I’m millionaire boss of one of UK’s biggest fashion empires… but I failed all my exams and still can’t read or write

I’m millionaire boss of one of UK’s biggest fashion empires… but I failed all my exams and still can’t read or write

THE boss of one of Britain’s biggest fashion brands has revealed how he failed almost all of his exams – and still can’t read a book.

Neil Clifford, 57, has dyslexia but worked his way up to becoming a multi-millionaire retailer.

Fashion boss Neil Clifford has opened up about his rise to running Kurt Geiger
Fashion boss Neil Clifford has opened up about his rise to running Kurt GeigerCredit: Kurt Geiger
Neil is dyslexic, but now runs the massive fashion brand
Neil is dyslexic, but now runs the massive fashion brandCredit: Getty
Neil as a youngster with his first car
Neil as a youngster with his first carCredit: Kurt Geiger

He now runs £330million-a-year business Kurt Geiger – and has done for more than two decades.

Neil, who has earned more than £10m from Kurt Geiger’s various takeovers, told The Sun: “I still remember opening my exam results.

“It was me and my mum – my dad, who was a gas fitter, died when I was four. I looked at my results: almost all Es and Ds and Us. I just thought – ‘oh s***’.

“I’d tried to revise, I hadn’t been lazy, but exams were a struggle for me. I felt immense disappointment and embarrassment.”

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His one C grade was in art, explaining: “I got it for my drawing of a shoe – a Dunlop Green Flash trainer.

“Shoes have always been good for me. But my mates all went off to jobs and apprenticeships, and I was a bit stuck.”

Neil went to the Job Centre and joined the Youth Training Scheme – which sent him to the parts department of a Fiat dealership, where he was paid £25 a week.

Eventually he found a job in sales, and worked his way up until he was selling suits for Debenhams.

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The 57-year-old said: “I was good at it – I was a talker.”

When the boss of the company visited his Portsmouth store, he was told: “There’s something about you.”

I was about to give up and become a plumber – now I’m a top Royal Ascot jockey making millions around the world

That, Neil adds, “was news to me”.

He continued: “I lacked confidence. I know these big jobs in fashion and creative areas existed, but they were on another planet.

“I felt like there was a huge wall built up around me, stopping me from trying – my family said, ‘you wont make any money as a photographer or in fashion, get a proper job’.”

But at Burton, Neil then shot up through the ranks at head office, eventually moving to Kurt Geiger. He became chief executive in 2003.

He recalled: “I dragged myself up with the help from amazing people who backed me even though my CV was rubbish.

“I worked hard and I wanted to make something of myself.”

My kids are lucky – they’ve now got a wealthy successful dad, pushing them to go to uni.

The petrolhead has since rewarded himself for his hard work with splurges including a couple of Porsche 911.

Neil continued: “I spent my childhood looking out the window of my maths lessons dreaming about driving a Porsche – when I should have been doing algebra.

“Now I can’t believe I’m lucky enough to own them, and I want to help young, creative talent who – like me – don’t have a rich mum or dad, haven’t had the chance to go to a lovely university, and don’t have contacts in the media or fashion or marketing.

“With our Kurt Geiger Business by Design course we want to break down the walls and open up the creative industry to all.

“My kids are lucky – they’ve now got a wealthy successful dad, pushing them to go to uni. Most kids aren’t in that situation – there’s a lot of pressure on families and they don’t want to take the risk of that debt.

“I’d have loved to have gone to university, but I think practical, on the job learning is often as good, or better for some.”

Neil now wants to help young people in a similar situation.

How do you become a shoe designer if you live in Hackney, failed maths, have three GCSEs, and your teachers say don’t bother with A levels?

His fashion brand is launching a free, seven-month training course for 18-20 year-olds who will have mentors, courses and paid internships to break into creative industries.

Only 16% of people working in the UK’s creative sector come from a working-class background, and only 11% of those are from minority communities, according to researchers.

Kurt Geiger’s seven-month Business by Design course will give 40 young people weekly masterclasses as well as paid work and networking opportunities to get ahead in the creative sector.

It’s free to participants, funded by the retailer’s charity, the Kindness Foundation, which has raised £1.3 million by donating up to £3 for every item sold in its stores.

Neil added: “The gap from our school education system into the world of work is huge – and challenging for young people.

“How do you become a shoe designer if you live in Hackney, failed maths, have three GCSEs, and your teachers say don’t bother with A levels? How do you get one of those jobs that you see on TV, when you have zero contacts in the creative world? That’s the bridge that we’re trying to build.”

It’s one Neil has successfully crossed – he’s helped Kurt Geiger grow into one of the High Street’s most recognisable brands, with 70 shops, and concessions in Selfridges and Harrods.

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It sold £330m worth of handbags and shoes last year and is growing fast in the US.

Last year, rumours swirled that its private equity owner, Cinven, was considering a £400m sale.

From market stall work to multi-millionaire

By Emer Scully

A MILLIONAIRE who worked on a market stall before finding huge success has revealed he still lives off £20-a-day pocket money.

Dad-of-two Steve Smith, 60, from Birmingham, has to go to his wife Tracy, 59, for his daily funds because he can’t be trusted not to spend too much.

The founder of Poundland told the Sun Online he gets £20-a-day to spend, and his wife refuses to adjust for inflation.

He added: “Tracy gives me £20 a day to spend. I have asked for an increase but she says no. 

“I think I’ll have to go on strike to get a pay rise.”

Steve, who’s worth £50million after creating the first pound store in 1990, added that he still shops at Aldi.

He said: “My granddad used to say if you don’t work you don’t eat so I still work.

“We still try and save money like anyone else. When we go to a hotel we always come back with the free shampoos and soaps.”

Steve was raised on a Bilston Market stall in Wolverhampton, where he first discovered Britain’s obsession with a bargain while working alongside his Dad Keith.

Aged 27 he took a £50,000 loan from his businessman dad Keith to set up the first Poundland store in Burton-on-Trent.

The business boomed, making £13,000 in its first day.

Steve said: “No one believed in the idea. I had to convince landlords to lease us a space. Everyone said ‘how can you find enough products, it’ll never work’. It did work.”

The first shop, which opened on December 13, 1990, sold 648 different products including toiletries and confectionery.

Steve added: “It’s amazing what you can get for a pound.”

Tracy ran HR and payroll and the couple’s two children Joe, 24, and Ashley, 28, still work for the company.

The business is now worth £5billion, but the family sold it for £50million in 2000.

Steve said his wife claims he has spent his half of their fortune already.

He gave his parents £25million when he sold the company.

Steve said his parents couldn’t afford a babysitter, so they’d put him under the market stall table as a baby.

He said: “I learnt everything from my parents. They used to sell pens, 144 in a box, around the factories.

“They’d go door to door selling. I’ve gone from a market stall to a global businessman and absolutely loved the journey.”

While on the market stall the family sold items in cardboard boxes for 10p, and found they made more money on those boxes than anything else.

He added: “That’s what sparked the idea for the pound store. No one else was doing it at the time. We were the first. People just love a bargain.”

Steve and his dad Keith founded the business in 1990.

The pound coin, first created in 1983 to replace the discontinued £1 bank note, inspired an ambitious idea.

But it was difficult to convince landlords that selling only items for a pound was going to make money.

Steve’s dad Keith had sold up his successful cash and carry business Hooty’s and moved to Majorca in 1989.

Steve added: “I said ‘dad I want to be in retail’. He said remember that cardboard box.

“Let’s sell things for a pound. In April 1990 I came back to the UK from Majorca, where my Dad had retired, with a £50k loan.

“We started in a little office in Sedgley with a fax machine. I had to convince landlords to lease us a space.

“I had an artist do a sketch of what the shop would look like. Everyone said how can you find enough products. It’ll never work.

“We’ve had golf clubs for a pound. It’s amazing what you can get for a pound. Toiletries and confectionery. It was very difficult. We had no buying power.

 “How the customers reacted was amazing.”

Steve opened a second store in Meadowhall shopping centre in Sheffield, which was his “big break”.

“From there we were able to say ‘if we’re good enough for Meadowhall, we’re good enough for you’,” he added.

“We aimed to make £1m, then £10m, then £100m then £10bn. It’s now worth over £5bn.

“And 90 per cent of the population of the UK has been in or shopped at a Poundland store. We’ve had many celebrities. Everyone loves the concept of a bargain. They’re smart shoppers.”

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Jane Matthews

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