wife. It was Hunter who inspired Mone to take control of her spiralling weight problems during a shoot on a Miami beach in 2005. “We were the same age and yet we couldn’t look more different: she looked amazing and I was a size 22. I was so down.” Hunter suggested Mone think about her health in a context that might make it easier to tackle. “She said to me, ‘Why don’t you treat your body like a business?’”
This pep talk galvanized Mone into action: she lost eight stone over the next four years. She’d promised Hunter that she’d do a photoshoot if she reached her target weight so she did just that – and released the photographs to the press. “I was the first CEO to ever strip. But it wasn’t like I was selling mobile phones – I was in the lingerie industry and I think the pictures were really tasteful. But my husband went nuts.”
Mone says this was the “nail in the coffin” for her and Michael, though the rest of their troubles are documented in her book. “I’d never, ever before spoken about my personal life. This is the first time.” She says she wanted to give readers a warts and all account of life as a successful entrepreneur. “There are a lot of business books out there that just talk about KPIs and CTPs, about management and leadership, but they don’t speak about what it’s like being an entrepreneur. That’s why I felt I needed to speak about my personal life.”
Her personal life also came to affect her professional life after news of an affair between her husband and an Ultimo designer came to light in 2011. “The business came crashing down. People were leaving, customers were frightened to order. It was like war of the roses in the house and World War III in the office,” Mone explains.
For the next 18 months after the separation, the newly separated couple tried in vain to find a buyer for the business. All the offers they received had a common theme: “Everybody that wanted to buy us wanted me [as part of the package] and I thought ‘I’m not getting tied into these companies.’”
If Michael wanted out of the company, Mone would buy him out. “I thought ‘No, fuck you. I’m not going so you can benefit from what you did,” she said, referring to his extra marital activities.
Mone bought out her ex-husband of 22 years on February 6, 2013. She immediately began looking for new partners and settled on MAS, a Sri Lankan lingerie conglomerate that employs 63,000 people. After an epiphany in June last year, she sold 80% of her business to MAS. “I woke up one day and thought, ‘Something is missing from my life.’” She spoke to her partners and brokered a deal whereby they’d buy the controlling stake, she’d retain a few shares, still sit on the board and work with Ultimo six days a month. It’s an arrangement that continues to this day – and one Mone is happy with.
She spends a large chunk of the remaining time giving speeches. She is in high demand, speaking in Dubai, the States, South Korea – and spoke at the Elite Business Event National Conference & Exhibition last month, where she received a standing ovation. “I want to inspire people and convince them that they can do it, whether it’s turning around their business or their weight and fitness. I want people to see that this is where I was and this is what I did once I got into the zone,” says Mone. “I could have died in a corner. I could be in a council flat. But now I’m in one of the best penthouses in London, I’ve got my homes in Scotland, and my weight and fitness is under control. I’ve got rid of all the bitterness, the demons. I love speaking to people and saying, ‘Whatever is wrong in your life, only you can change it.’”
Having met Mone before, I can attest that she is attacking life with renewed vigour. Like many authors of autobiographies, she says she found working on the book a cathartic – if slightly painful – experience. “I could write a book about writing a book,” she laughs. “At times, it was very difficult. I was drinking too much wine to get through it.”
Besides her public speaking gigs, she has great plans for the future. Having bought UTan out of Ultimo, she is 100% shareholder and CEO of the tanning brand which launched into 500 Boots stores last month. She also talks animatedly about potential plans for an events company and even a communications agency. “There’s so much more that I want to do. I have so much energy. I get four hours sleep a night and then I’m wired all day thinking about the next idea. I’ve just got all these lightbulbs going off in my brain.”
One thing’s for sure: whatever else Mone does next, she’ll give it 100%. She’s not about to rest on her laurels just yet. “I’ve not been part of anything that’s failed yet. Maybe that’ll happen but I’ll do my damndest not to make it happen. I’ll never, ever become complacent,” she says.