Mike Clare is probably best known as the entrepreneurial founder of leading British bed and mattress retailer Dreams, which he sold pre-recession in 2008 when it had 200 superstores. Today he owns and heads up five property companies, supports charities through the Clare Foundation and budding entrepreneurs through the Clare Business School.
Some people have dreams of forts and castles. Mike Clare doesn’t. He owns them.
In fact, Mike Clare owns luxurious properties ranging from historic country manors to Scottish castles, a Benedictine Abbey, a chateau in Anglesey and three Victorian sea forts in the Solent, not forgetting several executive homes and commercial premises in his native Buckinghamshire.
His entrepreneurial exploits with Dreams brought him fame and fortune – and, having sold up, ample spare time. Clare doesn’t do spare time. “I read autobiographies, enjoy walking, but who wants to just sit on a beach?”
Always interested in visiting old, intriguing and unusual, millionaire Clare turned this pastime into a rewarding pastime by buying some of the “wacky” properties he visited.
He set up Clarenco as a business group to commercialise his ‘hobby,’ and established five property divisions.
Today, Clare’s collection of unique properties are let out commercially to companies or as executive accommodation. The most high profile of his properties in the “AmaZing Venues” division are run as luxury hotels, providing exciting locations for weddings, celebrations, themed events and corporate retreats. Dream venues, you might say.
“Letting out the commercial property is actually a better investment, but it’s not so exciting, not so hands-on. Renovating these lovely old properties for people to enjoy, you feel more like an entrepreneur, and they’re all now running as exciting and profitable businesses.”
Clare also has various associated businesses covering other investment and charitable interests, notably The Clare Foundation and the Clare Business School, the latter being an entrepreneurial partnership bringing ‘real live business’ experience to Bucks New University students. (In 2009, Mike Clare was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the university, formerly High Wycombe College where he studied.)
The Clare Foundation was created in Saunderton as a hub for charities, assisting them to reduce their overheads and “to help these worthy charities make their organisations more commercial, efficient and more business-like so that more of their fundraising goes through to beneficiaries and less on administration.”
Entrepreneurial life began for Clare at school, where he sold bikes and records to fellow pupils. “I always wanted my own business, and never thought I’d conform as a standard employee.”
Arguably, Clare was driven towards personal achievements by friendly rivalry with his older brother, mild dyslexia forcing him to achieve things differently, and having to grow up quickly after his father died when he was 12.
“Making lots of money is a good by-product, but I don’t think it’s the main reason people start businesses. Money is just a measuring stick, not recognition. Once you get to a certain stage, it’s a blend of personal things like proving something to yourself or other people, industry recognition, creating a legacy...”
Clare was running the bedding department of a local furniture store at 21, had progressed to area manager in a national furniture chain, when, aged 30, he decided to take the plunge and set up his own business – his first bed shop.
He exploited the rising popularity of sofa-beds and futons, then realised that beds were a more profitable and reliable market. The rest is history ... “I spent 21 years tweaking and improving the success formula for beds.”
Are you a risk-taker? “I had all my wealth in one basket with Dreams, so if something had gone wrong ... I only paid off my mortgage after I sold Dreams.” Over half of Clare’s wealth is now in properties.
“Business is 80% hard-work, plus passion, a touch of skill, and a little luck. Getting out pre-recession was possibly luck. Like many others, I didn’t foresee it coming.” But, Clare still cared about ‘his baby’ and reinvested in the company he’d sold, agreed to be its life president.
“It was like a bereavement, but I left Dreams with a great management team, good systems and a great brand reputation.”
Mike Clare had achieved his dreams, and was looking for another different personal and business challenge, while walking around some very unusual buildings.
Succession? “I just hope my children will always do something worthwhile with their lives.”
Clare’s son Edward has helped with Clarenco’s property development, daughter Hannah is gaining post-university experience within AmaZing Venues.
Clare will be venturing on something of a ‘gap-year’ himself in 2017, when he commits to 12 months as High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire representing the county where he has always lived.
And after that? “If I had the time, I’d love to be more of a serial non-executive director helping other businesses and mentoring business startups. Not necessarily for the money, but for the business involvement and help I feel I can give.”
Clare’s keys to a successful business: passion and people.
His advice for business life?
Ever the entrepreneurial salesman.
Mike Clare recently spoke at the Southern Entrepreneurs dinner.