Sunday 15 September 2019

The Comeback Kid

Michelle Mone OBE tells Julia Molony about finding love after divorce and why she finally feels like a "proper" businesswoman

Michelle Mone has made a leap of faith from the world of lingerie to property development
Michelle Mone has made a leap of faith from the world of lingerie to property development

The epilogue to Michelle Mone's madly compelling autobiography My Fight To The Top ends, as autobiographies tend to, on a high note.

A scrapper since her early days, fighting off the bullies in the tough inner-city Glasgow neighbourhood she grew up in, Mone had emerged from the fight of her life - against her ex-husband and former business partner Michael Mone - battered, bleeding, but true to form, victorious.

She'd succeeded in buying him out of the company she founded. She'd survived the decades of acrimony and (on occasions) claims of abuse in her marriage. She'd recovered her sanity after being struck by a jealous rage which prompted her to destroy her husband's Porsche when she discovered he'd been unfaithful to her with Ultimo's head designer. She was newly single, back in control of her brand, and looked poised for a return to business as usual.

But then, buried almost as an afterthought in the final paragraphs, the reader finds a clue which indicated that things were rather more complicated than they might have seemed. As she signs off, she mentions a change of heart, and the surprising decision to sell 80pc of those Ultimo shares she fought tooth and nail to retain.

In fact, this ultimate round in the ring had left Michelle burned out. "I almost had a kind of breakdown," she explains now. Looking back, it wasn't quite the triumphant ending it seemed. In fact, she was convinced it was the end of her career.

"I think I was just mentally, physically exhausted," she says. "I thought, you know, that's it. I'll take my money and I'll just enjoy my life. I thought that was me. I was finished and I would retire and I would be gone."

It won't have come as any surprise to those who know her that, as it turned out, retirement wasn't on the cards for Michelle just yet. She's a creature formed in the fire of struggle and adversity, and this disorientating period in her early forties was no different. In fact, so much has changed in the two short years since the book was published that she reckons she's ready to write a follow-up, detailing how, once again, she's turned things around.

"I never would believe that I could go on and do the things that I'm doing at the moment," she says.

We are speaking shortly after her return from a business trip to Dubai where, through her new company Michelle Mone Interiors, she is contracted to design a mega development of 1,130 apartments as well as overseeing the design and retail management of a behemoth shopping mall which measures, she says, 2.4 million square feet.

All this has come about, she says, "through sheer determination and digging your heels in". The Dubai projects are just one of a number she's juggling at the moment. But she has "gone from building brands to building towers and shopping malls and it's just incredible how you can diversify. Every industry requires the same skill set".

She adds: "I never thought I could go from the lingerie industry into the tech industry into jewellery into construction. I feel now that I'm a proper businesswoman. I've graduated. I'm working with some of the brightest graduates in the world, but I can be still that little girl who left school at 15. I don't feel uncomfortable any more because I know that I'm good at what I do. Whereas before I didn't probably have the confidence to go into other industries. I thought, you know, I only know about bras."

Mone was born in east Glasgow into a working class family. Her parents were grafters, but trapped in poverty. As a little girl she slept in the wardrobe in their one-bedroom tenement flat. Though warm and loving, her childhood was marred by tragedy. Her younger brother died at birth from spina bifida, and her father was struck down by a rare spinal disease that left him wheelchair-bound before he turned 40. Looking around at the suffering she saw, Mone resolved that she would do whatever it took to lift herself out of the life she'd been born into.

She got her first job at 12 as a market trader where her silver-tongued powers of persuasion quickly became evident. At 13, she forged her mum's signature to get a job as an Avon sales lady and within months was the best-selling rep in Glasgow. She left school at 15 and was still a teenager when she met her future husband Michael, a doctor's son from the right side of the tracks, and by the time they married soon after, she was already pregnant with their eldest daughter Rebecca. The pair went on to have another son and a daughter in quick succession.

Michelle's twenties and thirties passed in a whirr of activity. She had a light-bulb moment when she came up with the idea of putting silicone cups into pretty bras to boost the wearer's cleavage and less than a decade later her company, Ultimo, was one of the best known underwear brands in the UK and a multi-million pound company. In 2010, it was announced that she had been awarded an OBE.

Ultimo had made her who she was. So when the difficult decision to step down came in 2015, she felt lost.

"You lose your confidence," she says. "But it's family and friends that encourage you. That was one of the saddest moments probably in my life. And it's my mum and dad who would tell me, 'look Michelle, there are people who can't even put food on the table. Your life is not bad. Deal with the cards you've been given so that you can help others going forward.' And I suppose that's what I do now with my speaking and my mentoring. [Michelle will speak in Fire, in the Mansion House, Dublin 2 at the To Children with Love lunch on Thursday.] I try to help as many people as I possibly can. I kind of just get up and tell my story, which, at the end of the day, we've all got a story. I suppose mine is like a movie, mind you. But I suppose if we all look at experiences we've all gone through, we pretty much do experience those things in different ways."

As with all compelling narratives, there's an element of serendipity involved in the renaissance she's currently experiencing. Last year, Michelle met and fell in love with her new man, Doug Barrowman, a billionaire businessman who is also from Glasgow. The project in Dubai, she says, is "Doug's baby". Late last year, the pair sealed the deal between them when they merged their two companies. Working together destroyed her marriage, so doesn't she feel apprehensive about mixing business with pleasure again?

"Initially I didn't want to do it," she says. "But I think it's a lot different because in Ultimo, my ex-husband and I dealt with each other every minute of the day. Whereas with Doug, I will sit down with him maybe once a month. We do different things so I think the set up is a lot different, which I was comfortable with. Obviously, a relationship comes first more than anything else. I think that I've learnt all the lessons that I've learnt in my ex-marriage."

Crucially, she says, she and Doug understand each other in a way she's never experienced in a relationship before. They grew up three miles apart from one another. "We're both very similar," she explains of how she's finally met her match. "We both started off in life with nothing."

Baroness Michelle Mone will speak at the Women in Business Autumn Lunch this Thursday in Fire, in the Mansion House, in aid of To Children With Love. For more information contact:

'I never would believe that I could go on and do the things I'm doing at the moment'

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