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What entrepreneurs can learn from Jeffrey Archer

Charlie Trumper’s rise from a costermonger to the chairman of the ‘biggest barrow in the world’ offers several insights for those chasing unicorns

Jeffrey Archer’s ‘As the Crow Flies’ offers insights for those aiming to be unicorns.
Jeffrey Archer’s ‘As the Crow Flies’ offers insights for those aiming to be unicorns. (Courtesy

Rags to riches stories always seem too good to be true, but nonetheless offer profound and often practical lessons. As The Crow Flies, one of Jeffrey Archer’s bestsellers, is no exception. While the book will fascinate readers from all walks of life, the rise of Charlie Trumper from a costermonger to the chairman of the biggest store in the world offers several insights and tricks of the trade for entrepreneurs chasing unicorns.

Charlie’s journey takes him from the slums of London’s Whitechapel district to World War I trenches in France and back to London, where he inherits an indebted fruit and vegetable shop. Over the next few decades, Charlie buys a block in Chelsea Terrace to build the “biggest barrow in the world” where you could buy anything you could ever want. Along the way, Charlie loses his best friend in combat, marries his business partner, picks up a degree in mathematics, suffers the death of his child, wins a nasty fight with a business rival, becomes a connoisseur of art and retires as Lord Trumper of Whitechapel. Energetic, visionary, honest, optimistic and compassionate, Charlie embodies the qualities which leaders and entrepreneurs should aspire to imbibe.

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Don’t let pandemics discourage you

By the time Charlie was 17, he was profitably running a baker’s shop and his grandpa’s barrow, having paid off the loan he took to acquire a new barrow. But as fate would have it, his father was killed in the Great War and Charlie signed up to fight the Germans. When he returned, his profit-making businesses had disappeared. Charlie rolled up his sleeves, turned the shop around and repaid the debt before it was due. Over the next two decades, Trumper’s grew to own 24 shops. Then came World War II. While Trumper’s struggled to survive, some business units prospered owing to Charlie’s ingenuity. A great example is the way he trusted Ben Schubert, a Jewish refugee and jeweller from Germany, who had come to sell his jewellery. Charlie bought it at the price quoted by Ben without valuing it and appointed him as the new manager of the Trumper’s jewellery shop so he could sell it to fetch its true value (which Ben claimed was much higher than the quoted price). Many Jewish refugees found their way to the shop, closing attractive deals with Ben that ensured Charlie never had to worry about the jewellery side of his business again. Successful entrepreneurs are always able to convert problems into opportunities.

Keep an eye on the long-term vision

Charlie’s first barrow, bought when he was 16, had displayed his vision in blue and gold, “The biggest barrow in the world”. While running his first shop, the hardworking Charlie is shown to be sitting on a bench opposite his shop on a Monday morning. When his business partner (and later wife) Becky asks him if he’s taking early retirement, he shares he’s planning how to go about buying all 36 shops in Chelsea Terrace and quotes Henry Ford on the importance of thought before action. He returns to this bench throughout his journey to break away from the daily doings of business and focus on the long-term strategy. Every startup founder should have her own “bench” where short-term thinking can give way to long-term planning.

Social capital is key while raising money

While trying to borrow money to buy the second and third shops, Becky is rejected by eight banks, with one bank manager stating that should she ever become a married woman then they’d be delighted to do business with her husband (while the novel is set in the early twentieth century, gender bias still exists in start-up financing). Her aristocrat friend Daphne suggests roping in an “old school tie” who won’t be encumbered by Becky’s gender or by Charlie’s accent. They are able to convince Charlie’s old commanding officer lieutenant-colonel Sir Danvers Hamilton to join Trumper’s. Their first meeting with a reputed bank is a big success, partly because the chairman of the bank, Lord Duckworth (who the Colonel refers to as Old Chubby Duckworth), is an old friend. Hadlow, the bank manager, approves the loan at a favourable interest rate. While entrepreneurs should definitely try to break existing stereotypes, they need to artfully navigate the social and cultural nuances of the business world.

Reward loyalty and promote from within

Inspiring, recruiting and retaining capable people is a key driver of success for start-ups. Early-stage start-ups are rarely able to match market salaries for high performing employees, but money isn’t always the best and most economical reward. A culture of “promoting from within” goes a long way in nurturing team spirit and creating a sense of ownership to achieve the shared dream. Trumper’s is a classic case study that displays how three loyal employees step up and perform when founders back them. Bob Makins starts as the manager of the first shop and retires as a member of the board. Tom Arnold joins as a manager of the tailor shop and becomes the managing director. Finally, Cathy Ross who joins the front desk of Trumper’s auctioneers and fine art specialists becomes the chairman. During the Colonel’s retirement party, Charlie announces, “It will always be Trumper’s policy to promote from within.”

Rohan Chinchwadkar is an assistant professor (finance, entrepreneurship) at IIT-Bombay and a fan of Jeffrey Archer’s books.

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