Our fascination with business as a new entertainment medium shows no signs of waning. The level of discussion prompted by shows such as Dragons’ Den and now American Inventor is comparable to that generated by X-Factor and Big Brother style ‘reality’ TV shows and soap operas. Entrepreneurs are now celebrities, and that’s not surprising: successful business people usually have an absorbing story to tell, and rags-to-riches has long been a favourite theme in literature and film.
Theo Paphitis is one of the best known of this new class of celebrity. Apart from his appearances on BBC TV’s Dragons’ Den, he is probably known mostly for his association with a range of familiar store chains, many of which he transformed from impending failures to robust companies with good prospects.
Every article one reads about Theo Paphitis mentions that his career began with a position as tea boy at Lloyds of London (well, who are we to break with that tradition?). Although he wasn’t dressed literally in rags, one must admit that the other cliché, that of starting at the bottom, certainly applied. From that modest starting point there was little for the young Theo to do but work his way up in time-honoured fashion.
It was knowledge he acquired while working his way through progressively more demanding jobs that equipped him for the business career that was to follow. After achieving a position in the finance department of Legal and General, Theo began working with commercial and residential mortgages. His interest and curiosity were engaged, and he quickly gained the experience and skills that enabled him to start up on his own. By the time he was 23, Theo had done just that.
As one might expect, Paphitis is not short of a few quid these days. He likes nice cars, and he chooses to personalise them with top quality private registrations. We were, therefore, delighted when he agreed to spare us a couple of hours for an interview and some photographs. It’s not as if he doesn’t have anything else important to occupy his time…
Home for Theo is in Surrey. His large house is everything one would expect from the residence of a successful businessman; and then, of course, there is a driveway full of cars. The vehicle that immediately catches the eye of our photographer is a Maybach bearing the registration RYM 4N.
Ryman the stationer played a significant part in the development of Paphitis’s business in the 1990s. His NAG Telecom company had a mobile phone concession within several outlets in the failing chain of stationery stores, so Theo had some knowledge of the company. He bought Ryman in 1995 and quickly turned its fortunes around. Since then, the brand has absorbed former competitors Partners and Stationery Box and, when rebranding of those premises is finished, the chain will boast 250 stores.
Paphitis has a reputation for taking failing businesses and turning them into profitable concerns. Another high street favourite transformed by his touch was the lingerie chain La Senza which Paphitis sold to venture capitalist Lion Capital in 2006.
His other lingerie business, Contessa, was later sold to the same company, who are merging both chains under the La Senza name.
Another car on the driveway of Theo’s house is a Volkswagen with LA53 NZA number plates. The VW belongs to his daughter, Zoe, who modelled for La Senza. Although Theo has sold most of his interest in the company, Zoe retains her personal plates.
“I bought two more plates from you recently,” Theo tells us. “One ‘Debbie’ and one ‘Theo’.” DEB 131E was purchased for Theo’s wife, and it turns out that there is quite a coincidence in the story behind his purchase of T1 HEO.
“It’s the weirdest thing. I met Ed and Emmy from Gaming Alerts [one of theDragons’ Den candidate projects in which Theo invested] for dinner to go through various bits and pieces, and when I was talking to Ed, he said ‘My dad’s got a “Theo” plate. He’s selling it if you’d like to buy it.’
I asked what the registration was and he said it was T1 HEO.
“So, I rang Kato [his nickname for Michael, his chauffeur and right-hand man] and said ‘Kato, don’t we own T1 HEO?’ He said,‘Yes boss, we bought it last week’. So, Regtransfers acted as agent for that one, and it was Ed’s dad’s plate. What a small world!
“Kato often looks at plates and points things out. It was him who dealt with Regtransfers for me Everything went smoothly, tickety-boo.”
Theo firmly believes that a nice car should sport a good registration. “It’s an extension of enjoying nice cars and finishing them off properly. One of the ugliest things is having a nice car with a whole load of numbers on it like a serial number. It’s horrible and it can spoil the car. But put a decent plate on a good car and it adds to its beauty and its look. I’m very careful about the plates I buy. I’ve seen plates out there that aren’t very good – I’ve seen some shockers.
“My son Alex is looking for a plate. He just bought a new BMW 3 series convertible.
I said I would buy him a number plate for Christmas as long as I could choose it. I managed to find W411 KER. For some reason he’s not enamoured with it. I can’t imagine why. I actually had the plates made up and put them on his car, hoping he would go off to work with them, but he spotted them. They then rested on[fellow Dragon] Peter Jones’s Ferrari for a while before he realised his plates had been swapped!”
“It’s great fun. It’s something to collect and do. Looking around to find something to tickle your fancy… When you discover something, it’s brilliant.”
Theo has owned private number plates for a long time but, surprisingly, he doesn’t buy and sell them for profit. “No, I never sell. I’ve collected them for 15 years and when I find one I like then I’ll buy it. Of course, then I have to buy another car to put it on.”
The comment is made with tongue in cheek, but with the amount of travelling Theo has to do, cars are very important to him.
“Seven a.m. is my normal time to get up. Mrs P. gets up about half an hour earlier. I’ll see the girls in the morning [twins, Annie and Hollie], then they go to school. From that point my day depends on when my first appointment is. Sometimes I go to the gym and have a workout for an hour. I rarely leave here before 9 o’clock because I don’t like traffic.
Then Kato and I go off to the promised land. If we do more than one day a week in the office it will be quite unusual. We travel a lot. My car’s my office. I spend more time in my car than anywhere else, so any money I spend on cars is like spending money on a home or an office or a property. I have to have all the bits and pieces I need in the car.
“I have my diary in there, which is organised by Caroline, my PA, and Kato. He has an electronic copy every day which he will print out and update on a regular basis from Caroline, so we know if things have changed. I’ve got technology in there so I can browse the web and do what I want to do. And obviously I’ve got all the other luxuries: TV, radio, DVD, cocktail cabinet, fridge.”
We had heard that he likes to keep a bottle of champagne in the car as well.
“Absolutely, and silver goblets. Really, it’s an incredibly comfortable environment. Because it’s a long wheelbase car, with the front seat reasonably far forward without looking silly, I can stretch out quite comfortably and sleep in it. I’ve actually perfected the art of teleporting.”
“No, really, we can be in the West End at midnight and I can get home in five minutes. It’s very easy because it’s such a lovely car. The minute I get in the back I take my shoes off, stretch out and sleep. Next thing I know, we’re here. It’s like… instant.”
The car is not just a mobile office then?
“No, it’s everything. In the car I can get any sleep I may not have been able to get during the night. It’s such an important part of my life, and the Maybach is probably the best car in the world.”
Fortunately, filming for Dragons’ Den takes place in London, not too far to travel in the comfort of the Maybach. Theo has been with the programme since its second season.
“I was asked to do it. The BBC came round and asked me. It was at the time I stopped football [Theo is a former Chairman of Millwall FC], so I had more time on my hands, and it was an opportunity to do something different.”
But Theo doesn’t expect to be a permanent fixture in the Dragons’ Den for the rest of the show’s natural life.
“I think it will see us all out. It needs to be refreshed. We’ve already had new dragons, in fact there are only two originals left:
Peter and Duncan. I joined in series two, Deborah [Meaden] joined in series three with Charley Farley[Richard Farleigh!], and James [Caan] joined this last series. So it’s always going to be refreshed, it has to be.”
The condensed version of each proposal that the television audience gets to see can be deceptive. Dragons’ Den pitches often go on for far longer than the few minutes that get broadcast. One of the projects from the last series that Theo eventually invested in was the Gaming Alerts website: an online service for Internet gamblers. Some elements in the online affiliate and gaming industries expressed a degree of scepticism regarding the wisdom of the decision. What those people didn’t realise, and what the format of the show didn’t make clear, was that the website formed only a part of a larger package.
“Some of the pitches are two and a half hours long. On TV you saw ten minutes of the two hours and forty-three minutes of that full pitch. There was little in it about Ed and Emmie’s associated media business that already makes a half-million pound profit.”
And despite the surprised reaction from outsiders, Gaming Alerts is also delivering results. Theo’s involvement with Gaming Alerts at this stage is strictly an investment role with, as yet, little of the hands-on approach that has built successful concerns out of many ailing businesses.
The brands with which he has become most widely associated, Ryman, La Senza and even Millwall FC, required substantial intervention to get them back on track, and Theo’s involvement had to be with the day-to-day running. Changes had to be made and management philosophies reshaped. After immersing himself in a project and seeing it transform from a receivership case into a vibrant, growing business, selling a revived brand doesn’t mean that Theo turns his back on the work he has put into it. With La Senza, for example, although he no longer runs the company, Theo retains a percentage of the company and still sits on the board.
“I’ve sold quite a few businesses in the last five years, but I’ve also bought quite a few. The ones I’ve sold have made quite a substantial profit, but all those businesses have been restored to health and they’re back up and running. It gives me a good feeling, and I have a good rapport with them – even the ones I’ve sold. I sit on the boards of most of them still, and it can be quite hard to watch someone else running them.”
Theo’s autobiography, Enter the Dragon, which will be published in May, takes the reader behind the scenes at Dragons’ Den as well as explaining how Theo made his fortune. He describes how his family moved to England from Cyprus and how, as a poor immigrant, he took whatever jobs were available. He talks about the undiagnosed dyslexia that interfered with his education, and describes how determination and common sense enabled him to succeed despite that hurdle. The book is subtitled “How I Transformed My Life, and How You Can Too”, and includes a master class in business methods.
There is clearly a good-natured rivalry between the Dragons and it has become clear during the interview that Theo enjoys every opportunity to make jokes about his fellow panellists. When we asked him if he had read Duncan’s book, the response was typically tongue in cheek.
“No! Is he going to read mine? No!”
It is obvious that Theo gets a great deal of enjoyment from Dragons’ Den, and from most of his projects.
“I do have fun. I love to make money! Those are the key cornerstones: have lots of fun but never forget to make money.”
Story: Rick Cadger
Interview: Angela Banh
Photography: Stan Thompson