“YOU saw the good, the bad and the damned ugly.”
Theo Paphitis is talking about his new BBC2 series which starts tonight.
The first episode of Britain’s Next Big Thing includes a Professor of Architecture who discovered how to turn minerals and stones into luxury silk scarves.
And some other fascinating product ideas.
My feature on Theo and the show is in today’s Manchester Evening News – and below, with added extras.
DRAGONS’ Den star Theo Paphitis likes to go shopping. “I’m a shocker shopper,” he grins, having worn down his wife years ago.
“She sends her friends shopping with me because she’s had enough. I can spend all day walking around a shopping centre.
“You’re lucky you’re not a friend of mine because I would be grabbing you and saying, ‘Come on, we’re going shopping.’ And make you walk for miles. Then you’d say, ‘Can we stop, please?’”
Theo, 51, adds: “I like to talk to the staff in any shop and just talk about the products, what’s happening in their store, the business. Some people think you’re a bit weird. But I could do it all day long.”
The retailer and business guru was in Manchester earlier this month to open a branch of his new lingerie chain Boux Avenue at the Trafford Centre. “We’re creating one thousand jobs,” he points out.
He returns to the screen tonight as the presenter of Britain’s Next Big Thing (BBC2, 8pm), a seven-part series which goes behind the scenes at some of the nation’s retail giants.
It reveals what happened when buyers at Boots, Habitat and Liberty opened their doors to members of the public who believe they have created new best-selling products.
Almost 600 people were seen for the first programme with at least 12 ideas chosen and predicted to boost department store Liberty’s turnover by up to £1m a year.
Later in the series we meet former accountant Louise Day from Droylsden, who impresses Boots with her baby sling invention.
Theo admits he was staggered by the numbers who came forward. “It certainly showed how determined people can be to actually get their product in front of a buyer. Yes, you’re dealing with inexperienced suppliers, which is always the difficulty. But it’s worth it.”
Born in Cyprus, Theo moved to Britain with his family when he was six, spending part of his childhood in Manchester, where his father bought a house in Gorton.
When asked if this new series is a retail version of The X Factor, he recalls how his father auditioned for ITV talent show Opportunity Knocks.
“He played the bouzouki, rather well if you understood the bouzouki in 1966 when media wasn’t quite as far-reaching as it is now. And he sang in his native language of Greek, which with the best will in the world didn’t translate very well at the time on English television.
“That’s been around for a long time. The important thing for us was to be able to talk to people about their dreams and ambitions, however realistic or otherwise they may be.
“I don’t want to be harsh and say some people can be deluded, because they really do believe that they have a product that’s going to be the best-selling product in the world. Unfortunately, the rest of the world thinks it’s rubbish and it’s not going to happen.
“We see that on Dragons’ Den, on The Apprentice, The X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent, on so many different shows across the spectrum of television.”
But can Britain’s next big things survive in the current economic climate? “The fact is, if you start making cuts and people are worried about their jobs, guess what they do? They stop spending.
“If they stop spending, retailers can’t take the money. If we can’t take the money, we start cutting back on staff in the store and all sorts of other things. Which creates even further unemployment. Then more people are worried about their jobs. It is a very difficult situation.”
He adds: “Now I’m a positive person and I believe as long as you adapt your business plan accordingly, whatever the market is, you can still do business. But I’ve got resources available to me. And I know there’s loads of people who would like to do things that haven’t got the resources available to them.
“If people are confident about their jobs, they’ll get on with their life, they’ll spend money, which creates further jobs. It’s not rocket science.”
Theo and his fellow dragons start filming their new BBC2 series in May. The opening titles are shot in Ancoats with the programme itself based at Pinewood Studios in Bucks. He’s also again spearheading the Many Hands Campaign for the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital Charity.
He’s proud of providing those thousand new jobs and the businesses he runs in the UK. But he warns that retailers have to re-invent themselves in order to survive. “We will die otherwise.
“I’m creating new stores and they are very much theatre. I also have a fantastic website launched at the same time.
“It’s about giving people a good experience when they buy a product. If we do that as shopkeepers, we will maintain people coming into our stores.
“If we don’t, they’ll find other ways of buying the product.”
TV shows about business:
“When things like Dragons’ Den, The Apprentice and other shows came along, it actually erased that mystique around business and started educating people about what they need to know. That’s why schools like it so much. It’s always been simple. People complicate it. It’s common sense. And I think as long as people understand that’s what they’ve got to do to go forward and be successful.
“My mailbag, and that of the others dragons, predominately comes from school kids, who now have got that interest in business and actually understand it better than their parents in some cases.”
Is he a supporter of David Cameron’s Big Society?
“It’s about time we started accepting responsibility for our own actions. Obviously there’s a worry that it’s just spin and there’s nothing really much of substance behind it. People do have to accept responsibility. But at the same time governments have to accept responsibility by putting the infrastructure and the facilities in place to allow people to grow. They’ve got to do it. Why’s it not happening?”
His personal highlights from making this series?
“I’m quite an opinionated individual, quite a strong individual, I don’t let things get in my way too often. For me, it was the real dawning as an individual how tough it is for people to actually make things happen and get to the buyers and how insular retailers can actually be. We should be looking a lot more outward than we actually are, instead of just looking at our business all the time. And that’s something I took away from the programme. And that’s something I’m now making sure that my businesses are a lot freer from some of the shackles that, as management, we actually put on them.”
“I’m hoping that lots of retailers will follow the example. But more importantly, I think the people who are in those buying positions within the retailers can actually say, ‘That’s how I’m going to do my job in future. When I look at my buying budget, I’m going to put a certain part of it away every year for new products, individual products, create a bit more theatre within my own organisation.’ I think that’s something as retailers that we don’t do enough of.”
Two of the would-be suppliers in the first programme had previously flown to New York to get appointments with buyers. Is it a closed shop in this country?
“Buyers are normally stretched. Unfortunately their views sometimes are tainted by experiences. Because when somebody discovers you’re a buyer for an organisation, they always want to sell you something. And the facts are, quite a lot of it, it’s just not going to work. So you start putting these barriers up because you don’t want to waste time and you know that so much of it just won’t work. So you put these barriers up to make sure you use your time efficiently. And by doing that you kill some of the creativity and you become sterile. And that’s something that certainly dawned on me in doing this programme. So we’re going to open our eyes a bit more and maybe artificially create the opportunity for somebody to get to us, as we did for the television show.”
How is this different to previous programmes from Mary Portas and the John Lewis series?
“Mary Portas’ programme is a different type of programme altogether. She’s never run a shop. She does what she does but she’s never had the experience of doing it for herself. The John Lewis programme was about John Lewis.
“Now retail is a big part of our lives. We employ a big section of the population. It’s therapy, it’s a pastime. It’s not just about going and buying. We’ve got some challenges ahead of us. Challenges with the internet. People are saying to me, ‘Do you think the internet is going to kill retail?’ Well, it’s not going to kill retail because it’s part of retail. But what it’s going to do is change the way we do things. Some of the mundane things that we used to do in the past, I can see are very attractive for people to do over the web.
“So it’s for our shopkeepers to make sure that the experience people within their stores are exciting enough to drive people to come to the stores. It is a leisure activity and we’ve got to supply the theatre within the store to make sure that people want to come to the store. Because if we don’t, they’ll go somewhere else. Some people see food shopping as a massive chore. They don’t enjoy it, it has to be done. So the internet is a really good way to do it. Mrs P sees it as a pastime and she likes to go every single day.”
If Theo was starting out today, how would he get in front of a buyer?
“You’ve got to give a reason for a buyer to see you. And having a me-too product or a product they can buy from elsewhere or there’s no hook attached to it, it’s going to be very difficult.
“I’m a great believer in making it easy for people to make a decision about what you’re doing. So it’s about making sure you’re prepared. Yes, you’re going to need some determination and tenacity to eventually get in front of them. But I promise you, with lots of determination and tenacity, you will eventually steal some of their attention. Once you’ve stole that attention, you haven’t got long and you’ve got to make sure there is something that they see in what you’ve got that’s going to allow them to concentrate on you and give you a bit more attention. And that means making sure you’ve done all the ‘what ifs’ of your business.”
His favourite shop?
“I admire lots of retailers. I think John Lewis are a great retailer. It’s a great example of retailing. But I like gadgets, bloke’s stuff, I like clothes, fashion, things that are different, and I like service. I love to go into a store and get service.”
Is he looking forward to getting back into Den, alongside new Dragon Hilary Devey?
“I don’t know what you can expect from Hilary because I’ve never met her. But I will on the day when I turn up and take my pristine new suit into the Den. It’s a bit like the first day at school. We’ve all got our new uniforms. Some fit better than others. We take our seats and battle commences. As you know, we don’t know what’s coming up the stairs or anything else.”
Is Hilary a good choice?
“The BBC choose. They’ve chosen well so far, so there’s no reason why they haven’t chosen well this time.”
Theo makes his money in the UK and invests here:
“It’s funny how people have different views about what they owe, depending on how much effort they’ve made. Some people make a lot of effort, work hard and I think they get rewarded by their efforts. Other people who don’t make as much effort think those people owe them something. Believe you me, if we price people out of this country we will lose people. If we make business difficult, people will go elsewhere. There’s no point half-wits going on television saying, ‘Let ‘em go, we don’t care about them. This is our country.’ It’s nonsense. People will walk. The world is a very small place now. Communication has become so easy, you can run businesses in so many different places. We will lose out. Just looking inward all the time is a terrible, terrible thing to do and is the biggest danger we have with the politics that’s being played at the moment.
“My businesses are in the UK. I’m creating a thousand jobs. I think the UK is still a great place to be. But I am an exceptionally positive person. There’s other people who are maybe not quite as postive or haven’t got the comforts that I’ve got, that will go and do it elsewhere. And we need to be careful. We are in danger. I know politically it suits people to make various statements which are blatantly incorrect. But you make them enough times, people start believing them. And then you’re never going to persuade them otherwise. I won’t say you scar them but the fact is, that’ll be in their psyche forever. You have very young, impressionable, people in this country that will grow up now thinking that bankers are the root of all evil. It’s silly.”