Peter Higgins, the former chairman of retail chain Cath Kidston and chief executive of shirt company Charles Tyrwhitt, visited Bradford Grammar School to present the prizes at the annual speech day.
He told them: “You learn an awful lot more from your failures and mistakes than you do from your successes.”
Speaking in Price Hall, Mr Higgins recalled how a nasty accident on the rugby field at 26 changed his life forever.
He was playing for Richmond and practising for a top-of-the-table clash against Newcastle when he ran into a tackle bag at the wrong angle and broke his neck.
Mr Higgins, 52, said: “I was extremely lucky not to be more badly injured. But I then spent six months in bed recovering and at the end of that, my business partner, my partner still today, said to me, ‘why don’t we leave and set up a shirt company called Charles Tyrwhitt’.
“I said to him, ‘I’m being paid a ridiculous amount of money to be frankly pretty useless at my job and I’m working in an office with lots of pretty girls; why would I do that?’ He said, ‘I see what you mean’.
“Then I thought, actually I was extremely lucky. I had had a life-changing experience so how bad could it be if I set up my own business? The worst that could happen was we would go bust.
“So I did do it and it was, with the exception of marrying the right person, the best decision of my life.
“So out of something that was the worst thing that ever happened to me, I actually managed somehow or other to make it the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Mr Higgins remains a director at Charles Tyrwhitt, which was founded by Nick Wheeler and has a turnover of £188m.
He is also chairman of Joe Brown, the £25m-turnover Leeds-based clothing company, a director at Schneider, a German mail order business, and chairman of charity Mary’s Meals, which feeds more than a million African children a day.
Mr Higgins told The Yorkshire Post: “In the end, the successful retailers will be the ones who deliver fantastic service. It’s all about service now. Everyone is going to have great products and Amazon are going to have most of the products.
“Unless you can have unique product or brilliant service, in the long term you are going to struggle.”
Mr Higgins said consumer expectations have changed; once shoppers were happy with 28-day delivery. Now it is a few days or less.
“It puts pressure on margin, but you have to be cleverer. We live in an international sales world but also an international sourcing world. You have to be a bit quicker on your feet in terms of sourcing. The relationship with suppliers has changed. It is more one of partnership than just beating the crap out of them to get the lowest price because in the end it has got to be about quality value ratio, not just price.”
The foundations for future success
Lady Morrison, the chair of governors at Bradford Grammar School, paid tribute to headteacher Kevin Riley, who is set to retire.
She said Mr Riley had laid the foundations for the future success and prosperity of the school.
Mr Riley told the audience of parents, teachers and pupils how the school tries to give young people the means by which “they can live their lives, make their lives intelligible and begin the process of being successful in adult life”.
He emphasised the importance of stories in schools and cultural life, “stories of what we are and what we may become”.
Lady Morrison was accompanied by her husband Sir Ken Morrison at yesterday’s speech day. The former Morrisons chairman attended the school.
Other notable ex-pupils include the Brownlee brothers and Alastair Campbell.