You can’t move for Michelle Mone in the media today, which is just the way she likes it. Almost every newspaper and broadcaster has been running lengthy stories and interviews about the publicity-craving ex-Labour supporter being commissioned by Iain Duncan Smith to produce a report on starting up businesses in disadvantaged areas.
(So excited was Mone – who now backs the Conservatives and is widely expected to be given a peerage in the next honours list by David Cameron for campaigning against Scottish independence – to be working for IDS that she just couldn’t keep the news in until the midnight embargo on the press release, tweeting it at 11pm last night.)
Nationalists have in the main reacted to Mone’s apparent imminent ennoblement as an unelected lawmaker in the manner you’d expect, but they’re not the only people to question her credentials as an expert business adviser and employment guru. So we thought we’d do a little digging and compiling.
Mone is inevitably described by the papers as a “lingerie tycoon” (or if it’s a tabloid, “bra tycoon”), on account of having founded the Ultimo underwear firm in 1996. Mone formed the company with redundancy money she received after being sacked from a marketing job with brewers Labatt’s, having secured employment with them by lying about her qualifications.
But Ultimo wasn’t the runaway success the press habitually portray it as. The highest annual profit we can find it ever recording (it was a private company for most of its life) was a modest £919,000 in 2008, which had plunged to just £1,418 by 2012.
More recently it had posted a series of losses – £547,000 in 2013 and £780,000 in 2014, when its parent company MJM International ceased trading with net liabilities of £287,000. Mone had offloaded 80% of her shares to a Sri Lankan conglomerate in order to focus on new businesses selling fake tan and diet pills (of which more later).
Mone’s personal worth is estimated at between £20m and £37m depending on which source you believe. She seems to have made considerably more money personally than Ultimo ever did, though there’s no suggestion of anything sinister – Mone also, for example, has a lucrative sideline “giving back” by charging budding entrepreneurs £10,000 a pop for “mentoring” at her plush £30,000-a-month riverside apartment near Tower Bridge and giving motivational speeches for £20,000.
Her record in employment terms, however – the ostensible reason for the Department for Work and Pensions commissioning her report – is somewhat less impressive than her ability to accumulate an enormous personal fortune while running a loss-making business. Over 90% of Ultimo’s workforce was employed in China, in what the Daily Record alleged in 2004 were sweatshop conditions.
The company’s Scottish workforce numbered just a few dozen people, but Mone still managed to come out on the wrong side of two high-profile employment tribunals.
In 2014 operations director Scott Kilday won £16,000 for unfair dismissal after Mone bugged his office and made his job “unbearable”, and in 2006 supervisor Claire Woods was awarded £11,000 for constructive dismissal after Mone cut her hours when she became pregnant. Woods described working under Mone as “an atmosphere of poison, intimidation and explosive rows”.
During the case Mone told BBC Radio Scotland that:
Personal issues appear to have contributed to at least some of Mone’s behaviour as an employer. The Woods case played out against a backdrop of the disintegration of Mone’s marriage to business partner Michael. In February this year she confessed to having committed several violent crimes when the union broke up, including “trashing” a £100,000 Porsche, destroying his clothes and putting laxatives in his coffee.
(Mone accused Michael of having an affair with Ultimo employee Samantha Bunn, who she quickly fired. When Bunn threatened an unfair-dismissal lawsuit, denying the allegations, Mone bought her off for £10,000.)
But politics seems to make her almost as angry as domestic matters. She renounced Labour in 2009, describing the 50p top rate of tax as a “disgrace”, and in 2011 called for rioters in London to be shot dead or, if captured alive, denied all human rights.
(Mone is, in fairness, no stranger to changing sides, having converted from Protestant to Catholicism when she fell pregnant as a teenager.)
The handful of Ultimo employees actually based in Scotland (just 42, according to the 2010 Guardian piece linked in the paragraph above) were frequently used as political hostages. Mone threatened to remove the company from Scotland in 2007 if the SNP won the Holyrood election, and made the same threat in 2012 over the independence referendum. In the end she didn’t leave when the SNP won in 2007, but did leave despite No winning the referendum.
A pivotal part in Ultimo’s fleeting success is frequently said in the press to have been played by the oft-repeated assertion that one of the company’s bras was worn by Julia Roberts in the 2000 movie Erin Brockovich. In May of that same year the film’s costume designer Jeffrey Kurland flatly denied it, saying he made the bras in question himself and plaintively asking “How can anyone take credit for something they didn’t do?”, but Mone continued to make the claim (and as far as we know still does).
Having abandoned the failing lingerie business, Mone now, as noted above, operates companies selling fake tan and diet pills. The £32-a-month pills promise weight loss if the user eats 1500 calories a day – 25% below the recommended daily intake for a woman – and does regular exercise.
Readers might find themselves wondering whether someone who’s exercising and not eating enough might not lose weight anyway without the need for expensive pills, and an independent analysis by the Diet Pills Watchdog website in October 2014 rejected the product’s advertising blurb, concluding:
“There is no apparent appetite suppressing ingredient to match the claims of the manufacturers that this is an appetite suppressant. It is likely that many of the people who experienced significant weight loss did so because they were following the diet program that comes with the product as well as using the product itself.”
Diet Spotlight, meanwhile, found that “this product seems to be comparable to a multivitamin supplement. However, it costs more money… there are no ingredients for fat burning or boosting your metabolism”, and Diet Pills Review was also sceptical:
“It is great that Michelle lost all that weight using her own company’s diet plan, but it would be even greater if she would allow some independent verification of the contents of her magic pills and the plan that backs them up.
Normally a company is only to pleased to announce exactly what their pills contain, and then give us pages of data to back up their claims to the effectiveness of their product, but this is not the case with Trimsecrets.“
The business has not been a conspicuous success. The accounts for Trim Secrets Ltd show a steady decrease in net value from the date of its creation, and the most recent trading figures put that value in the red, ie the company is essentially bankrupt. But at least it has some accounts. Mone’s other non-lingerie businesses are shrouded in mystery.
The most high-profile, UTan, has a rather fuzzy history. The product has been on sale since 2012, and supposedly in development since 2009, but the company selling it – Ubeauty Global Ltd – has only existed since November 2014 and has never published any accounts, although the Daily Mail did run a vague stat-free puff piece “celebrating” its “success” as recently as June this year.
(Presumably it was previously part of the loss-making Ultimo.)
Mone’s other cosmetic line was the USculpt range, including Boobs Minus, a “breast reduction in a bottle”, and its counterpart Boobs Plus. Both have allegedly been in development since 2009 and suggest – in language which dances precariously around the edges of Trading Standards law – that they can alter the dimensions and volume of a woman’s breasts using only a cream.
Though any doctor on Earth will tell you such effects are physiologically impossible, and the claims on a level with email spam for pills that promise to increase penis size, Mone – playing shamelessly on her supposed years of expertise in the bosom-related field – was happy to insist that both were true, telling Cosmopolitan that:
“I developed the products as an alternative to surgery and evasive [sic] procedures… Creating a range of body solution creams is a natural progression for me, it’s taken a lot of time and effort but we’re finally there.”
(Weirdly, one online retailer claimed that Boobs Minus was actually to hydrate and “plump up” your breasts, which seems like the opposite of reducing them.)
Officially priced at an eye-watering £39.50 for a 150ml bottle, Boobs Plus can now be found on Amazon for as little as £4.99, where it ambitiously claims to “Re-plump, lift and firm as it assists in volumising the bust for more voluptuous, curvier contours”, and more specifically to enlarge the user’s breasts by one cup size.
Boobs Minus, appropriately, can be bought for even less – just £4.85 for women who want to “tighten, lift and firm” and “re-shape and re-sculpt the bust for a sleeker, tauter skin surface”. Ultimo USculpt Bum, Leg And Tum is cheapest of all Mone’s miracle “body solution creams” at a bargain £4.65, a generous 88% discount on RRP.
Michelle Mone is a businesswoman whose most famous company made a few years of unspectacular profits then tanked, despite an endless stream of free advertising in newspapers only too delighted to have any excuse to publish celebrity gossip and fallouts combined with pictures of pretty girls in their underwear.
(One thing Mone indisputably has a talent for is knowing how to get the attention of tabloid editors, and she’s left a long trail of unhappy Ultimo figureheads in her wake to do it. She fired Kelly Brook for being “unwholesome”, dispensed with the services of Abbey Clancy for doing advertisements for a shoe company, gave Katie Price the boot for swearing, sacked the late Peaches Geldof when some private topless photos appeared on the internet, did the same thing to former MP Lembit Opik’s friend Katie Green – who Mone ironically accused of being “publicity-hungry” – and hired Rod Stewart’s ex-wife Rachel Hunter to replace his girlfriend Penny Lancaster, sacrificing a long friendship with the singer in the process. Each incident of course duly secured more spreads in the red-tops, lavishly illustrated with yet more lingerie-clad models.)
Since then she’s tried to flog various kinds of dodgy cosmetic snake-oil without any detectable success, and her main sources of income now seem to be offloading her remaining Ultimo shares and giving speeches and advice to credulous entrepreneurs telling them how to replicate her (non-existent) business triumphs, in what’s basically a high-end version of those flyers you see on lampposts offering to tell you how to “EARN ££££s FROM HOME”, which turn out to be selling booklets advising you to put flyers on lampposts telling people how to “EARN ££££s FROM HOME”.
(There’s a curious parallel between her career and that of her ideological ally, former Labour spin doctor John McTernan, who’s also inexplicably regularly paid to give other people advice despite a long track record of failure.)
Her record as an employer is unseemly, littered with outsourcing, unfair dismissals, bullying and blackmail. She resents taxation, employee rights and human rights for criminals, despite admitting to being one herself.
(We can’t help pondering what penalty Mone would call for if a London rioter trashed HER expensive car in the way she did to her then-husband’s.)
On the whole, then, if we were a would-be entrepreneur in a disadvantaged area, we wouldn’t hold out too much hope of the Mone Report turning our life and community around. We’re also not too sure that political life in the UK will be greatly enhanced by the addition of Michelle Mone’s razor-sharp lawmaking brain to the House Of Lords, though doubtless a few dusty old peers will have their day brightened.
Iain Duncan Smith, we suspect, won’t pay a terribly great deal of attention to his new protegé‘s report if and when it eventually comes out early next year, because even he’s not daft enough to think that Michelle Mone is actually a business genius. The report’s main purpose – trolling the Nats – has already been served.
EDIT 13 August: Since we published this article, the Herald has revealed that while running Ultimo, Mone and her husband both “avoided tax using a scheme of the kind branded ‘morally repugnant’ by Chancellor George Osborne”, and reported that other business chiefs have protested against her hiring by the government, with one saying “There is no way she is qualified to advise anybody on setting up a profitable business, because, quite simply, she hasn’t”.