Michelle Mone: tsar quality?

She's from Glasgow poverty, and pulled herself up by her bra-straps. She's glamorous. She exudes success.

And she's the person the Department for Work and Pensions has invited to carry out a review of the support for people from less advantaged areas to start up their own businesses.

It brought 20 media interviews in one day. Yes, Michelle Mone is back where she has been for nearly 20 years, getting attention and column inches in the newspapers - but not quite as she might have wished.

Her appointment has brought unwelcome scrutiny of just how much of a success she's been, and questions about whether she deserves the profile she's got as a business role model. Was this sexism? Or classism?

Or politics? She's pointed a manicured finger at her critics in the SNP, who took her on for her opposition to independence. Her warning: "you won't break me".

It's a message that speaks of defiance and determination, but also perhaps a thin skin and insecurity.

Living the Dream

So what is it that drives Michelle Mone? One guide is to follow her on Twitter. I don't follow many celebrities on the social media site, but because she's a big name in Scottish business, I make an exception for Ms Mone. What I've learned is not about business, but about image.

Her Twitter profile shows nearly a million followers, and the feedback suggests they follow because they want to share with her as she Lives the Dream.

The image she projects is of someone constantly on the go from top hotel to yacht, to a glamorous photo shoot, to her evening gown laid out on her hotel bed, to a peek inside her wardrobe at the choices she's got that morning.

There are pre-speech nerves when facing a glitzy, powerful audience, a menu from a swish restaurant, stroking some very expensive cars, and short messages of encouragement to her admirers.

This is Michelle Mone: the brand.

It's now being marketed for the purposes of motivational speaking at conferences around the world. You can have a weekend of business mentoring, for a cool £10,000.

From hard times growing up in the east end of Glasgow, Mone flaunts the lifestyle you can get if you only believe in yourself, be your own boss, work hard, bounce back from the setbacks, never give up, and yes: don't let them break you.

Alluring but not tacky

Most people got to know the personal brand through its association with the business one - Ultimo bras, lingerie and swimwear. For nearly 20 years, Michelle Mone has exploited the weak spot of newspaper editors.

Every eight weeks or so, a new product launch comes with an offering, for free, of pictures of a glamorous and scantily-clad model. They always have back stories, as the wife, girlfriend or daughter of someone rich. And they always have Michelle Mone with them.

The image is alluring, of course, but not tacky. It can run as a business story, which allows it a place in serious and family newspapers.

And how! If you tot up all the column inches, the claim is that it comes to one billion pounds-worth of publicity. That's a suspiciously round number. Even if it's exaggerated five or ten-fold, the surprise is that it hasn't translated into more of a business success.

Yes, Michelle Mone has been a genius at promoting her business brand. She's been even smarter at promoting herself. But it's hard to maintain the story that she's been all that successful at growing a Great British business.

Boardroom and bedroom

MJM International was the company she ran with her husband - before their acrimonious split became a tabloid soap opera.

If you look at the records held by Companies House, you can see there have been tumultuous times in the boardroom, while her autobiography earlier this year told of warfare in the bedroom.

Turnover peaked at £10m.

That's half of what gets you into the bottom end of Scottish Business Insider's list of Scotland's top 500 firms.

And although costs were cut by offshoring production to China and Sri Lanka, profits struggled towards the million pound mark, before plummeting into the red in MJM's final few years, as Mr and Mrs Mone went to war with each other.

Having bought out her husband, Michelle Mone sold 80% of Ultimo to a vast apparel firm based in Sri Lanka, leaving her as the brand's ambassador.

That left more time to build new companies; selling tanning products, diet pills, her own brand jewellery on shopping channel QVC, and those motivational speeches and mentoring, including a new venture with her Florida-based life coach, Ted Anders.

Branson, Buffet and Trump

There's no doubt she's hard-working and passionate about business, about success and about living the dream. And it's no small achievement to build up a company to £10m turnover before selling it on.

Moreover, being a talented self-publicist is hardly a crime. A carefully-cultivated personal brand can be vital to some very big businesses. Think of Sir Richard Branson, Warren Buffett or Donald Trump.

But as with Ultimo's bras, there's illusion at work with Ms Mone. Fashion is all about the creation of image, selling of lifestyle, tapping into aspirational dreams.

You could say it has that in common with politics. But in politics and government, there is a lot more scrutiny and scepticism, as Michelle Mone has found since her appointment to review start-up support.

Her business record, the claims on which she has built her image and her tax affairs - using an offshore trust (legally) to avoid UK tax - have jarred with her new role.

That's what brought the 'you won't break me message', along with a warning of legal action.


Whereas entrepreneurs are often passionately supportive of each other, that doesn't seem to be a feature of this choice by the government. Some are welcoming the review, but not the reviewer.

Ian Ritchie, the leading Scots technology entrepreneur, investor and mentor, has gone further, telling BBC Radio 4's Profile programme: "Everyone in Scotland is just flabbergasted that Michelle Mone should be picked to be entrepreneurial leader".

Why would the Government turn to Mone to do this job, he was asked?

"It's quite bizarre," he replied.

"It's one of the strangest things to have happened this year."

Great British Start-up

Ms Mone is in an exposed position. She has a lot still to prove. This is not a nationwide speaking tour to inspire other entrepreneurs through her success. It's a listening tour, to find out what support they get, and what more they could use.

Because it's sponsored by the Department for Work and Pensions, the Mone Review is aimed at those on benefits. So it's about the hard-to-reach cases, about complex issues of access to finance, and how risk-taking can work alongside the benefits system.

While Ms Mone offers her time for free, it surely ought to help her personal brand, and its valuation in promotions around the world, for her to be the baroness of the Great British Start-up

But if the report is correct that Michelle Mone is soon to be draped in ermine as a Conservative member of the House of Lords - headlined 'Lady Bra-Bra' in the Sun - the scrutiny could get more uncomfortable still.

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