Secret of the £400 million tycoon who does not know how to read
Interview bid to boost visa refusal
'Exciting times' for McIlroy
Stuart Lancaster must focus now odds are against him
03 June 2011
I am sitting in the sumptuous West End office of businessman Andreas Panayiotou as he scans the front page of the Evening Standard and attempts to read it out loud. He begins normally, but by the second sentence he has become hesitant, using his forefinger to guide him. He delivers each word slowly and deliberately. In the third paragraph, he comes to a halt.
"What's that word?" he asks, pointing to "receipts". In the next sentence he is stymied again, this time by "exposé". Mr Panayiotou is a 45-year-old in his prime with every reason to be super-confident, but now his hands start writhing and he begins to sweat in his £3,000 Tom Ford suit.
The self-made British mogul, conservatively said to be worth £400million and ranked 200th on the Rich List, is about to describe his "secret shame" for the first time - he has never learned to read. He is prepared to talk about his "darkest secret" to help expose the scandal of illiteracy in London. "I am doing it because the Evening Standard's exposé has moved and shocked me. I am amazed to see the problem in our schools is still so bad. I'd hate any kid to go through what I have," he said.
"When I was at school, if you couldn't read, they called you thick. I hated reading as a kid and as an adult I've organised my life to avoid it as much as possible. My PA reads my emails to me over the phone while I drive into work and I dictate replies. My lawyers handle legal documents, and my accountants deal with the financial stuff."
The mere act of trying to read transports him back to the shame he felt as a child. "You know what?" he said, taking hold of the newspaper again. "I might be sitting here in this office, but right now, in my mind, I am back there, seven years old, in my old class at Wellington Way primary school in Bow.
"I can remember it with absolute clarity. The teacher is going round the room asking different kids to read. I am praying he won't call me. He calls one kid. Then another. I am getting hot and anxious. Sod's law, third kid, he turns to me. 'I don't wanna!' I say. 'Why?' he asks. I don't want to say in front of everyone that I can't read. The teacher starts shouting. He thinks I'm being cheeky. He throws me out.
"That was the last time I was ever asked to read. After that the teacher would skip me to avoid a confrontation. I learned to memorise whole words, what they look like, but I never did learn to read in the conventional sense and I left school at 14 without a single GCSE. That moment has stayed with me because it was the day I realised I had a problem. Everything - my massive drive to prove myself as a 'somebody', my rigid discipline, my pride in what I've achieved - stems from the feelings of shame and inadequacy I experienced of being 'perpetually behind' all the other kids and unable to read."
The Standard has published shocking new figures exposing illiteracy in London. One in three children has no books of their own at home; one in three 11-year-olds in parts of the capital still has a reading age of as low as seven. Poet Benjamin Zephaniah has talked of how dyslexic people tend to go "one of two ways", conquering their fears and flourishing, or ending up in jail. Mr Panayiotou, one of the million adult Londoners who the National Literacy Trust say are functionally illiterate, exemplifies the former.
The London-born son of Greek Cypriots, his achievements are extraordinary. He owns a £40million Gulfstream G450 jet, a £12million Mangusta 130 yacht, and two Cessna Citation jets. He lives on a 20-acre plot in Epping Forest with second wife Susan and their three daughters aged seven, 12 and 14 (he also has two older sons from his first marriage). He has stables, a helipad, gym, tennis court and five lakes.
This morning he came to work in his Range Rover, but could equally have driven his Ferrari Enzo, Lamborghini LP700, Rolls-Royce Phantom convertible, or £1.2million Bugatti Veyron. His Italian marble-floored office is the size of a tennis court. Pictures and models of his planes and yacht decorate his office. "As a child, I tried my best to read, but the words would get scrambled up in my brain and jump around," said Mr Panayiotou. "You sort of get used to that feeling of trying hard but being unable to do it. You feel stupid, even though you think that you are smart but just cannot prove it.
"I can read better now because I've memorised a lot of words, but when I get to surnames and words I've never seen, it's nigh on impossible. When I drive on the motorway, I have to concentrate to read the road signs. It still induces feelings of anxiety. Filling out forms for stuff like passport control is also a no-go area."
How has he managed to overcome this handicap and become so successful? "The flip side of dyslexia is that you develop other gifts. I've trained my mind to have a photographic memory. I have a phenomenal memory. It also makes you more creative in solving problems because your mind is always in a fight to comprehend the world around you. It's always fighting, fighting, fighting. That makes you stronger because you learn to handle problems as part of life.
"It also makes you super-focused. I can tell you where every suit in my wardrobe is, every car in my garage, I can remember the profit figure on a hotel I was told about three months ago. You learn to simplify things, to get to the bottom line which is good for business and decision-making.
"With me, my desk, my wardrobe, my day - it's all regimented. I'm up at 7am, I walk the Dobermann, I'm out of the house by 8.30am, at work an hour later, then at 5pm I go to the gym. Every day it's the same."
He added: "I don't want to give the impression that being dyslexic is a ticket to success, because it isn't, but with the right attitude, it can be overcome. In my case, it gave me a burning desire to prove myself.
"It's no coincidence that I took up boxing at seven, the same age my teacher shamed me. I became known as the hardest kid in the school. I was kicked out of high school for laying out the PE teacher with a punch when I was 14. I never went back. If you can't read or write, there's no point being there."
The following year, Mr Panayiotou became the Essex under-16 amateur middleweight boxing champion, and went to work for his father. The first book he ever read was at 17: "I was passionate about getting my pilot's licence and I memorised the entire manual."
A few years later he bought a small property in Islington, converted it into flats, and started what would become one of the biggest buy-to-let empires in Britain. In 2007 he sold thousands of flats, focusing instead on building a portfolio of hotels.
His firm, The Ability Group, now has seven. His latest development, the £70million Waldorf-Astoria, has just opened at Syon Park. He is about to put "Britain's most expensive house" on the market - a redeveloped property in The Bishop's Avenue in Hampstead, which he hopes to sell for £100million.
Mr Panayiotou comes from poor parents who couldn't speak or read English, but he thinks immigrant children with their drive to succeed can overcome these obstacles. His older brother George came from the same background as him, he points out, yet did well at school and completed a business degree.
"I think I would have benefited from an early diagnosis of my problem by my teachers," he said. "Our daughter Sofia is 12 and has dyslexia. My wife got her a diagnosis and brilliant specialised tutor from age six. She would draw a cat and write "cat" under it and Sofia would memorise it. Her problem was named and she was given the skills to master it.
"My wife also spends a lot of time reading with her. Sofia has been trained from an early age to memorise whole words, and now she reads fine and is doing fantastically at school."
Mr Panayiotou says that being unable to read today is far more devastating than in the Seventies. "Although I have been successful beyond my dreams, jobs are a lot more sophisticated than they were 30 years ago, and technology. I would hate for any child to have to go through what I did.
"Your illiteracy campaign can make a difference to kids like me. Being able to read is as fundamental as eating. You can't get by without knowing how to read."