Theo Paphitis: ‘Horrendous” experience doing business in Northern Ireland
I must admit that until this week I had never heard of Boux Avenue. I have now. Online it’s offering two-for-one PJs in a bag. How many shopping days are there to Christmas?
At £32 they are not exactly cheap, but this week, the brand’s owner Theo Paphitis was singing their praises. “Boux Avenue is designed to appear exclusive. It looks expensive – the changing rooms are so good people want to move in – but the price point is no different to what you’d pay in Marks and Spencer.”
So far so good. You’d expect Theo to be pushing his products. It’s what retailers do; and his jammies look nice, though they are clearly not aimed at me. I don’t suit vintage floral and his “amber oriental thong” only goes to size 16.
As you might have guessed, Boux Avenue is aimed at the female market – and a younger demographic: professional women who are in shape. This section of the market has considerable spending power, and taste. Though I am not sure ‘exclusive’ is a word you can use for what is essentially a mass-market product.
Until this week, Northern Ireland shoppers could only buy Boux products on line. But now, if you are in Belfast, you can nip into the store and see what Boux is all about. Theo’s latest shop is in Victoria Square.
Ahead of the launch Theo went on a publicity drive, singing the praises of his brand to anyone who would listen. Drumming up business is what he does, and he does it well. But there was a sting in the tail of his PR message.
The former star of Dragons’ Den is not afraid to speak his mind, and he had some tough love for Northern Ireland. It was a “horrendous place” to do business in, he said. Ouch.
Over the years, business has had one hell of a buffeting as the economy has changed shape. The decline in manufacturing is part of a global shift in trade, but it hit Northern Ireland particularly hard. In addition, there were multiple self-inflicted injuries due to the breakdown in public order and the tide of terrorism.
Other regions of the UK and Ireland, similarly affected by the global trends, have focused on the development of new industries, the supply of goods and services – in particular retail – and the encouragement of the creative economy.
In Northern Ireland, entrepreneurs have had to cope with on-going political instability, the paralysing effect of a low-wage economy and over-dependence on the public sector. You can’t use retail as a driver in an economy where there’s no money to spend.
Over the years there have been countless trade missions in and out of Northern Ireland, and hundreds of millions have been ‘invested’ in development activities. Trade and Investment ministers have said all the right things about the attractions of Northern Ireland. But like Theo’s lingerie and pjs, their words just “appear” credible. On the ground it’s different.
At some point someone will realise that there is a direct link between political stability and economic growth. Investors are not stupid. They don’t look at words, they look at actions.
As the Executive tries to get itself back on the rails, the criticism from Paphitis is timely, and it must be heeded. To hear a man who wants to invest railing again the obstacles his company has faced in setting up shop is nothing short of a scandal. Government exist to improve people’s lives, not stand in the way of economic growth.
“I have been trying to come here for four and a half years,” he said. His challenges have been finding the right site “that is affordable”.
“Business rates and rental prices have been the main issues.” And then came the killer line about Northern Ireland: “It has been a horrendous place in terms of working with businesses.”
It’s remarkable the retail sector is as strong as it is.
Paphitis sees signs of change: a more benign business rate regime, better rental prices, and the potential offered by the devolution of corporation tax. “Politicians in Northern Ireland should look at this as a gift from the gods,” he said.
I don’t want to be unduly cynical, but their track record on taking advantage of gifts from the gods is not good.
For too long political parties in Northern Ireland have been focused on their own narrow self-interest. The most recent bout of institutional instability was driven by the desire to win short-term electoral advantage.
The fact that Paphitis has put his money in Northern Ireland should be an encouragement. He sees opportunity.
If the Stormont Executive is about anything, it should be about encouraging entrepreneurs like him, it should be about listening to business – not least those who have invested here during the toughest of times – and it should be about creating an environment that encourages economic growth and jobs.
- A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on October 23 201