Richard Schlagman is one of the more mysterious figures in the publishing industry. Even within the walls of the Phaidon offices, tucked away behind Macmillan near London's King's Cross station, his staff seem to talk in whispers about the man who jets in and out of the country, referring to him obliquely as "the Bond villain".
His manner and lifestyle seem to fit the image rather well. He dresses in a buttoned-up black shirt and is similarly discreet about his private life. When pressed, he reveals that he retreats to a villa designed by the modernist architect Marcel Breuer, which is surrounded by palm trees and snow-topped mountains on the Swiss shores of Lake Maggiore. "I need natural beauty," he explains.
He lives there alone with his housekeeper and as he speaks only English he relies on his domestic staff to communicate in French, German and Italian for him. Occasionally, he visits the opera or goes sailing.
His roots are rather more prosaic. The son of a butcher, Schlagman dropped out of university after his first year to build a business importing car radios and other consumer electronics from Asia. Later, he bought out the radio company Bush and at the age of 28 stood at the helm of one of the best-known names in British radio.
Beyond that, Schlagman strains to recall, directing me instead to Who's Who for a précis. In short, after floating Bush on the stock exchange and "looking at art galleries" for a few years, he set out to find another entrepreneurial challenge. In 1990 he landed upon Phaidon through an ad in the Financial Times—Phaidon was in receivership and he swiftly bought the company.
"I didn't know anything about publishing," he says. "I had a library of art books and I thought the Thames & Hudson books looked better than the Phaidon books, which made me think there was room for improvement. It was that crude."
At the time the company employed about 40 people and turned over £2.5m at a loss; today it employs 140 people and in 2005 recorded an operating profit of £700,000 on sales of &£18.8m.
Critics say Schlagman could have ended up selling cheesecakes just as easily as books but he quickly parries the slight. "Sometimes business is seen as a bit dirty and publishing too good for it. And other times . . ." he trails off. "If I was trying to maximise my potential to make money I wouldn't be in it. There are much easier ways to make money."
More than the publishing industry, he is driven mad by the retail scene, and plans to take matters into his own hands with the launch of standalone Phaidon stores in London next year to follow the one already thriving at the Rubell Family Collection in Miami. The details are still sketchy but Schlagman sees the move as crucial in a high street dominated by retailers that have "lost their way [and] their personality", working on "defensive" strategies instead of being proactive.
"They do it wrong, and when they do it wrong they contract the section, so it's like this self-defeating spiral where it's going from bad to worse," he says. He uses as an example the amount of floor space devoted to architecture and design. "[The chains] are not managed by people with vision or forward-thinking approaches. Sometimes you can put a bestseller under their nose and they don't spot it. They're giving in to Amazon," he rails. "I can't be bothered with it. I've written it all off."
Of the early days when Phaidon was still in Oxford and Schlagman used to overnight in the Randolph, a hotel he didn't like, he recalls being told by the management team that publishing was "very different to other businesses".
"I kept saying, 'it can't be that different'," he says. But he has since come round to their view. "Perhaps I've gone from being a businessman to a publisher. I've mellowed and I've been worn down a little bit." Is this a good thing? "Certainly not for business."
He learnt the ropes simply by "challenging everything" he was told, a habit that no doubt helped build his reputation as a difficult boss, and fuelled one of the highest staff turnovers in the industry. "Some [of my employees] like me, some of them hate me. I seem to clash with people over all sorts of things. If I think I've said something before I have a tendency to become very impatient," Schlagman admits before warning me away from "too much psychotherapy".
Outside the company, Schlagman is thought to be a hands-off publisher, but he insists the opposite is true. "I see the concept for every book and am quite involved in helping to shape them," he says, an assertion that rings true when it transpires that plans for certain titles past the end of the year lie with him alone. He claims to be even more of a stickler for detail than the late graphic design guru and Phaidon creative director Alan Fletcher, and pushes staff consistently to pursue the highest design standards.
"The object has always been to make a book the best possible book on the subject. Our priority is never to compromise," he says. "It is inconceivable that we would take a book as they [agents or authors] bring it to us. There is a creative process that we go through that doesn't get done elsewhere, that gets skipped." Lead titles have been known to be delayed for several seasons until someone hits on the right idea. "We obsess over detail. Everyone who works here has that mentality. It's a very slow process."
The result, he maintains, is the best art and design list of any publisher, including Thames & Hudson. "We're now much better than they are, obviously. They might disagree but most of the public know that."