Those wishing to debate whether entrepreneurial talent is born or manufactured may wish to examine the breakneck speed of Michael Welch’s ascent. It’s clear that just being another employee was never an option for the Black Circles founder, even at an early age.
“I was the kid in school who would buy a compilation CD and copy it onto blank tapes and sell them,” he says. “I was a trader – there was no motivation to do it, I just did it for the money and the buzz of the sell.”
Welch decided to leave school at 16; “I wanted to get out of the education system, it didn’t really agree with me,” he recalls. After scouring the papers for a job, an apprentice tyre fitter’s job caught his eye. Almost immediately, his entrepreneurial instincts kicked in.
“I had a minor responsibility within the company, but it was obvious that these guys were buying for x price and selling for y, and the bit in the middle was quite substantial,” Welch explains. “More importantly, the customers didn’t quibble. There was no negotiation over price, so it was obvious there was money in it.
“I decided I would have a go myself. The bigger the tyres, the more margin there was to be made, so I thought why not start a mail order, high performance specialist tyre business, which is what I did.”
Welch, who was only just 18, got a £500 grant from the Prince’s Trust and started selling tyres via motoring magazines such as Max Power and Redline. However, he admits that he knew nothing about running a business at the time and needed help with basics such as finance management.
After taking a college course to plug his knowledge gaps, Welch worked for a year under Sir Tom Farmer, founder of tyre giants Kwik-Fit, gaining invaluable experience. He credits this time for setting the foundations for Black Circles.
“Kwik-Fit are the biggest tyre retailers in the world, they are market leaders,” Welch says. “It was my chance to see not what they do right, but what they do wrong, where their weak spots are and how their business model and proposition could be improved.
“It became clear very quickly that the market leaders, such as Kwik-Fit, weren’t doing the best job possible.
“I wanted to be the chief executive of Kwik-Fit, but I was 20, there was no way that was ever going to happen. So I built my own Kwik-Fit.”
Black Circles, which is now four years old, allows customers to order tyres on the internet and get them fitted within a day at one of its affiliated garages. The low-cost, speedy service has proved a stunning success for Welch, with sales ballooning from £50,000 in the first year to a projected £7 million in 2005.
However, these rewards have only come with painstaking work and sometimes painful boardroom clashes. The introduction of a “challenging” shareholder to Welch’s then-fledgling business nearly sunk the enterprise before it got off the ground. He admits that naivety nearly cost him dear.
“It turned into a nightmare,” he says. “My business was being wrestled away from me. For the first year, I spent my time building the business and fighting the shareholder. It was dirty play. And it became a priority to buy him out and replace him with a team of investors, which I did.”
Learning from his bitter experience, Liverpudlian Welch assembled a team that complimented his skills and compensated for his lack of legal and accountancy knowledge.