Matt Moulding: the UK’s buff billionaire How did the working-class boy from Burnley build an eCommerce giant, and rub shoulders with Bill Gates and Barack Obama? Damian Whitworth reports
On the way to becoming a billionaire, Matt Moulding lost his shirt. Not in the financial sense, you understand. His rise, from flogger of cheap CDs to e-commerce giant, has been relentless. But the Manchester-based entrepreneur, who has a phenomenal memory for numbers when it comes to his own — and other people’s — businesses, also has a fierce addiction to the gym and is proud enough of the results that he likes to go topless at parties and on yachts and post the pictures on his Instagram account.
When his company, the Hut Group, went public in September last year the 49-year-old received an £830 million share bonus and joined the billionaire club. He and his wife, Jodie, are worth £2.14 billion and are 78th on the new Sunday Times Rich List, up from 149th last year, when they were worth £960 million. Moulding is among a group of online retailers, including the owners of Ocado, Boohoo and Asos, who have seen their fortunes shoot up during the pandemic. He may be an entrepreneur most people haven’t heard of, running a company with modest name recognition, but he has come from humble beginnings in the Lancashire town of Burnley to rub shoulders with Barack Obama, receive advice on philanthropy from Bill Gates and have Boris Johnson pop by for a tour of his vast warehouse facilities.
THG began in 2004, taking advantage of a VAT loophole to post CDs to customers from Guernsey, on behalf of Tesco, Asda and the like. The company then moved into health and beauty, buying and developing brands such as Lookfantastic, an online cosmetics retailer, and MyProtein, a nutrient supplement business. THG is now where Moulding wants it to be: a tech company that has built software to run dozens of its own retail websites, including their payment and distribution logistics. That tech platform is also being used by much bigger brands, such as Coca-Cola and Nestlé, to sell directly to customers, in a similar way to Ocado’s licensing of its software, technology and expertise to other retailers. THG has a studio division where it creates digital content to promote its brands and an arm that works to market products through influencers on social media.
Moulding posing with modelsMoulding’s childhood home was a terraced house in Colne near Burnley. His father would buy tarmac and offer to resurface his neighbours’ drives. “You soon realise the value of money when your dad’s gone out for a day’s work and made nothing as the weather’s been bad,” Moulding once said. At weekends the family would get up at 4.30 am to do house clearances and sell the contents at markets.
He attended St John Fisher and Thomas More High, a state Catholic school, where Matthew Riley, who set up the telecoms business Daisy Group, was a couple of years below him. He was expelled from sixth-form college for missing classes. However, his economics teacher encouraged him to return and he passed his A-levels and went to the University of Nottingham to study industrial economics. “It’s just like everyone else’s story, typical working class. You go to university, you get away and you’re not going back,” he said later. His closest friend at university, Rob Willock, was the best man at both his weddings and they still play chess online every week. At university Moulding was “smart and driven” but there was time for pubs, games of pool and “a bit of wheeler-dealing. He used to buy and sell old cars,” says Willock, who works for the Economist Group in Dubai. These days Moulding prefers classic supercars.
After university Moulding went to Arthur Andersen and came top of his class in his accountancy exams. He was taken, with other trainees, for a celebratory dinner by one of the partners. Having never eaten in a silver service restaurant, he felt a little intimidated, ordered lobster and panicked when asked what he wanted on the side. “I’ll take chips and gravy,” he said. The story was told at Arthur Andersen for years.
Moulding went on to work for John Caudwell, the hard-driving founder of Phones4U who became a billionaire when he sold his company. Moulding rose to finance director of the distribution business and left when it was sold with a chunk of money that seeded THG, which he started with another Caudwell executive, John Gallemore.
Today the products sell all over the world and analysts believe that there could be huge potential for expansion of the Ingenuity arm of the business, which sells the technology and distribution capabilities to other brands. This global reach appealed to SoftBank, the Japanese conglomerate that this month announced that it was investing $2 billion in THG. The business has been roaring along during the pandemic and Moulding holds about 22 per cent of what is now a £6 billion concern, second only to Ocado among UK e-commerce companies.
One early backer was Tom Hunter, the investor and philanthropist who was Scotland’s first self-made billionaire. Moulding won mentoring from Hunter in a competition, and Hunter says that he had such a good gut feeling about Moulding when he met him that he invested in his company. He has made a lot of money from doing so. “I just thought, ‘Wow! This guy is special.’ ” There seems to be near-universal agreement among those I talk to about Moulding that he has an amazing ability to keep numbers in his head. He also constantly consults data about his business on dashboards on his phone. In normal times he will holiday a couple of times a year with his family in Dubai, and whenever Willock sees him “that phone is always there. A little glance tells him, in real-time, what’s happening.”
It is not just Moulding’s approach to work that is intense. Willock says that his friend’s streak of daily gym attendance now runs to “a few years” and the same goes for his dedication to learning Spanish on the Duolingo app. “There’s definitely something about him that’s a little bit obsessive in terms of focus and drive and achievement,” Willock says. “It’s relentless, it’s consistent, he doesn’t want to miss a moment, he doesn’t want to drop the ball.”
When it comes to the gym work, Willock adds: “Look at the results, right? Most of us wish that we were even close to a six-pack at [almost] 50.” The chiselled torso, which makes Moulding look like a model for his MyProtein brand, is there on his Instagram account — drinking cocktails with friends in Mallorca or working out on the deck of a yacht with his friend Sylvain Longchambon, an ice dancer.
“That seems a bit weird to me, but each to their own,” says one businessman who knows Moulding socially but is not a member of what he calls the “Alderley Edge-by-the-sea gang”, a reference to the high rollers who like to decamp from Cheshire, where Moulding lives among Premier League footballers, to party on Mediterranean yachts.
But Hunter insists that Moulding is “actually quite a quiet fellow” and Willock says that “the interpretation of those photos can irritate him a little bit. There was one famous one where he was popping a bottle of champagne with a load of girls in bikinis. The reality was his wife took that photo and thought it was very funny. The idea that he’s some sort of playboy jumping from yacht to yacht is wide of the mark.”
Moulding and his second wife, Jodie, have three sons and he has a daughter of university age from his first marriage. Since the company was floated he has had to come to terms with a higher profile, Willock says. “He’s public property now in a way. But he doesn’t enjoy it.” Moulding with his wife, JodiePerhaps when it comes to his sculpted physique, pride trumps privacy needs. Neil Saunders, a retail analyst at GlobalData, says that the chest-baring is not damaging to the brand. “He’s a reasonably flamboyant character. There’s a bit of a ring of Richard Branson dressing up as a stewardess — a quirkiness for sure. That’s fine.”
Next season Moulding is expected to be back in his executive box at Old Trafford, where he takes his sons to watch Manchester United, although he was originally a Burnley fan. THG was poised to sponsor Manchester United’s training kit at a reported cost of £200 million but withdrew in the wake of fans’ anger over the European Super League.
There is an element of the showman in Moulding. In December he announced that by giving staff shares in the company he had minted 74 millionaires. Undoubtedly his employees work very hard and there are some blistering complaints on the job-search website Glassdoor from employees who say they are overworked and that the management culture is extremely tough.
Some observers are unhappy with the company’s corporate governance because Moulding is chief executive and chairman and holds a golden share that prevents takeovers. “Moulding’s joint roles, property side gigs and veto rights still don’t sit right with the City, who aren’t fans of business leaders wielding too much power or the complexity of it all,” says George Nott, the technology editor at The Grocer. “No matter to Moulding, who has dismissed the governance concerns and ploughed on ahead — and crucially no matter to SoftBank, whose investment would appear to have validated his headstrong approach.”
Nott says that like many elements of the business, Moulding “remains a bit of an enigma. Once parading his buffer-than-Bezos physique at pool parties on Instagram — the ultimate swole CEO and a walking ad for the protein supplements — he’s now incredibly media-shy. I suspect the big-name brand clients don’t give it much thought; it’s what THG can do for their businesses which counts.”
Last summer Hunter and Moulding, who both have homes in Mallorca, met at a portside café for coffee and discussed Moulding’s plan to float the group on the stock exchange. “I said, ‘Are you ready to become one of the UK’s richest people?’ ” Hunter recalls. “And he said, ‘I don’t know what that means.’ ”
What it means is that he now has a great deal of wealth to decide what to do with. “I gave him the same piece of advice that Warren Buffett gave me: that whatever you do, your kids are watching. You are judged by what you do,” Hunter says. Moulding on a trip with friends and business associatesINSTAGRAMHunter, 60, introduced Moulding to Obama at his foundation’s dinner in 2017. He also linked his protégé to Gates via email. Hunter has signed the Giving Pledge, set up by Gates and Buffett, under which many of the world’s richest people agree to give away most of their wealth. Hunter doesn’t know if he and Gates influenced Moulding’s decision last month to donate £100 million of shares to his own charity foundation — “You never know if you help Matt come to a decision because he’s got the best poker face.” Moulding donated £300,000 to the Times and Sunday Times Christmas Charity Appeal in December.
Jim O’Neill, the former Goldman Sachs banker who was made a peer by David Cameron and worked as a Treasury minister on the “northern powerhouse” project, believes that Moulding “symbolises the spirit of what has been emerging from the Manchester area in the past decade”. The region has a cluster of flourishing tech companies, including Boohoo, the online fashion retailer, and ao.com, the online electrical store.
Over the chessboard, Willock has talked to Moulding about his plans. “I’ve asked him, ‘When is it enough?’ He’s already worth more money than any person could spend in their lifetime, but I don’t think that motivates him. He’s not somebody who just wants more and more money. I think he’s got some targets in his mind for what he wants to achieve with the business, but there’s no sign of waning at the moment.” In the short term, THG is expanding. The company employs 10,000 people, with 3,000 recruited last year and another 3,000 to be hired this year. It is based at Manchester airport, which Moulding has called “the centre of our universe”. THG is creating a campus there which it says will be the biggest bespoke office project outside London. The company has also bought hotels in the city. Terry Green, the former Debenhams boss who is a long-term investor in THG, describes a founder who long ago had a spectacularly ambitious vision of how his online selling power would spread worldwide. It suggests that he is unlikely to retire and focus on giving his money away just yet.
“I had a chat with him once about his strategy,” Green says. “He said, ‘Terry, let’s imagine that I’m building motorways around the world. And these are 12-lane motorways, and they go in one direction. And the goods go on this motorway and go off to wherever they’re going to. And I’m building these in the Far East, in Europe and in America. And the business is going to be monumental when all these come online.’ And [I asked], ‘What are you going to do then, Matt?’ He said, ‘Well, I’m going to build this business until it just climbs up and up and up until it goes through the clouds. And then I’m going to keep on going.’ ”