CHARLIE BRADSHAW, FOUNDER & CEO, MATRIX APA
Charlie Bradshaw launched Matrix APA, his brand and product design business, when he was just 19. His first ever client? Boots.
Now, 25 years later, the Matrix team has achieved B Corp certification, built an unshakeable, close-knit culture, and made huge strides towards greater social and ethical worker welfare in China. All while Charlie has maintained 100% ownership of the business, picking up more blockbuster clients like Primark and British Airways along the way.
Charlie started strong. He only got stronger. And believe us when we say this, he ain’t done yet.
We sat down to chat to Charlie about how important his upbringing has been on his journey, the defining ingredients of an entrepreneur, how Matrix became the culture-first, full-fledged force for good that it is today, and how his story can make a real difference to yours.
ARE ENTREPRENEURS BORN OR MADE?
THE STORY OF A 12-YEAR-OLD HUSTLER
“I grew up in a very entrepreneurial house,” Charlie told us. “My father owned a Mercedes Benz dealership in London, and from the age of 10 I remember going to the office as often as I could. It fascinated me. My mum ran an au pair agency business at home too, so wherever I was, I was just surrounded by it.”
In Charlie’s case, it shows. Because at the age of 12 – when even the savviest minds were plumping up their pocket money by selling sweets on the playground – Charlie had just sold his first car. A Mercedes Benz SL Series two-seater sports car, no less.
It was around that time that the switch flicked. Charlie realised his passion lay outside of traditional schooling and he couldn’t wait to get through it all to enter the world of work. All at the grand old age of 12.
HIS PUBESCENT PIÈCE DE RÉSISTANCE
With the entrepreneurial foundations laid, Charlie went on to create a CD wholesaling business in sixth form as a school project for the Young Enterprise Programme.
Frankly, the results were mind-blowing.
“The orders started coming in thick and fast,” he told us. “We had to create working capital because we were taking orders of £3,000 – £5,000 a week. My ‘Finance Director’ ended up getting an E in A Level Maths. Turns out, his finances weren’t that good. But he’s still my best friend today.
“You had to wind up the business at the end of the programme, but I think we’d done around £72,000 in sales – with a profit of about £22,000 that had to be distributed among the shareholders. So, my French teacher, who’d given me about £15 (he’d really gone for it), he got back something like £450 in the end.
“When it came to the summer and I said ‘I’m not going to university, I’m going to start my own business’, my teachers were incredibly supportive. The first business I started after school was a car buying agency and the headmaster was my first customer.”
CURIOSITY. THICK SKIN. AND A HEALTHY DOLLOP OF GENIUS
“I think ‘entrepreneur’ is sometimes a bit of an overused word,” Charlie explained. “I actually think it’s down to your values and the things that are important to you.
“I was born very curious. I find it difficult to accept ‘no’ as an answer, and when there’s an issue, I’m determined to solve it. So no, I don’t think I was born a businessman, I was just born someone who loves asking questions, learning how things work, meeting people and building relationships with them. That, combined with my determination, meant I felt like I could do anything.
“A lot of my motivation is driven by wanting to show my parents that I succeeded. They did a huge amount for me. They were, and still are, brilliant parents, and I’m always subconsciously trying to show them that they did a brilliant job.”
Fast-forwarding to the business Matrix has become today, it only takes one look to know that Charlie’s parents did exactly that.
PEOPLE FIRST. PROFIT SECOND
We met Charlie at one of our B Corp roundtables, discussing the business movement committed to putting people, planet and profit on the same plane.
As a certified B Corp business, that mindset has become intrinsic to the culture at the heart of Matrix, and as Founder & CEO, Charlie’s personal values have been a driving force.
“At a macro level, I’ve always believed that money is very low down the list of drivers when we measure success,” he told us. “I’ve always said to people in interviews – even before I knew about B Corp – when you work at Matrix, it’s not about how much money we make, it’s about how brilliant a job we do and how positively we impact our customers, our suppliers, and our people.
“I quickly realised how important it is to hire people who share those values. And to always go for the best you can afford. Even if you can’t afford them, find a way to. The culture at Matrix is my values. I can tell very quickly when someone is trying to bullshit me and fake it, and we get rid of those people very quickly.
“I’m a great believer that if you hire brilliant people, support them as best as you can, whether that’s through great mentorship, great training, whatever, and then you give them autonomy to do what they’re good at, you create something amazing. And when you keep creating amazing things – in my world, it’s products – you will make money. But you’ve got to start with the key ingredients.”
A FORCE FOR CHANGE IN THE FAR EAST
“When I first started Matrix, I was in China a lot. This was around 1996-1998. We didn’t have an office there, and because I didn’t have a lot of money, I was living in the dormitories in the factories for a few weeks at a time.
“So, I saw the living conditions first-hand. This is before any sort of social and ethical worker welfare programmes, and it was tough. People were waking up at 5:30am in the morning and not finishing until 11pm at night. It was a real eye-opener for me, and it made me realise we can’t do business like that.
“I realised that without these people in the factories, Matrix was nothing. And ever since we’ve had what we call our ‘factory first principle’ – which essentially means our suppliers are as important as our clients.”
This commitment to workers’ welfare helped Charlie and Matrix build steadfast relationships with suppliers over the years, simply because they understood how their businesses worked – and how their people lived.
“Way before anyone was really doing much in the space, we had people on the ground in China,” Charlie continued, “and rather than auditing factories which is what most people do, we would go and offer to do a mentorship programme and share some tips and tricks to lower attrition, increase efficiencies and improve quality – all by treating your people better.
“In my world, a factory has to be assessed before you start working with it. It’s like a scoring system of 0-100, and most big retailers would say unless you’re around 60+, we’re not interested. But if your objective is to make sure people are treated well, what about those factories that are 0-59? Are you just going to leave them?
“So, we said it doesn’t matter how bad you are, it doesn’t matter how poorly you’re treating your staff, if you’re willing to be transparent with us, you’re willing to engage and commit to listening and learning, we will come and help you, at no charge.
“20 years later, that’s turned into a very significant programme, helping thousands and thousands of people across China and the wider region. And it’s a really easy sell, because the simple fact is: if you treat your people better, you make more money. You build a much, much healthier ecosystem where you retain your people, you spend much less on recruitment and training, they tell their mates who then want to come and work for you, you bring in the efficiency aspects, and suddenly, you’re taking a factory that’s a 20% and turning it into an 80% in 6 months.
“A lot of factory owners think treating people well comes at a cost. All they needed to be shown was that it makes you more money.”
MEASURING IMPACT: FROM PEOPLE TO PLANET
Despite having a positive impact on thousands of lives by using Matrix as a force for good, Charlie won’t be resting on his laurels any time soon.
“I feel like we’re on the right journey with people,” he told us. “Now, it’s about figuring out how we can start to make the same impact on the planet. Firstly, what do we make our products from? And not just packaging, but also, we do a lot of beauty products, so what’s inside them?
“Then, it’s about purpose-led products. It’s about saying is there a great reason for this product to exist? It’s not just going to be another pink lip balm sitting on a shelf in a high street retailer, collecting dust and ending up in landfill after three uses. It’s got to be something more meaningful and important. And then, when you start to layer on the environmental aspects of packaging, you can have a very clear, purpose-led strategy.”
ROLLING WITH THE PANDEMIC PUNCHES
COVID hit Matrix hard. Charlie makes no bones about that. And for a leader so determined to create a family-like culture, it was a total sucker punch.
“Matrix halved in size during COVID,” Charlie said. “We were just over 100 people and now we’re just over 50. Our sales went from £40m in 2019, to just under £15m last year. So as a business, it was a seismic, seismic shock. And I don’t think anything could have prepared me for it, honestly. It’s been the most difficult year of my career.
“But I have to live by my own mantra that I’ve been telling everyone for years: everything will be OK in the end. And if it’s not OK, it’s not the end. So, I thought to myself, if I was going through this, how would I want to be treated? And I did that. I did my best to use my network to support people and help them find new jobs.
“We made all the redundancies in July, and a really happy day for me was in late September when I found out the last person had got a new job. It had only taken two and a half months for everyone to get re-employed. That was a huge weight off my shoulders. I had some amazing feedback too. It felt like some of the people were more worried about me than their own jobs. I made every single call myself, but I still check in on them now, and they check in with me.
“My Finance Manager who left us last summer, he sent me a text the other week saying he’d been worrying about me and wanted to check to see how I was doing. That’s a 27-year-old Finance Manager that worked with us for two years. It literally makes me so incredibly grateful that there are people out there that think like that.”
To us, it all seems indicative of the unwavering, culture-first leadership style that Charlie has championed since day dot back in 1996. It’s helped Matrix weather the storm of the global financial crisis in the past, and now, as the world re-opens once more, it’s simply a matter of time before Charlie bounces back as only he can, and goes from strength, to strength, to strength.
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