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Editorial blog

Theo Paphitis - Stationery Star

30 Apr 2018

From Swiss watches to stationery, retail magnate and former Dragons’ Den investor Theo Paphitis talks to Angela Sara West about his success secrets, his business tips, Brexit and the future of retail

Having left school at 16 without qualifications due to his dyslexia, Theo’s defining work moment was when he moved from his job as an office boy for a Lloyds of London broker to work for Watches of Switzerland on Bond Street, where he discovered his passion for retail. “I realised the power of a good salesperson and, crucially, what a rewarding and passionate sector retail is,” he tells me.

“I’ve never looked back!” With a business empire spanning retail, property and finance, the Cypriot-born entrepreneur has revived the fortunes of notable high street names while, in his former role as chairman of Millwall FC, he took the club out of administration into the FA Cup Final and Europe.

In 2015, the self-confessed “shopkeeper” launched the Theo Paphitis Retail Group, comprising Ryman Stationery, ironmongers Robert Dyas and multi-awardwinning global lingerie brand, Boux Avenue. His latest acquisition is the London Graphic Centre, and he recently sold Red Letter Days that he co-owned with fellow dragon Peter Jones.

With all his businesses privately owned and “entrepreneurial in spirit”, Theo’s success is built on keeping it simple and working hard. “I truly believe in the saying ‘the harder you work, the luckier you get.

I’ve always done my homework, worked on knowing more than my competitors and used my common sense. The answer is in a KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid)! Making it to the top is all about taking calculated risks. Often, your first mistake is your best one, because you can only learn from it.”

Exit the dragon…

As a stalwart on BBC’s Dragons’ Den, Theo invested in numerous small businesses in a wide variety of industries, from consumer goods to online antique valuations, leaving the show in 2012 to focus on his expanding retail empire both here and abroad. He says the decision was not an easy one, but the time was right to surrender his seat.

“There were many businesses that crossed my path in the Den that I admired and ended up working with. As soon as I realised that a good person with an average idea is a better bet than an average person with a great idea, I didn’t look back.” His other past TV ventures include a regular slot on BBC’s The One Show and we have also watched him follow and advise intrepid companies taking a risk in dynamic international markets, with his travels for BBC Two’s Theo’s Adventure Capitalists taking him to places including Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi in Vietnam, Mumbai in India, and São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

Owning multiple businesses all around the globe means Theo’s constantly on the road. “I have a driver, so I can work on-the-go! I use my car as a second office. Business takes me all over the world.”

Customer service is king

What’s at the heart of the retail king’s businesses? “Customer service, customer service, customer service… and passion.
Robert Dyas and Ryman both have a fantastic heritage story and a strong history of looking after our customers. I launched Boux Avenue from scratch, in-store and online, and it now has nearly 30 stores in the UK and more internationally.”

He says his companies thrive because they understand their customers. “We are passionate about what we do and, most importantly, if you look after your colleagues then they, in turn, will make sure your customers are looked after, so everyone is happy.”

Going back to ryman’s roots… the importance of incentives

On opening his first store on Great Portland Street in London in 1893, Henry J Ryman, the founder of Ryman, provided the first ever self-service stationery shop, servicing London’s booming businesses, letter-writers and artists. Throughout his life, he recorded his thoughts and activities in his handwritten diaries, which reveal his passion for his inventory, his stores and his staff.

Ryman is still trading on Great Portland Street today, and this successful ethos is something that Theo ensures still exists in the company; he continues the staff welfare schemes, days out and team-building experiences that Henry introduced. “A highlight for me is an annual incentive holiday for my store managers across my four brands. If they hit target, they get to come away for five nights on a five-star trip to fantastic destinations such as Barbados, Croatia, Greece, Spain and Malta. It gives me a chance to spend time with our hard-working colleagues and it’s a time for them to be rewarded, let their hair down and have some fun!”

Trends

Handpicked to bring the best quality and choice on the market, Ryman’s collection of office supplies offers an extended range of desk and office items to keep every office worker happy. “We like to think we’ve carried on Henry J Ryman’s legacy into the 21st century and beyond. As long as people need office supplies, we’ll be supplying them!”

How does Theo see the stationery market evolving? “Whilst in core categories more of people’s lives are clearly moving towards being digital in many ways, we are certainly also seeing a real rise in the love of the more creative side of stationery. It’s all about innovation, colour and using stationery because you like to, rather than you have to.”

As for stationery trends, he says bullet journals are very much on the rise. “We’re looking at trends that tap into consumer creativity, such as calligraphy and lots and lots of colour. Our customers are clearly liking the break from their digital gadgets and are embracing their creative sides more so than ever.”

Brexit – The “perfect storm”

How does he think Brexit will impact on retail? “Brexit itself will not affect retail; a lack of consumer confidence as everybody loses confidence in the current government to deal with Brexit effectively, as well as keeping all the other necessary political plates spinning, is what will affect retail.”

So, how is the future looking for enterprises and how can retailers move forward? “The government needs to support bricks-and-mortar businesses, as well as digital-only operations, to level the playing field for the likes of business rates and give them a fighting chance. It’s tough out there at the moment, as retail faces a perfect storm, but retailers will move forward through adapting to, and being part of, the change. However, do not be surprised to see many names disappearing from our landscape, as well as new names coming through.”

Business tips from a top dragon

The former ‘Dragon’ not only offers stationary in spades, but also tips galore for entrepreneurs. “Business is no different from a sport or game, in that you need to learn the rules and how to play by them.” Top of the list?
“I believe that business is 90 per cent common sense, but often common sense is not that common! Embracing change is more important now than ever, what with technology moving the goalposts faster than you can kick a ball at them!”

He says it is crucial to do your homework. “The first thing anyone should do before launching their own business is their research. It’s so important. The biggest reason businesses fail is because they haven’t done their homework. You wouldn’t sit an exam without revising, so why do that with your own business? It’s knowing more than your competitor that gives you the edge.”

The retail tycoon says it’s about doing what you love… every day. “I love retail and wake up every day with a sense of purpose from working in a vibrant industry with passionate, hard-working people. Do what you love… life is too short to do something you don’t enjoy. Do what lights that fire in your belly.”

The best thing about being an entrepreneur? “Probably the freedom it gives you. It also gives me the opportunity to use my time to help others, and I am proud to work with a variety of UK charities.”

#SBS Theo-Logy!

As a huge admirer of people who have passion and energy the small business champion has been running the weekly “Small Business Sunday” Twitter competition, known as #SBS, since 2010.

“I was struck by the number of business owners on Twitter who wanted to tell me about their new products and services and Small Business Sunday was born so that people can pitch their ‘sell’ directly to me,” he explains. “Out of the hundreds of tweets I receive, I choose my favourite six every week to re-Tweet to my half a million followers and welcome them into the very supportive network of #SBS winners. They are a fantastic bunch who support and advise each other, and hundreds meet up every year at our free annual event, where they have invaluable access to expert advice and networking. There are almost 2,300 #SBS winners now. It’s amazing to see small businesses supporting each other.”

Providing a massive boost to the chosen companies, the benefits of winning include increased Twitter followers, positive media publicity and, crucially, increased sales. “I know I have been lucky in business and am keen to spread goodwill to others, not forgetting that, very often, you make your own luck by making use of every opportunity.”

Showcasing the best of Britain’s small businesses, Shop #SBS is now open, too, providing a shared selling platform allowing customers to buy from multiple #SBS winners in one place. From toys and birdhouses, to jewellery and furniture, Shop #SBS is bursting with a diverse selection of products, with all purchases supporting the lifeblood of the British economy!

Dream and do what you love

He says without having dreams, you cannot be successful in business, and it is how you turn those dreams into reality that’s key. “Your dream will only work if you live and breathe it and are passionate about it. Making £100m is easy; it’s making your first £1m that’s difficult. Most importantly, if you believe in your idea, then don’t let your dream be the one that got away!”

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