THE LION KING; Theo Paphitis Is the Self-Made Tycoon Who Brought His Magic Touch to Lowly Millwall FC - Not for Money but for the Love of a Challenge. David Butcher Meets a Man Whose Drive to Succeed Dominates His Every Waking Hour

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Byline: DAVID BUTCHER

Theo Paphitis is a sore loser. He says so himself. Which begs the question, why, seven years ago, would he buy Millwall FC, a club famous for putting its fans through misery? 'They were in administration and it was one of those things where I said, "No, no, no!" and found myself at the altar. As a business decision it was never on.' Yet in a sense it was perfect for him.

Feisty and straight-talking, Paphitis is the master of turning underdogs into winners. He has done it with the retail chains he bought cheaply and rescued - notably high-street stationer Ryman - and he has done it since 1997 as chairman of unfashionable Millwall (the Lions to its fans), the former cloggers who made it to this year's FA Cup final.

That cup run - they lost to Manchester United in the end - pumped a much-needed [pounds sterling]2.5 million into the club's coffers and a burst of joy into south London fans' hearts, but it doesn't alter the disastrous dynamics of football as a business.

'A business?' asks Paphitis, who recently defended the behaviour of Millwall fans after violence marred a match against Liverpool. 'You don't go into football to make money!' The mentality, he says, is to limit the losses. 'I could put us into profit tomorrow. But we'd probably get relegated.' When Cyprus-born Paphitis, 45, says he could run a company profitably, you believe him. He has dramatically turned around Ryman, the 110-yearold stationery firm he bought out of receivership in 1995, and performed similar feats with lingerie retailers La Senza (bought for 'a quid and 40 Benson & Hedges' in 1998) and Contessa, as well as another stationery chain, Partners.

All now turn healthy profits, thanks to the Paphitis treatment, which he makes sound deceptively simple. 'Retail is detail,' he recites, puffing on the little cigar. 'It's logistics, it's technology, it's good housekeeping, it's common sense. And common sense ain't that common, contrary to popular belief. I haven't got any answers, the staff have the answers.' This is the bedrock of Paphitis's method: get the staff on-side.

'We don't work on the principle that the customer comes first,' he says. 'We work on the principle that the staff come first. It's simple: look after your staff and they'll do a great job for you.' Paphitis probably socialises with his employees more than any other company chairman around, holding regular conferences where everyone works hard and plays hard, often drinking till the early hours. This approachability crosses over into the everyday: everyone who works for him calls him Theo and his personal mobile phone number is in every Ryman store.

'He has the marvellous ability to talk to anyone at any level,' says Ian Childs, a shareholder in Paphitis's companies.' He can relate to all people in all walks of life.' It helps that he has worked his way up from the bottom himself. Starting as 'assistant to the tea stirrer' at Lloyd's insurance market, he had spells at Watches of Switzerland (as a shop assistant) and selling life assurance for Legal & General, before he found his forte as a finance broker. That led to a lucrative career in commercial property finance during the heady days of the Eighties. 'It was a mad time. The money we were making was unreal. You could make maybe [pounds sterling]100,000, [pounds sterling]150,000 in one deal,' he remembers.

Then some bankers asked him to do a report for them on an ailing public company called Astra Industrial. They liked his recommendations so much that they invited him to take over as chairman and chief executive. At 27, he found himself running a plc. 'All of a sudden it was not just doing a report, it was actually delivering. I'd never done that before. A company losing millions of pounds. It was hugely exciting.' Within a year, Astra was turning a profit and Paphitis had pulled off his first turnaround. 'That was really good fun. …