Taking Care Of Business

After a year away from Dragon’s Den, Sam Harrington-Lowe caught up with business guru Theo Paphitis to find out what’s been keeping him busy…

Watching Theo Paphitis working the room at the launch of his latest retail outlet, Boux Avenue in Brighton’s Churchill Square, it’s obvious how much he loves what he’s doing. He speaks easily to everyone, without exception, from the immaculately-dressed PR team whipping round handing out Bucks Fizz and checking lists on their clipboards, to the photographers and journalists all circulating for a word or a picture.

He happily stands for pictures with every single one of the girls working in the shop, as they line up in turn to stand next to him, smiling shyly whilst the others all take photos on their iPhones. He’s absolutely in his element, dealing with everyone with a smile, a joke. Finally I get to spirit him away for a quiet chat.

Inevitably we start by looking at the comparison between Boux Avenue and his previous lingerie line, La Senza, which he sold out to Lion Capital for £100m in 2006. In terms of a brand concept, what are the differences, I ask.

“You can’t really compare this to La Senza, it’s a totally different concept,” he explains. “I sold La Senza a long time ago now, and it did very well for a few years after we sold it. Then they started to reposition it. It became a lot younger, a lot brassier, brasher, lots of primary colours and at that stage we thought, you know what? There’s now a gap in the market for what’s been left behind.”

La Senza’s decision to reposition was perhaps driven by the tough climate in retail, working through the worst years of recession, but ultimately it was a bad choice, with the business eventually going into liquidation two years ago and finally closing its stores earlier this year. Identifying this gap inspired the beginnings of a new lingerie brand for Paphitis and his team.

“We decided that if we had a clean piece of paper, what would our perfect lingerie store look like? And Boux was born. Most of us are ex- La Senza and we had hundreds of years of experience between us, so we knew lots of things we would have liked to have before. We’ve got different changing rooms, the store looks very different, the technology inside the store, the way we display the product and the business plan.

“It’s basically a really great product at Marks & Spencer’s prices. It’s very special. When you buy something here you get spoilt, you get service, it’s a great environment, you get nice tissue, box, bag. And you get home and you’ve really got a treat, something special. You put it on, you feel good. So there’s a lot more to it than just a piece of clothing.”

Aside from launching Boux Avenue, which has a hugely successful website and multiple stores both here in the UK and overseas, Paphitis has also bought Robert Dyas and Rymans – two high street brands that he admits “needed some work,” which is largely why he hasn’t been on our screens for a while. But Paphitis is proud to admit his love of the retail game, and it’s clear that it’s business, not stardom that drives him.

“I retired last year from Dragon’s Den, I took a whole year off TV because of two things – I’ve got Boux, and I bought Robert Dyas. So we’ve been really busy working on those and really put a lot of effort into the growth of Boux. I’ve just started doing a bit of TV again now, I’m on the One Show on Tuesdays nights, but it’s not my passion.

“I’m an accidental TV personality, it’s not what I started out doing. My passion is being here. This is what I get excited about, this is what I want to do, this is how I make my money. Retail is what I love doing. I enjoy shopping, I’m a shopaholic, I walk into everybody’s shops, talk to everybody, I want to see how people are doing things, how people are buying things. There are so many people involved in retail. You get such a fantastic cross-section.”

It would be easy to assume that with such a large empire, and so many stores, that keeping in touch would be hard, but Paphitis is keen to emphasise how closely he works with his team.

“Retail is detail. I know everything there is to know about this business, so whether it’s the lingerie business or Robert Dyas or Rymans, and we’ve got stores in Brighton for all these brands, it’s about getting the detail right. I’m incredibly hands-on, I attend trading meetings every Monday, where we review every single store, every part of the business.

“It doesn’t matter what we’re selling, there’s a huge amount of similarities. Retail is retail, whatever you’re selling, they just have idiosyncrasies. There’s still distribution, merchandising… just different people doing different jobs.

“I get up in the morning and I can’t wait to start doing what I do. I work a full day – I don’t normally get into the office until 9, 9.30, but I won’t go home until late. It’s practically four or five nights a week around midnight. I’ll always be doing something. I am very active, I’m a fidget bum; I can’t go home and put my butt on the sofa and watch television. When I think about relaxing, sometimes when you love doing what you do, that is relaxing. There’s stress, of course there’s stress. But there’s big sloughs of your day where it’s actually, well, brilliant.”

Paphitis is clearly match-fit and working his mojo on the relatively new brands that are his key targets at the moment, but as always, he’s got one eye on the future. He’s well aware of the way retail has changed over the years, demonstrating a shrewd understanding in the behaviour that drives the purchase and the importance of liaising with the customer base.

“We’re always checking. We believe in retail, but we believe in multi-platform retail, that’s the key thing. When you look at Boux for example, we’re an internet business really, with stores as our shop window. But whether you buy online or find a site, it’s all interactive.

“We’ve got an online VIP scheme which has got over half a million registered users signed up to it, who shop with us regularly so we can communicate with them, you know, fashion trends, product, special deals.  Growing Boux as an international business is my big focus at the moment, because this time next year I’m hoping that we’ll have as many stores overseas as we’ve got in the UK.”

Finally, I didn’t think I could chat to one of the most famous Dragons in history without asking for his advice for budding entrepreneurs. He’s pretty no-nonsense about it. “Fifty percent of all small businesses fail in the first two years. You know, people say to me, where do they get those people in Dragon’s Den, they don’t know their numbers, they don’t know what they’re doing; well welcome to the Great British public.

“Fifty percent fail. They’re no different to the ones that come on Dragon’s Den. It’s about making sure you know your business inside out, you’ve stress-tested it, done all the sensitivities and you’re passionate about it. Actually what people don’t realise is that you’re not looking for a lucky break; it’s going to be lots of hard work. And those three things – if you crack those, you’ve got half a chance.”