In our latest Calibre podcast, we’re excited to meet businessman, entrepreneur and former Dragons’ Den straight-talker Theo Paphitis. He talks to our CEO Brian Duffy about their passion for retail, their stints as high-profile executives at football teams (Celtic and Millwall FC, respectively) and, of course, their shared love of timepieces
For long-standing fans of the BBC’s Dragons’ Den, Theo Paphitis will be a familiar face. The Cypriot-born businessman and entrepreneur joined the programme in 2005, and over nine series invested in a diverse range of small businesses and budding entrepreneurs, becoming known along the way for phrases like ‘I’d rather stick pins in my eyes than invest in that!’ He stepped away from the programme in 2012 to focus on his businesses and other interests, but stepped back into Dragons’ Den for a few episodes this year in Series 17.
The Theo Paphitis Retail Group includes a quartet of brands: Ryman, Robert Dyas, Boux Avenue and London Graphic Centre. Beyond retail, he’s a huge supporter of charitable causes like Comic Relief and Shooting Star Hospices. He also has an enduring love for vintage cars and, of course, fine watches – in fact, timepieces have been a passion ever since his career began, right here at Watches of Switzerland, over 40 years ago.
Road to success
It was chance that set him on this path. Born in Limassol, Cyprus, Paphitis emigrated to Britain with his parents and brother at the age of six, initially moving to Manchester before settling in London. He left school at 16 after years of battling dyslexia, and was given a job as a tea boy and filing clerk at Lloyds of London – which far from suited him. ‘Those years were painful,’ he recalls, ‘and I was at a low ebb. Then Mrs P saw an advert in the Evening Standard for a sales assistant at Watches of Switzerland, so I applied and I got it. I’ve kept that job ad to this day.’
Theo kept hold of this advert in the Evening Standard for a Sales Assistant at Watches of Switzerland.
Paphitis spent two years working at Watches of Switzerland’s London Bond Street showroom in the late 1970s. ‘I’ve got to give Watches of Switzerland credit — I remember my first day like it was yesterday. It was the day I fell in love with retail and I fell in love with watches. Neither of those flames are extinguished – they both still shine very brightly within my heart. Watches are engineering feats. Yes, you can tell the time on your phone today, but there’s nothing like wearing a work of art and engineering on your wrist.’
‘When I was working at Watches of Switzerland, I could never dream of affording a watch. I remember the first timepiece I bought while working there — it was an LED watch that cost me £10. But two years after I left, I walked into the showroom and bought my first Rolex. It was a steel-and-gold Datejust. I spent £1,200 and walked out with the watch on my wrist and a huge grin on my face. I’ve loved that watch for over 30 years. Recently, I gave it to one of my sons, engraved with the year I bought it and his name on the back, so it’s still in the family.’
‘The experience of working in the West End at a luxury brand was amazing for a boy coming from a council block, which is where I grew up,’ he adds. ‘It was a proper education in life, and I learned so much. That’s why supporting apprenticeships is a really important cause for me.’
Since then, Paphitis has added many strings to his bow. He’s made his mark in the world of lingerie with La Senza and Boux Avenue, revived stationery names like Ryman and London Graphic Centre, and served as chairman of Millwall Football Club for eight years (he led the club out of administration and to the 2004 FA Cup Final at the Millennium Stadium against Manchester United). ‘You’ve got to constantly find new passions, new challenges, things that take you outside your comfort zone,’ he says.
Falling for watches
Paphitis’s lifelong love for watches is evident as he showed us his extensive collection, which includes his first ‘proper’ watch, the Rolex Datejust, a stunning Rolex Yacht-Master II given to him by his wife Debbie on his 50th birthday, and a new GMT-Master II with the signature Pepsi bezel.
’I buy watches because I like them,’ he says. ‘I start with its looks – I’m shallow. That’s a good place to start because I like to know about the watch, its movement and its pedigree. If all that ticks a box, I’m there. If they have a great pedigree and story and they sit well with all my other models then I’ll go for it. I love going through my collection and remembering why I fell in love with a watch. I never buy for investment: if they end up being a good investment, then that’s a bonus.’
Does he have any advice for would-be watch collectors, we ask?
‘You should be buying a watch with your heart because you are just its custodian,’ he says. ‘Some of my watches are already engraved with my children’s names because they will be theirs, and I’d rather they had them now so they can enjoy them while I’m around. I have plenty. For me, nothing gives me greater pleasure — and any collector should be the same way — than to collect watches to be passed down the family. There will be members of my family I will never meet, that don’t know me, that will be wearing something that was on my skin, chosen by me, had an experience with me and was loved by me. As a collector, that’s what I would recommend to anyone. And, of course, let’s not forget they’re considerable purchases, so you should spend money wisely, buying what you want. You don’t expect any of these watches to go up in price overnight. It takes time. I think I paid £1,200 for my first Rolex Datejust and it’s been 30 years so it’s worth more. But that’s not why I bought it. I bought it because I love it. So, I would say, if you can afford it, buy it.’