Dragons' Den star Theo Paphitis on why he sees the credit crunch as an opportunity for business
PUBLISHED: 21:24 11 April 2012 | UPDATED: 17:44 25 June 2014
Best-known for his witty put-downs in Dragons' Den (and, of course, that famous raised eyebrow), Theo Paphitis is one of the country's most successful entrepreneurs. Here, he speaks to TRACY COOK about life at home in Weybridge, how he made his millions and why he sees the credit crunch as an opportunity
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine May 2009
I FIND myself having a bit of a Dragons' Den moment waiting to see multi-millionaire businessman Theo Paphitis, star of the BBC1 television show. You know, nerves, apprehension, dry mouth and so on...
I needn't have worried, however, as it's a smiling Theo who greets me in the basement office of his Ryman stationery shop on Regent Street, dressed in a sharp suit and crisp white shirt, and full of apologies...
"I'm sorry we couldn't meet at my main offices in Wimbledon - I'm just very busy right now. This is my number two's office. We'll kick him out for a bit," he jokes good-naturedly.
As we sit at the veneered conference table in the rather drab, windowless room, I can't help thinking that it seems an incongruous setting for such a well-known retail king.
Worth a reported £145m at the last count, he made his millions and his reputation as a saviour of failing businesses, chiefly by turning around the Ryman stores of which he now has 92. He also worked the same magic on the Contessa and La Senza lingerie chains, which he sold in 2006.
"I've always loved business - I just find it so exciting," says the 49-year-old. "I am always on the lookout for new opportunities... Even at a time like this, they are still out there. It's what gets me out of bed in the morning."
At home in Surrey
Away from the world of work, though, he likes nothing better than spending time right here in his home county.
"I love living in Surrey!" he says. "I consider myself massively fortunate to be in this area. It's green, fertile, beautiful; it's got everything.
"I've travelled all round the world, but you know what? It's always great to come home. If you want the high life, it's there; seclusion, it's there; country walks, rolling hills: it's all there. You can do whatever you want in one place."
He has lived in Surrey for over 25 years with his wife Debbie and children Dominic, 30, Zoe, 27, Alex, 22, and twins Annabelle and Hollie, 13. The family started off in Carshalton before moving to Oxshott, then Cobham and finally to Weybridge.
"One of my ambitions is to have a small estate in Surrey - a house with some land," he continues. "I like fishing, shooting, country pursuits..."
In fact, he's even been considering taking up riding again - much to his twins' horror.
"At the weekend, I was threatening to go into the loft and get out the old clobber," he laughs. "Both my twins were saying, 'you're not coming to our stables. You'd be so embarrassing!'"
On the river
Keen to explore more of the county's waterways, he's also been toying with the idea of buying a river boat again.
"I used to moor my first boat off D'Oyly Carte Island on the river Thames in Weybridge," he says. "It was great fun. We'd have whole weekends on it and go up to Marlow and Henley. That's what gave me my love of boating really. And my girls have never experienced that; they went straight to a big luxury yacht in the Mediterranean.
"But we went to a boat show at the weekend, and we were looking at the river boats and my girls were saying: 'Wouldn't it be nice... We could use it at weekends. We could even go fishing!'"
But Theo doesn't just enjoy Surrey, he believes in supporting it, too.
"We always do all our shopping locally," he continues. "We like to support our local shops because they are in fear of dying. I'm fed up of seeing estate agents and restaurants. The old villages I knew of Cobham, Weybridge and Esher are dying off.
"Mrs P loves Garsons Farm Shop. If I could own one business in the world, it would be that one!"
While he may not be able to make Mrs P's dream come true, he can make other people's... He also owns the gift experience company Red Letter Days, which provides everything from flying lessons to spa days, with his Dragons' Den colleague Peter Jones.
"Ah, the tall feller," he laughs. "I see him regularly. We are all on reasonably good terms actually; I also see Deborah (Meaden), Duncan (Bannatyne), now he's got a place in London, and James (Caan) as well."
Into the den
Based around the idea of would-be entrepreneurs pitching their ideas to a panel of five 'dragons', the series has proved to be a ratings winner - with the contestants often coming in for a fairly rough ride.
"I think there is a certain directness, which is because it's on TV," concedes Theo, who will appear in a new series of the show later this year. "But if we weren't direct, you'd never get a TV programme out of it. It would take too long. People would fall asleep!
"It astonishes me to see people turning up unprepared. Viewers must say, 'are people stupid to do a pitch on TV without having the information?' The thing is, that's exactly what happens in real life.
"People are trying to start a business and they go to the bank to get investment. Dragons' Den is representative in a tabloid way of what really happens out there."
And he should know. He has learned and earned the hard way.
Born in Cyprus, his family moved to England when he was seven, first to Manchester and then to a council flat in London.
From an early age, he and brother Marinos had to fend for themselves, helping his single, working mother with laundry, cooking and cleaning. At school, he struggled with dyslexia and left at 16 with barely any qualifications - "just a certificate in colouring in maps" - but with the drive to make something of himself.
Although his entrepreneurial skills showed early (at school he ran a tuck shop), he started work as a tea boy at a Lloyd's broker, before moving on to selling watches in the West End. By the age of 23, he'd started his own business in commercial finance.
"I was my own boss, doing what I wanted to do," he says. "It was the best decision I ever made. As well as being excited, I was frightened, but the buzz outweighs the fear. I kept telling myself I wasn't going to fail."
He has pulled himself up by the bootstraps with determination, smart deals and by working long hours. Even now, he says he works "incredibly hard". Change excites him and the credit crunch doesn't worry him at all.
"This is undoubtedly the most exciting working time of my life," he says. "Why? Because every day I wake up and I don't know what's going to happen. Business excites me. It's not about the money: money is the scorecard that tells me whether I've had a good year or a bad year."
On the ball
Football is another business dear to Theo's heart: for eight years, he was chairman of Millwall Football Club, taking it out of administration and into the FA Cup Final.
He has also been a director of local football club Walton and Hersham, based at Stompond Lane, Walton, since he started going with the twins when they were babies, and takes his commitment to the club very seriously.
"It's absolutely a community club - they have 25 teams all the way down through the age groups," he says. "It's a big community issue for us, which is why we're talking to Elmbridge council about redeveloping the site, putting up a modern stadium with new facilities for the kids and building a new eight-lane athletics track.
"It might not be at the same site - it might be somewhere else - but we want to give the borough, the kids and the community a floodlit all-weather pitch and training facility they can use every single day, every waking hour."
And it's not just local children who benefit from Theo's help. He also likes to help causes close to his heart through the Paphitis Charitable Trust - in particular children's charities - by distributing the fees from his TV appearances, speeches and his autobiography, Enter The Dragon.
A rare day off
So, on the rare occasion when he does finally get a day off, which Red Letter Day would he pick, I wonder?
"Every day is a red letter day for me. And you know what? I recognise it," he says. "When I get up, I get looked after by Mrs P; I get picked up in a magnificent car, my Maybach; I'm treated well by everybody I work with; I get invited to incredible events; I can buy whatever I want to buy; I can have dinner in the most brilliant restaurants. I know what a blessed life I've got."
But, best of all, at the end of the day he gets to come back home to his beloved Surrey...
Theo Paphitis' top business tips
Who better to offer business tips than Weybridge Dragons' Den star Theo Paphitis? Here are his...
Cash is all
If you dream of starting your own business, just remember what my mother used to tell me. "A lack of profit is like a cancer, but a lack of cashflow is like a fatal heart attack." Always make sure you have enough cash to trade. If you're making a profit, but doing more business than your cashflow can support, you
need to look for finance.
Work out the 'what ifs'
When I was trying to raise money, I did my homework. I'd worked out my business in absolute detail. Not only did I have the answers for any questions I might be asked, but if something was an issue, I made sure it was highlighted and I had the solution to it as well. If you've got the what-ifs buttoned down, you'll be able to convince people to support you.
Common sense isn't common
You don't have to be a business genius to see the sense in the guiding principle, 'Kiss', which stands for 'keep it simple, stupid'. Simple communication means everybody buys in to what you're trying to achieve - including staff, financiers, suppliers and customers. If one party on that list hasn't bought in, you're already handicapped; if two parties haven't, you're in trouble; but if it's three of them, you haven't got a business.
Don't scrimp on technology
Technology is absolutely vital because it gives you the information you need to stay on top of the business. Be sensible with your systems, but don't scrimp on them. If you're going to ask people to support you and buy in to your ideas, you've got to give them something tangible for them to understand. That means you need the information available on a regular basis so that you can share it with everyone involved.
Don't let things stagnate
A business that stands still is a business that goes backwards. You've got to be constantly looking at being ahead of the game, putting in new initiatives, keeping everybody busy. Set new targets each year and your staff will get more experience - and the business will stay fresh and move faster. You should always work to the lowest common denominator. Don't assume anything.