Theo Paphitis – Here be Dragons

As retail ‘Dragon’ Theo Paphitis celebrates the purchase of Robert Dyas and the continued success of Boux Avenue and Rymans, he talks first jobs, business evolution, and what makes him say ‘I’m in!’ with Helen Coffey.

He’s the Dragon who always seems, well, nice for want of a better word – especially when compared to some of the more dour-faced business moguls that adorn our television screens these days. However, behind the positive smile and upbeat attitude of Theo Paphitis lies an extremely shrewd, business-savvy entrepreneur who, in addition to being stationery giant Ryman’s chairman and the owner of lingerie chain Boux Avenue, is also the proud owner of hardware retailer, Robert Dyas as of last month.

Theo Paphitis

Estimated to be worth £210m with a retail track record that is second to none, he is just the sort of awe-inspiringly successful over-achiever to make you want to give a sigh of defeat and retreat under the duvet because, to be quite honest, you’ll never achieve as much.

But, as we’ve seen time and time again here at Talk Business, Rome wasn’t built in a day, a week or even a year – and neither is a serial entrepreneur’s portfolio. Money breeds money, success breeds success, and once you’ve had your first big win, it is far easier to attract interest and confidence from consumers, investors and decision-makers alike. In Theo’s case, being passionate seems to be the key. He looks for passion in the people he invests in, and he looks for passion in himself to determine whether or not an opportunity is right to get involved with.

‘I love retail, it turns me on. I’m passionate about it whether I’m selling stationery or lingerie,’ he tells me with conviction; and from the unmitigated success he’s made in each of the retail marketplaces he’s tackled so far, it’s hard to doubt his sincerity, or the importance of loving what you do.

What was your very first job?

Theo Paphitis: I was the assistant tea stirrer at an insurance firm. I did have aspirations though – I wanted to be the tea stirrer. I just about made it, when I realised be careful what you wish for. I realised it wasn’t for me.

How did you get the start-up cash for your first business?

Theo Paphitis: Easy, I didn’t have any. I was about 22, 23, and I had managed to get about £500 with a partner. It didn’t matter: I needed a desk, an office telephone and very little else. Luckily yes, we did take somebody on very quickly. We took on a full-time secretary, we got her from the job centre. The rest is history!

You’re successful now, but what are the biggest challenges you’ve faced as an entrepreneur?

Theo Paphitis: They were no different to the same challenges that businesses face today. When you’ve got to scale a business up, it’s the most difficult thing in the world. The minute you start employing people it gets hard – empowering people, understanding how they tick. It’s a totally different skillset. We’re all very hands on. It’s really hard to let go when it’s your business. You have to have a formula first to be able to scale it.

What do you look for in a business or entrepreneur when you’re deciding whether or not to invest?

It’s very easy. I’m looking at people. I invest in people. The first thing I look at is the person. Do they have the ambition, the passion, the desire and the will? Do I want to work with them?

So are entrepreneurs born not made?

Theo Paphitis: Listen – there’s not just one type of entrepreneur. We like to stick them in a pigeonhole, but it doesn’t work. There are the ones who are natural, the ones that are technical, that learn a skill, learn a trade. Entrepreneurs can be “made” at different levels, or they can be born: it doesn’t have to be one or the other.

What would your advice be to first-time businesses who are struggling in the current economic climate?

Theo Paphitis: Get used to it, because it’s going to be hard for a while. We’ve been so lucky that we’ve lived in the most opulent economic environment ever in history, and the thing is, a lot of people have made a lot of money. They haven’t lived through difficult times. And it can’t be sustained. There are 40-year-old people who have never experienced anything else. And they’re going: ‘What’s gone wrong?’ These are interesting times. But going forward, we’re living in an era that is growing – more than the industrial revolution, and it’s happening every two to three years. You can’t run a business looking in the rear view mirror, you’ve got to be looking forward. You’ve got to be looking at least 50/50 forwards and backwards, and in the next few years it will be more like 75/25. Those are the key things that are changing. You have to be prepared for change, but if you work hard and have the passion, there is still lots of money to be made.

What’s the best thing about being an entrepreneur?

Theo Paphitis: Easily the freedom it gives you. Not having to work the 9-5, not being in the same place every day: those are marvellous things.

…and the worst?

Theo Paphitis: The responsibility. You have so many people to consider when you’re making decisions; it’s not all about you. And you’re going to get some of those decisions wrong, and you have to be able to live with that.

Is there a dream business you wish you’d invested in over the past 10 years – “the one that got away”?

Theo Paphitis: Not really. I do what I do. There are loads of businesses I get offered to invest in. Normally I don’t invest because I simply don’t want to. It’s not because it’s not a good business idea, it’s just that I didn’t want to do it. It could be the people, it could be the industry.

How’s your work/life balance? What do you do to wind down?

Theo Paphitis: I always have to be in touch 24/7 – I always have to have access to my emails. I take lots of holidays; I love my boat. So I do work while I’m on my boat, but how bad can that be? Working on my beautiful boat and not in an office…

What would you be doing if you weren’t an entrepreneur?

Theo Paphitis: There is nothing else! Well, I’d probably be a plumber or an electrician – something with my hands. I’d do both. Definitely doing something fixing things, or making things with my hands.

What attracted you to Boux Avenue as your next business venture?

Theo Paphitis: I’ve been in lingerie for a long time (not wearing it, selling it). It’s a fantastic industry, a great product, a sexy, essential product. Once the handcuffs were off (financially-speaking), I knew it was something I wanted to do. There was a gap in the market, a wide section of the UK market, and our sales to date show that we were right to go for it.

What makes it different to other lingerie shops on the market?

Theo Paphitis: It’s a mass-market product, a mass-market price, a good product and a good space – our changing rooms are spectacular, with a three levels of lighting and a concierge service – it’s about the experience. To get people’s money these days, you need to make them feel special. It’s the same money as the mass-market of the department store, but it has a much better feel. It’s all about you. It’s classic, but it has loads of technology as the driving factor. And it is a pure multi-platform business. We’re an eCommerce business; that’s what we are, an eCommerce business with stores, not the other way round. We’ve got to change, we’ve got to look forward. We’re only opening about 30 stores – these are our showrooms, our theatres to showcase what we do. Because we’ve changed the way we shop, retail needs to reflect that.

What are your future plans for the business?

Theo Paphitis: We will have 30 stores in the UK and more stores abroad. We have two international stores at the moment with a third one opening in September, and by the end of next year we’ll have 18. There are 12 in the UK at the moment, and there’ll be 18 by the end of the year and six internationally by the end of the year. So 30 in the UK by the end of next year and 30 overseas. We’ll have more stores outside the UK. Boux Avenue will be in Iceland, Gibraltar, Malta, the Middle East, South Africa, Australia, Brazil, China…

We’re creating a global brand and looking as much forwards to the future as we are looking backwards.

What gets you excited about the retail world?

Theo Paphitis: I’d do nothing else. I love retail, it turns me on. I’m passionate about it whether I’m selling stationery or lingerie, it’s what I enjoy doing. I love people, I enjoy working with people and it allows me to interact with people and listen to what people do; that’s what I enjoy doing.