Chrissie Rucker, 46, was inspired by the dreary brown interiors of her boyfriend's house in 1993. She soon realised she had found a gap in the market for white decor and used £6,000 inheritance to launch The White Company in March 1994. More than twenty years later, the founder is one of the UK's wealthiest businesswomen and has transformed the company that started with a 12-page mail-order catalogue into a home furnishings empire!...see more details after the cut
Latest figures show that the mother-of-four’s company made pre-tax profits of £6.5 million last year — an increase of 38 per cent. Her position on the Sunday Times Rich list has climbed steeply from 427th to 326th. She and her husband’s combined wealth is estimated at £295 million.
Aside from the money pouring into company coffers, Rucker owns three stunning properties, all decorated from roof to floor in her trademark sweeping white interiors.
There’s a £12.5 million 17th-century manor house in Buckinghamshire, set in 51 acres of parkland, a £4 million townhouse in London’s fashionable Holland Park and what is widely regarded to be the finest property in the Swiss Alps, Haus Alpina, a luxury chalet with full-time staff which Rucker rents out for a staggering £26,000 a week.
Even at Rucker’s main residence, the country mansion, the only flashes of colour you’ll see are the bright pony rosettes awarded to her horse-mad daughters.
All in all, it’s a rather surprising state of affairs for a woman who disappointed her parents by leaving school at 16 with six O-levels and signing up at the Lucie Clayton finishing school which promised to prepare girls for marriage, society and ‘the season’.
Chrissie (left) was inspired to start The White Company in 1993 after being faced with the fusty brown and burgundy upholstery of her future husband, Nick's (right) flat in Fulham, West Lond
However, it was not long before Rucker decided she wanted to do something more interesting with her life than flutter her eyelashes at eligible young bachelors on the London social circuit.
She was completely different from the other debutantes. She was incredibly hard-working with no airs and graces.
Anneliese Sharpe, wedding dress designer
Indeed, the statuesque blonde’s path to fortune is rather more colourful than her dazzling white shops might suggest.
Belinda Christian Rucker, as she was named by her parents, was born in 1968 into an illustrious military family — her maternal grandfather, Sir Harold Pyman, was Commander-in-Chief of Allied Forces in Europe and a recipient of the Knight Grand Cross and Distinguished Service Order.
The daughter of commodity broker, Patrick Rucker, Chrissie, as she was known, grew up in Kent and attended £5,275-a-term Combe Bank School in Kent. Her parents divorced, and aged seven, she and her younger sister, Jo, went with their mother Rosemary, a horse breeder, to live with their new step-father, estate agent Jeremy Calcutt.
Those days, she recalled, were happy but chaotic. ‘My mother was really only interested in her horses,’ she said, ‘so the stables were immaculate, the house a tip.’
It was all a far cry from the vision Rucker would later create of domestic interiors as a haven of white and light. Her early ambitions lay in fashion. While at Lucy Clayton she studied dressmaking and design.
But as a teenager in London in the late Eighties, Rucker seemed intent on immersing herself in a ‘Sloane Ranger’ lifestyle.
In 1987, she was a debutante at the Savoy hotel’s Berkeley Ball, where she and fellow socialite and fashion journalist Plum Sykes were among a select bunch of girls chosen by judges including hairdresser Vidal Sassoon and fashion designer Jean Muir to appear in the Berkeley Dress Show.
Wedding dress designer Anneliese Sharpe, who was also on the judging panel, recalls that even among the ‘incredibly beautiful, leggy’ girls who paraded in front of her, desperate to be picked, 18-year-old Rucker stood out.
Cannily, she used her introduction to Sharpe to ask for work experience. ‘Chrissie used to come every day,’ says Sharp. ‘She was completely different from the other debutantes. She was incredibly hard-working with no airs and graces.’
My mission was to bridge the gap between first-class designer quality and what was affordable without the big designer margins
However, Rucker decided that life as a designer was not what she wanted after all. She began work at Conde Nast, the owner of several glossy magazines including Vogue and Tatler, first as a receptionist, then as a fashion assistant.
She enrolled on a journalism course, later describing it as a ‘complete waste of time’, and flitted from there to Clarins, where she worked as a PR girl. She was poached from there by Harper & Queen’s health and beauty editor Tina Gaudoin in 1991.
Gaudoin recalls: ‘She was so efficient and impressive, I said: “Are you interested in coming to work for me?” She dropped off her CV at 5am. I was so struck by her ability to be focused and unflappable that I hired her as my assistant. She has a great humility about her, which I find extraordinary, bearing in mind she is so successful.’ By the time she met her future husband, Rucker was still struggling to work out exactly what she wanted to do with her life.
But although she fell in love with Old Etonian Nick Wheeler, she did not feel the same way about his taste in interiors.
According to Rucker herself: ‘I thought; “This is my chance. I’ll show him what excellent wife material I am.” So I went shopping and kitted it out — I bought white bed linen, white towels, white china, white napkins and white bathrobes. But I just found it impossible to buy plain white sheets on the High Street.
‘The only place you could get them was in department stores and shopping there was a horrible experience. All the salesgirls would look at you snootily, as if to say: “You can’t afford this.”’
While Rucker believed she had spotted a hole in the market, her husband-to-be was perfectly placed to advise her when it came to launching her own business.
Rucker used a £6,000 legacy from her grandmother to launch The White Company in March 1994. Wheeler gave her £5,000 in return for a 25 per cent stake, and she also received a £50-a-week enterprise grant.
She produced her first mail-order catalogue, a 12-page leaflet, on a computer in Wheeler’s attic, delivering her first orders in her sister Jo’s Mini Metro. The company was an instant hit, turning over £258,000 in its first year, but Rucker remained committed to hard graft, working 16-hour days, right up until the birth of her first child.
Since then, The White Company has gone from strength to strength. In 2010, Rucker was made an MBE for services to the retail industry, attracting mirth among some palace officials because of the black outfit that she wore to receive the honour at Windsor Castle.
She and her husband — together with their four children aged from ten to 18 — now reap the rewards of their entrepreneurial spirt.
As a 99 per cent stake-holder, however, it is Rucker who remains at the head of a retail empire which has revolutionised tastes in home furnishings, a woman who continues to live and breathe the colour that made her a multi-millionaire.
‘For me, white is timeless and always very relevant,’ she insists. ‘Wherever you live, whatever your style, white works.’