The Story of Robert Hughes Founder of Wesco

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At the age of 28 Robert Hughes was living in California
working for the commercial arm of a US bank. He was not
happy. He says: ‘I hated my job. I was completely bored and
became a clock watcher. And I realised that there was a very
good chance I was going to be equally bored in another job
so I had better do something different.’
Brought up in Cheshire, Hughes always dreamt of setting
up his own business and after leaving school took a business
degree at Thames Polytechnic, now the University of
Greenwich. He says: ‘My father was a self-employed insur-
ance broker and my mother’s family all had their own busi-
nesses. The culture at home was very much that, if you were
going to make it in this life, you had to do it on your own.’
But unsure of how to realise his ambition, Hughes initially
took a job with a leasing company. After seven years in the
corporate world however, he realised that if he really wanted
to follow his dream then it was now or never.
He decided that he wanted to start up an export business
selling unusual US products back home in England. When

he had been at polytechnic a former graduate had returned
to tell the class how he had set himself up in business as
the UK import and distribution agent for a German
company that made garden machinery. Hughes says: ‘I
thought it was the perfect job because you got to use
languages and there was foreign travel involved – but you
were your own boss.’
Hughes did some research and found a couple of unusual
products he liked in California, but he was not convinced
that people would want to buy them in the UK. The first was
a cover for automobiles called a nose bra which strapped
across the bonnet to protect the car from stone chips. The
second was a windscreen visor which fitted behind the
windscreen to keep the car cool. He says: ‘Both those ideas
appealed very much, but they were both very southern
California and didn’t wear so well in wet climates.’
Then one day he was at a friend’s house for coffee when
another friend Hughes had never met happened to pop in.

They started chatting and during their conversation Hughes
heard about something which was to become his big idea.
The visitor was a joiner and mentioned that he was doing
some work at the home of a lawyer who had invented an
alarm clock that was made like a baseball. When the alarm
went off in the morning, you threw the ball at the wall to
switch it off.
Hughes was transfixed. He says: ‘It was like the scales had
been lifted from my eyes. I thought it sounded like a fantastic
product that I could sell in England. Everybody hates getting
up in the morning and the idea of taking out your early
morning anger on your clock just seemed the perfect idea.’
The next day Hughes phoned the lawyer and asked to meet
him. Over lunch the lawyer agreed to give Hughes exclusive
rights to sell the baseball alarm clock in Britain, provided he
was prepared to buy 30,000 of them upfront. Hughes did not
have the money to do that but fortunately his father had
recently retired after selling his own insurance business and
agreed to act as guarantor at the bank. So Hughes was able to
borrow the money he needed to buy the clocks. Then he asked
his father and an old school friend to help him sell the alarm
clock to mail order companies in Britain.
It quickly became clear that there was big demand for the
baseball clock, and so Hughes decided to branch out into

other items. He managed to find another dozen unusual
products from California which he thought he might be able
to sell in Britain, including a Garfield wristwatch.
Sales went so well that after six months he gave up his job
with the bank in California and returned to England to set
up his own company, which he called Wesco. Then he
started running the business full time from the basement of
his father’s house.
With sales of his imported products going well, Hughes
started acquiring licences to make products based on film and
television characters. He decided to start with a Bart Simpson
clock that spoke in the character’s voice when the alarm went
off. He says: ‘Nobody had ever done that before and it was a
phenomenal success. We sold about 250,000 of those clocks.’

He took on more licences and the business grew to include
watches, radios and money boxes, with the company design-
ing all the products in Britain and getting them made in
Chinese factories. Each time Hughes followed the guiding
principle that every product he sold had to have a purpose.
He says: ‘I decided that whatever I imported had to have a
purpose as well as being fun. Because if a product has abso-
lutely no function then within two months it will end up in
the back of a cupboard somewhere because the novelty had
worn off. But even once the novelty of throwing your alarm
clock at the wall has worn off, it still tells the time and it will
still wake you up in the morning.’
Six years ago, however, the business was suddenly
plunged into crisis. The US dollar fell sharply in value and
Wesco was hit by currency losses of £180,000. At the same
time, two of the licences it had bought, for the movie Chicken
Run and the television series The Royle Family, turned out to
be duds, losing the company £250,000 over two years.
Hughes says: ‘We had been making money hand over fist
with the animated characters Wallace and Gromit, so when
we were offered Chicken Run, which was another Nick Park
production, we thought it couldn’t fail. But the reason

Wallace and Gromit did well is that Gromit is a cute little dog.
Chickens aren’t cute. Why would you want to cuddle a
chicken? You would get your eyes pecked out.’
By the start of 2002, after two years of losses, Hughes
realised that he had two stark choices: sell the business or
turn it around and make it profitable again. He says: ‘It
was a pivotal moment. I talked to my wife about selling it
every day.’
When someone offered him a paltry amount to take the
business off his hands, however, Hughes realised he was not
about to give up that easily. ‘The money on offer was pitiful
compared with what the business was really worth,’ he says.
‘I decided that I had made the business work for 13 of the
previous 15 years, so I could do it again.’
Hughes reduced his workforce by two people, recruited
in-house designers and hired a new sales team. Then he
decided to expand the product range into lifestyle gifts.
He immediately struck gold with a Simpsons talking
bottle opener, selling more than 600,000 of them. Then he
did the same with a girls’ accessory range called Groovy
Chick, which became a huge success.
The firm now sells a range of 400 products and has annual
sales of £7 million, most of them to Argos, Boots and
Debenhams.

Hughes says that dealing with the crisis was a big learn-
ing curve: ‘After 13 years of making profits there was a
feeling that we couldn’t make products fast enough and that
it was easy. But the experience of those two years re-instilled
in me the fear of failure.’
He admits to being very cautious in his business dealings,
something he thinks he learnt from his time working in a
bank. He says: ‘I worry more about telling a best friend that I
have just gone bankrupt than I would about telling a
complete stranger that I have just made another million.
That is the driver for me. If I can stay in business until I am
55, I will be a happy boy.’

Now 41, Hughes says he had always felt the need to carve
out his own destiny. ‘I have to have my own way,’ he says.
‘If I don’t get my own way, I am not happy. I sometimes
have to stop myself because I go home and am still playing
the managing director.’
He says that one of his primary motivations has been his
father. ‘My sister became a lawyer and then a judge and was
the apple of my dad’s eye,’ he says. ‘So one of my biggest
driving forces was the desire for my father’s approval,
because she had it in spades. Now when he talks about his
children I know that I get as much airtime as my sister.’

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