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Aug 13, 2020 | Foreign Exchange

Building a business through partnerships – our conversation with Theo Paphitis.

Western Union and the Theo Paphitis Retail Group (TPRG) have been working together for several years, offering Western Union’s cross-border cross-currency services to customers of the TPRG network. This began with the Ryman group, through nearly two hundred stores and later added a further ninety Robert Dyas stores to Western Union’s family of Agents.

On the B2B side, Western Union Business Solutions has a long-standing partnership with MB Partners, where it offers Business FX and international payments to organisations within the MB Partners network. This partnership allowWUBS to expand its business network to likeminded organisations, especially in sports and specifically motor racing. We caught up with Theo Paphitis, Chairman of the TPRG and MB Partners to talk about our partnerships, and also about how the recent pandemic had changed life for him.

Working together – the strength of partnership
We asked Theo what role partnerships play in his business and how important they are for him. He tells us: ‘Partnerships have always been key in all my businesses. If you look at Ryman or Robert Dyas, they are full of brands. And while we have some own-brand products, they are a tiny proportion of the business. The rest is working with brands in a partnership, for mutual benefit. We give them exposure on the High Street, put them in front of the customer, and they lend us their brilliant brands. It's very much a partnership, which means both parties benefiting. I've owned Ryman for over 25 years and I still have the same partnerships, I had when I bought the business. I have some new ones as well, but those original ones are so strong, that it's allowed us to see through recessions and still be a strong force in the High Street.’ He laughs: ‘We've got Western Union branded sneeze screens in front of all our tills, so there you are, you're in pride of place.’
What is the ‘new normal’?
When we spoke to Theo Paphitis, he had just returned to the office, TPRG Towers, after several weeks working from home. The office was almost empty, just ten people were in, when normally there would be 200. We asked Theo what he thought the new normal would look like. ‘I really cannot see us having more than 100 in at any one time now,’ he told us. ‘It’s down to a combination of factors. The only way we are going to go back to normal is if there’s a vaccine or an effective treatment, and at the moment we've got neither. So we have to maintain some form of social distancing. And secondly, this pandemic has forced us to accelerate our digital footprint and the way we work digitally.’

As many companies have found, the lockdown period has quickly accelerated the transition to remote working. ‘Some people actually prefer it,’ says Theo. ‘I like the personal relationships, but some people say, look Theo, I only have to come into the office a couple of days a week, I can quite easily work with my team remotely and I don't have to do the two or three hour commute round trip.’
Building a strong digital backbone
Of course, it’s not just the way that staff work that has been affected. As a retailer, Theo has seen huge challenges and changes during the pandemic.

He smiles: ‘It's strange. Some weeks during the lockdown Robert Dyas did as much business online as it did the previous year, with 100 shops. Our customers have very much adopted and embraced online. You may argue that they were always going to do that, but it has happened so quickly. So, our investment now is focused on our digital backbone. Making sure that our online offering provides everything the customer could want, so we’re giving added value.’

He continues: ‘Our stores can then perform a supporting role, to allowing customers to have as many touch points as they want with us. And irrespective of where that touch point is, the technology recognises them and serves them in the way that they expect, whether that's through loyalty bonuses, free deliveries or other benefits they have accrued.’

‘During lockdown we've signed off a complete new generation of terminals to replace the tills in our Robert Dyas and Ryman stores,’ he continues. ‘These will allow us to have an ‘anywhere touch point’ and you will be recognised. You will be able to simply take something in our store and using your Robert Dyas, Ryman or TPRG app, swipe it and walk out.’

‘It will be fully in place next year, but we’ve already started installing the hardware.’ He laughs: ‘In fact, I can confess, I was bored so I went and installed one in the Kingston Ryman store. I had the stopwatch going as I wanted to see how difficult it was to remove a till and put the new terminal in. It took me 28 minutes to rip out the existing till, because I didn't know what I was doing, and 20 minutes to install the new terminal. I then put through £200 pounds worth of transactions straight away.’ It is an exciting development, and it’s easy to see how it will change the retail experience. It dovetails neatly into the changes Western Union is making, with many more card payments, and use of apps to stage transactions, all reducing the amount of contact people have with retailers.

As a parting shot, we asked Theo if he had any advice for small businesses as they're going through these difficult times and changes in consumer demand. He says: ‘I think you just have to stay agile and have an open mind. Whatever you were doing before, might not necessarily be what you need to do today or in the future. In fact, it’s highly likely it will be different.’ One thing that will always stay the same though, is the strength of business partnerships. As we have learned, these can be extremely mutually beneficial, even helping each other to weather the very worst storms.

To watch the full interview with business mogul and Dragon Den’s star, Theo Paphitis click here!