McVey was just 13 when, attempting to locate Visa’s website, happened across Viza: an American manufacturer of foldable scooters. He persuaded the company to give him one for free provided he shift five more in the UK.
Within two years, he’d bought the European distribution rights to the company, raised capital (via under-18s discos, stock market investments and sales of mini-disc players from Japan), sold 11 million scooters and made it onto The Sunday Times Rich List for under 30s. By 18 he’d been appointed as a Pioneer for Britain in Entrepreneurism by the Queen.
Since then, McVey has made forays into property, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, publishing and, most recently, garment manufacturer Hela Clothing. Now 34, he has stepped away from the day-to-day operations at Hela to pursue initiatives such as the African Fair Fashion Pact, which calls on major garment manufactures to unite and work for best practice in the industry.
He takes us through his business journey and explains what’s behind his overarching philosophy: do good to do well.
I tend not to tell people my backstory. I’ve got colleagues who know nothing about the scooters or the publishing businesses. The United Nations Foundation once invited me to talk about compliance and treating workers well to CEOs of big American brands like Nordstrom, Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger. I gave a speech about the work that Hela does, and the president of the American Apparel & Footwear Association stood up and said: “How come your boss lets you do all this?” I said: “My boss?”
If you’re lucky, fantastic. Go with it. But don’t sit around waiting for it. You’ve got to put in the work.
I find it difficult, to some degree, to work with people like myself. We’re not the most humble of people. We’ve all had success and, hopefully, we’ve all had failures, so we understand what that looks like and how to recognise that.
You don’t have to be an entrepreneur to be entrepreneurial, and you can instil an entrepreneurial spirit into people. I like to work with people who really know what they’re good at and excel at it, whether it’s computer scientists or fabric pattern-cutters.
Hela is involved in tech in a big way. We build platforms and algorithms for the brands we manufacture clothing for. I think technology is very good as a tool; it gets harder when your technology is your income generator. If you’re a bank, you don’t sell the app – it’s a tool for your customer. If it weren’t for Trump, I honestly don’t think Twitter would be around. What’s happened to MySpace, Hotmail, MSN Messenger and AOL?
I like working with products you can touch and feel. Something like 0.01% of all consumer mobile apps succeed – there’s a lot of competition out there. But how many young start-ups are making 100 million pairs of boxer shorts a year in under five years? People are going to buy them differently, consume them differently, think about them differently, engage with the brands differently – but they’re always going to wear boxer shorts.
I need everyone around me to succeed for me to succeed. I believe that in business, I believe that in community, I believe that in family. I was just at a forum where the president of Togo was present – they’re looking for investment there – and we were talking about how you need an abundance of labour for a country to be able to produce an abundance of products. If you’ve got a small economy, and you can only have two factories with 2,000 machines, the supplier is not going to come. The suppliers of the supplier are not going to come. The suppliers of the suppliers of the supplier are not going to come. The economy doesn’t just go where you want it to.
I’ve been given an amazing opportunity to effect change directly – and I’d be crazy to dismiss it. Until you’re exposed to certain issues in the world, you’re kind of wrapped in cotton wool. I see the impact of climate change, of treating people badly. I see the impact of low salaries and gender discrimination. I’m fortunate to be in a position to make sure that the work I do can improve the community, the planet and the environment.
I launched the African Fair Fashion Pact as a call to action for fashion brands to unite to ensure best practice is brought to Africa. We’re working with the Department for International Development and the UN Foundation to ensure women can work without fear of sexual violence or harassment, to ensure the environment is not destroyed and the rivers don’t run red with the dye from tanneries. Workers should have access to sexual health services, and the children of the workforce supported. People should have food in their stomachs and not be hungry. I want to make sure that as an industry we work with partners to do good.
Bad practices lead to bad business, and bad businesses go bust. I don’t think we could have grown Hela from $20m to $200m if we were treating people badly. In the longer term, as we become more informed, as we become more organised as communities and as we become more connected, it’s going to get harder for those businesses to exploit the weakest, most vulnerable or least educated in society.
Doing good is good business. I know how to build businesses and do deals, but I’m never going to be fulfilled unless we can all high-five at the end and know that everyone’s been taken care of.
If you’re lucky, fantastic. Go with it. But don’t sit around waiting for it. You’ve got to put in the work, you’ve got to have a strategy and be committed. You’ve got to believe in yourself. I know people with attributes that could make them the world’s best leaders in business or politics, but they get nowhere.
When I was 19, Terry Wogan told me, on live TV: “The only reason you’re where you are is because you’re lucky.” But there’s no smoke without fire. I get this energy that will come out of nowhere. I know I can get something amazing achieved in that hour, and that might be it for the week. Sometimes that’s enough.
Nick Scott is editor-in-chief of the UK edition of Robb Report, and a regular contributor to FT How To Spend It, The Rake and Director magazine.