As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Welch.
Michael Welch OBE founded Blackcircles.com, the world’s 1st ‘click to fit’ online tire retailer in 2002, building a profitable business on seed funding. In 2015 Michael sold Blackcircles.com to Michelin Plc, the world’s largest tire manufacturer for $100m. Prior to Blackcircles.com, Michael started his first online tire business in 1995 in Liverpool, England. When he was 17, he sold that business to UK fast-fit chain Kwik Fit where he was hired as the group’s head of e-commerce prior to Ford’s £1 billion acquisition in 1999. He spent time between the UK & US assisting Ford with their e-commerce execution. Michael has a number of startup investments. He is a founding director of Full Circle, advising fast-growth companies on how to fund, scale & exit. In 2019 he launched his most ambitious project yet, Tirescanner.com, a US tire retail marketplace.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I took my first job as a tire installer when I left school at 15 years old with no qualifications, I am dyslexic so school was always a challenge for me, I couldn’t wait to leave! I was made redundant from that job a year later and needed to find work fairly quickly, so I contacted the tire company that was supplying me at the garage, and they agreed to supply me tires so I started selling them to my friends and their friends. I subsidized this new business by filling the shelves of the local supermarket on the night shift (the pet food aisle!). My folks bought me a fax machine for my 18th birthday and installed a phone line in the back of their house so I could set up a little office. I managed to get a small loan of $500 from the Prince’s Trust (a fund for younger people with no means to start a business), bought a second-hand computer and taught myself to code a simple html website. Then began selling tires online. I ended up selling that business to Europe’s largest tire retailer. They then got sold to Ford and I found myself at 19 in Detroit heading the eCommerce department for the non-Ford branded businesses in After Sales. After a couple of years, I got bored of the big business setup and left with a month’s salary to start another online tire business, Blackcircles.com. Very aware of the fact that my $5000 would not go very far, I managed to persuade my landlord to give me 3 months free rent. After 15 years of developing the business and creating the UK’s biggest online tire platform with $250,000 of investor’s money I finally sold Blackcircles.com to Michelin Plc, the largest tire manufacturer in the world, for $100m.
I decided to take a break from the industry for a couple of years but ultimately couldn’t stay away: I was really keen to start over again, bigger and better than before this time with the benefit of experience. So Tirescanner.com was created for the US tire consumers. We aim to create the world’s most customer-centric and entrepreneurial tire retailer business.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
Understanding the market dynamics and what business model approach would best fit the opportunity is really important to get right. Even though I have had 25 years in the tire industry there are geographic differences in product, customer needs and supply chain that need properly understood. I spent 6 months travelling the country with a blank sheet of paper speaking with suppliers, garages, manufacturers and prospective customers to better understand their needs and used that to help shape the business model we are deploying today. Again, the main lesson I learned in these months is how important it is to actively listen. While I had a very clear idea of how Tirescanner should be at the time, the many conversations created a deep understanding of the challenges the independent retail market today faces as well as a sensitivity towards the needs of tire customers all over the US, in urban areas as well as countryside. And this understanding and sensitivity is at the very core of Tirescanner and defines our decision-making on a daily basis.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
To never stop listening to customers and stakeholders and translate what they share with you to create a better company. I know that today most businesses say they are customer-focused but not many actually embed the customer feedback loop into how they drive their decision making and business planning. We do. We try to speak to every customer and find out what they liked or disliked about the purchase experience and try to make it better every time. Looking back most of our decisions have been made based on our customers feedback, ranging from payment options, to forms of delivery to the scope of our product range and the selection of retailers we work with.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
Don’t let the stress cloud the enjoyment of building your business. It’s a cliché but for me, the most enjoyable phase is probably the most stressful one! So, take time to reflect and appreciate the progress you are making. The time goes by so fast, that before you know it the business is grown, a bit like raising kids!!
Set time apart to read and disconnect from the day-to-day. Time away from the work emails. Reading biographies, magazines or listening to podcasts can be a great catalyst for new ideas and fresh thinking.
Don’t underestimate the power of culture. Creating a strong team culture, where employees feel safe to share their ideas and are empowered to execute will not only retain top talents, but also help create a company that is true to the people. Employees and customers alike.
Listen to your customers intently. Take what they are saying seriously and be willing to act on it. It is not easy and not many do it. If you really connect to your customers and what they’re telling you, you’ll never struggle about what to write in a business plan ever again!
Sleep as much as possible. Often it seems like sleep is the easiest thing to compromise on, but rest is truly underrated and the lack of it will take its toll on your health. Taking care of yourself will ultimately make you a better leader and decision-maker. Enough sleep is paramount.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
The high-paced start-up environment can make it difficult to take a breath. But taking the time to look back and reflect on the week’s work is crucial to not feel like drowning in the day-to-day. Acknowledge and celebrate the progress you have made. Stay focused on the things you can affect and stay narrow on the high impact objectives you can deliver. Don’t get lost in eternal To-Do lists. At the end of the day there are only so many hours in the day, so focus is your friend! Kill the big list of tasks and get back to a shortlist of winning objectives.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
When I started Black circles I knew very little about running a business. I could grow sales and motivate people, but I knew what I lacked. Numbers where a challenge to me from an early age, later it emerged that was due to dyslexia. So, with limited resource or contacts I decided to handwrite letters to some of the most impressive executives I could find. The most impressive business person in Europe at that time was Sir Terry Leahy, group CEO of Tesco plc (the UK a supermarket chain ala Walmart), and at the time was fortune European businessman of the year 3 years running. I decided to write to Sir Terry and invited him for a cup of tea. He wrote back and we met for tea. He subsequently became a non-exec director and investor in my business and most importantly my mentor. Not a bad outcome for a 22-year-old kid with no contacts or resources to speak of. ironically Sir Terry ran the same supermarket I had worked stacking cat food a few years earlier.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
On a professional level my main goal is to grow Tirescanner into the best online option for tires in the US, by creating the most value for customers through superior customer experience and satisfaction. Personally, my family is the most important thing in my life, and it is and always will be my goal to be a present father and husband and not compromising quality time with my family. Even though this can be incredibly challenging when you are building a business from the ground up, but I think if your priorities are clear it is possible.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
Back in 2015 I launched the Welch Trust, a Scottish charitable trust which aims to provide grants to support children and young people. The trusts focus is on making life easier for children and families whose children need it most. One of the largest projects we are very proud of was the creation of the Welch Trust Learning Centre, which provides English classes, computers & books for children, in Bali. But there is still so much to be done and I truly hope that my legacy will be related to the positive impact I can make in making this world a little bit easier and fairer for the most vulnerable among us.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
I will continue to work hard on the projects we are invested in with the Welch Trust that are mainly related to adoption & fostering support for parents and children, critical & terminal illness in children and the advancement of education for children.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Please follow me on Linkedin and reach out to me with any questions you have!