Mike Clare on his remarkable career encompassing remarkable business and charitable endeavours
PUBLISHED: 10:47 24 March 2014 | UPDATED: 10:47 24 March 2014
Mike Clare tells Sandra Smith there’s been no magic wand involved in his remarkable career encompassing both business and charitable endeavours
“At 15 I was selling things like pushbikes. Or I’d buy a second hand frame tent and make a profit on it two weeks later. This had nothing to do with money; I was trying to prove something, that’s why I wanted my own business.”
I’d been looking forward to exploring the mindset of entrepreneur Mike Clare, and, as we sit in the striking Art Deco building that is now the charitable Clare Foundation, standing in 12 acres of Buckinghamshire countryside on the edge of Saunderton, he quickly lives up to expectations. Yes, he may, initially, radiate the sort of confidence that could be attributed to many other businessmen but in addition he has extraordinary initiative and determination. Hardly surprising, then, that he was responsible for building one of this country’s most successful enterprises.
But first we touch on his early life. “I was born in Beaconsfield. My brother and I went to Davenies then I attended High Wycombe College to study economics and computer sciences and statistics. When I got a job in a local family furniture company I was put in charge of the bed department.”
With numerous ventures vying for his attention, it wasn’t until Mike was 30 that he took the opportunity to start a sofa bed shop in Hillingdon. Wasn’t this a risky move, what with his wife being pregnant with their first child? “It was a critical time but I thought it’s now or never. I resigned my job. I had no Plan B so I had to make it work; this was a big driver. I was Jack of all trades. I worked hard, there was no magic wand.”
A simple formula
Not that Mike needed magic. Within six months the sale of beds overtook that of sofabeds. One shop soon doubled to two and what was to become the retail giant, Dreams, was born. He explains how the business continued to flourish: “My formula was to find the next town up the motorway, look for a shop to let, negotiate the lease and put an ad in the paper for sales people. I’d order a cake in the shape of a bed and invite the Mayor to a grand opening.”
This deceptively simple tactic, along with Mike’s relentless motivation, helped develop the success of a company which went on to accumulate 200 stores over a 21 year period.
Then, just before the big crash of 2008, and in a move either uncannily lucky or economically shrewd, Mike sold out. The financial security which followed may have been welcome, but it was accompanied by a lack of focus: “We moved house and bought new cars, but after six months I was bored. These were volatile times and I didn’t want to give my money to the City or hedge funds so I bought some commercial property around Wycombe, and houses in Beaconsfield. “
Mike went on to pursue an interest in more exotic properties, too. “I bought a castle in Scotland and let it for weddings and corporate conferences. That was followed by another, then a monastery. This project became AmaZing Venues.”
Thoughts turn to charity
Yet a philanthropic leaning also tempted him to extend his interests in other areas. “I had always supported various charities. I wanted to give something back but didn’t have a particular society about which I was passionate.” After some initial frustration concerning inefficiency witnessed in a couple of charities (“generally honest and nice people but not commercially minded”) he set up The Clare Foundation. Its objectives are specific. “We want to help charities become more commercial, to think smarter, outside the box, be better at fundraising and marketing. We give advice and training while our volunteers help analyse problems and improve efficiency.”
The Foundation moved into the iconic Saunderton building in 2010. Here rent is subsidised and office facilities shared. More than 20 charities are in residence and there is a waiting list of other interested parties.
The life-work balance
Mike’s wife, Carol, also brings expertise to The Clare Foundation. Sharing in Mike’s philanthropic interests as well as their business activities, Carol, mother of their four children, is a foundation patron.
Away from work the couple create time to travel. “We are out of the country three months of the year,” Mike says. “We enjoy going to different countries like Japan and Oman.” This might well be the only time he switches off. Though he confesses that, even when relaxing, his reading matter is generally limited to autobiographies of like-minded professionals, such as the much admired Dragons’ Den team.
Pleasurable as holidays are, however, there is nowhere Mike favours more than Buckinghamshire. “I can’t think of a county that’s better placed geographically. Here, it’s easy to get into London and not too far from the coast. It’s a beautiful, wealthy county with quality schools, great business opportunities and good pubs and restaurants.”
This is a man whose pursuits reflect his abilities. He has many achievements and appears undaunted by responsibility, an inner perseverance and resilience having shaped his chosen career path. And, for budding entrepreneurs with business ambitions, his demanding agenda includes speaking engagements in which he regularly entertains audiences with details of his career.
But right now another meeting beckons for this Buckinghamshire Ambassador. Does he have a final nugget of inspiration to share, I wonder? “Never give up on your dreams. Things will always go wrong but it’s about perseverance. If you really want something and you have a goal, then go for it.”
And that is exactly what Mike Clare has done. Commitment and a strong work ethic, unrivalled vision and determination – these qualities have all contributed to his success. But perhaps most importantly, he has also single-mindedly followed his own Dreams.