An interview with OJ, Tony Hillary, the highly successful entrepreneur who started and built the UK’s biggest window blind business, Hillarys Blinds.
This is an inspiring and timely story, as exam results have come out, from OJ Tony Hillary. He is committed to encouraging young entrepreneurs to follow their dreams and believe in themselves no matter what setbacks they experience at the end of school or the beginning of their careers. He muses that even if they don’t get the grades they expected – he is living proof that they can still succeed!
Tony Hillary was at Judd from (1955 to 1959) and is an inspiration to students who perhaps don’t fit in with the norms of those who get on well at school because they excel in either academia or sports. Tony believes education should develop the whole person. All the potential of an individual should be taken into consideration.
Tony, what did you do after Judd to start your road to success?
I left Judd at 16 with just 4 O’Levels, (Maths, English, French and Latin). My first job was at Lloyds bank in Tunbridge Wells but after 18 months they decided I was not a banker and we parted company. I went to work for the Australian Government in London in the Purchasing Department. Although the job went really well, I realised that this wasn’t a long term career. I then worked for Amoco, a American oil company, as a marketing assistant – interesting but not what I was looking for!
After a few weeks of then driving a London minicab, I applied for a job as a double glazing salesman. At last I found what I was good at!
Selling was my skillset and the role was entirely commission based so the more I sold the more I earned. I finally felt I was in the right job!
At the age of about 24 I moved out of London and went up to Nottingham, still a commission only salesman. In 1971, at the age of 28, I started my own business as a Venetian Blind Sales agent and took 12.5% commission on each blind sold. In the first week in May 1971 I sold £43 worth of blinds. It was a start!
Initially I worked from the kitchen counter at home – all I needed was a phone and a price list. The blinds were made to measure in London and delivered to me weekly, and I would go out and fit them. A year later in order to control quality and increase our margins I decided that we should make the blinds. I found a 1000 sq ft workshop in Nottingham and started manufacturing.
At that point we recruited three self employed agents in Leicester, Derby and Mansfield to sell for us. This proved very successful and we repeated the process until we eventually had over eight hundred across the UK. The business continued to grow both in turnover and profitability.
In May 2001, 30 years later, the month that I sold the business, in my final week we turned over £1,200,000 and fitted 22,000 made to measure blinds. We had 850 employees, 800 self – employed commission based agents, 19 retail outlets, an on-line retail site and a busy wholesale business. We were turned over £64m that year.
What subjects do you think schools should teach children like you to set them up for the business world?
You need the basics – Maths, English, IT (Microsoft Office) and Business Studies.
Simple maths combined with basic accountancy skills learnt from Business Studies would help a wannabe entrepreneur to plan and successfully run a business. Understanding the grammatical structure of English is important for the entrepreneur to be able to communicate clearly both in the spoken and written word. Pulling all this together is the ability to use Microsoft Office, particularly Outlook, Word, Excel and Power Point.
'Young Enterprise' do good entrepreneurial work in the schools and Princes Trust have an excellent four day business set up training course “Explore Enterprise”.
Beyond this depends on the nature of the business and what interests the student.
What did you do after you sold the business?
Tried to retire but failed miserably after eight weeks!
We moved into commercial property investment and subsequently into commercial property development, building small industrial estates.
I also mentor small businesses and do some work with The Princes Trust.
We also run an informal charity “Support For Syrian Refugees”. There are eleven Syrian refugee families in Newark, where we live. They have spent an average of five years in refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan and have been re-settled in the UK under the UN Vulnerable Persons Scheme. Working with our local authority and two other charities we help them settle in, learn English and get jobs. Recently we visited Save The Children projects in the camps in Lebanon and Jordan to get a better understanding of what our families have been through. We learnt a lot but it was quite shocking to see the appalling conditions they have been living in.
We partner with Newark and Sherwood District Council, Homestart, and Nottingham Refugee Forum, and together we won a national award in the Transforming Lives category from the Municipal Journal publication. (It’s the trade publication for local government!). The judges praised how the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement (SVPR) programme had been implemented in the district, commending the strong partnership work, passion and innovation of those involved – so that was a really nice occasion.
We took our Syrian families on a coach trip to Scarborough via York. We do a seaside trip every year and this time we also arranged a tour round York Minster and a bit of shopping around The Shambles.
Trips like this are an important part of their getting to settle in to life in the UK. They learn about our history, our beautiful buildings and countryside.....and then at Scarborough enjoy fish and chips, the arcades and a dip in the sea!
You can see from the photos below that we are all having a good time! I'm in the middle of the back row and Michelle is on the right, second from the end.
We also do an annual coach trip to London for the new families - seeing all the sights, a river trip and the London Eye.
There's a lot of misunderstanding about refugees; they don't chose to be here - they leave their homes to save their lives and protect their kids. If it weren't for tragedy of the Syrian government many would be coming here as tourists - something they would greatly prefer!
I see you like to keep busy then! What a fascinating life story! Thank you so much for sharing it with us and best of luck with all your endeavours and your amazing charity work!
So, to wrap up the interview, what message do you have for the students at Judd and recent leavers or those struggling to find their niche in the business world?
Always believe in yourself no matter what people may say; you’re probably better than you realise!
Stay positive and keep looking for what is right for you. The harder you look the sooner you will find it. Never, never give up!
If the above list wasn’t enough for someone to be involved with, Tony also explained how he publishes a local magazine and at 76 he still takes part in his 5km runs, skis and works out the gym twice a week.
Tony is happily married with children and grandchildren, who also keep him on his toes.
Tony has kindly agreed to come to Judd to give a careers talk to Judd students in the coming months as his focus is to help students on their way in the business world. Watch this space for more information on when this can be arranged!
If you would like to come in and give a careers talk or inspire Judd students and recent leavers with reaching goals and how you achieved success in business with an editorial piece, please get in touch with: email@example.com