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In Conversation With Theo Paphitis

Admitting to hating school due to his dyslexia – “I couldn’t write or spell” – entrepreneur and former ‘Dragon’ Theo Paphitis told visitors at the London Stationery Show last Tuesday (14 May) that, at the time, stationery was the last sector he could ever see himself getting involved with.

Yet thanks to a calligraphy set and a dictionary, both bought from Ryman in Borough High Street when he first started work, Theo overcame his difficulties, eventually buying Ryman out of administration in 1995.

Ryman was an old fashioned retailer in the office supplies business when I bought it,” explained Theo. “Its top seller was fax paper, followed by Filofaxes with fax paper also in the top three. With that in mind, once fax machines started dying out, no one thought Ryman would survive,” he admitted.

Asked how he brought some ‘Theo magic’ to the business, he replied: “You must have a reason to exist in business. There has to be a reason for people to come into your shop, to cross the threshold. Every few years, we give people another reason to come into our stores. Once brands lose the reason to exist, that’s when they disappear, Debenhams, Wilko and Woolworths are just three of many examples. At Ryman, we’ve had to change with the times. We’ve had to change our product mix and the way we do business and have recently moved more into fashion-led stationery.”

Above: Theo spent the afternoon at the show talking to exhibitors. They included Jason Malone from Tom’s Studio on the Manuscript stand.
Above: Theo spent the afternoon at the show talking to exhibitors. They included Jason Malone from Tom’s Studio on the Manuscript stand.

As he pointed out: “Covid accelerated the merger of the home and office with lots more people working from home now. However, they don’t want boring stationery. They want something a lot more interesting. Therefore we’ve tapped into this with our new concept stores – Ryman Design – which are more fashion and gift-led. People want fashion pieces that they’re happy to have in their home, with stationery becoming more lifestyle. In addition, in the City for example, employees are often encouraged to buy their own stationery to suit their personalities and their lifestyles, which is another reason why we are moving to offering more fashion-led products.”

Added Theo: “The key to the success of Ryman has been linking technology with good old-fashioned retail. Earlier this year we launched a print on demand greeting card app which enables us to offer something completely unique in the online greeting card industry, using the strength of the high street. What makes our app unique is that you can then collect the card in a Ryman store within just 60 minutes. You can create the card on a bus or train going into work, and then pop into the store to pick it up, and all for £2.99.”

Asked what advice he would give to a newbie start-up in retail, Theo replied that it’s important to ask yourself: ‘What is my reason to exist? What can I do differently in my store? What is the reason for someone to cross the threshold or go online?” adding: “There is no substitute for passion and honesty when running your own business.”

Asked about business rates reform, Theo replied: “I’d like to destroy them! There needs to be a level playing field. I do not believe that physical retail should be victimised and practically put out of business because of business rates.”

In addition to Ryman, Theo Paphitis also owns London Graphic Centre and Boux Avenue.

 

Top: It was standing room only for Theo’s talk at London Stationery Show, where he was interviewed by Max Publishing’s managing director Jakki Brown.

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