Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou
Text: Charalambos Nikopoulos
Observing the past, gives you a better understanding of the present and to a certain extent you can also predict the future. Stelios has always felt strongly connected with the past and his ancestral values. He was born in Athens in 1967, at the dawn of the most troubled era in modern Greek political history, a few weeks before the coup d’état of 21 April, and the overthrow of the democratic government, that was destined to dramatically influence the history of Cyprus. His father, the emblematic figure in shipping, Lucas Hadjiioannou (1927-2008), was the eldest of the eleven siblings of a large family that has its roots in Pedoulas, a mountainous village located on the Troodos mountain at an altitude of 1,100 meters, near to Limassol. It wasn’t long until this highlander realized that the road to success was crossing through the sea. Thus, having first traveled through Saudi Arabia’s trading streets and through –the very hospitable to Cypriots– London, he arrived in Athens in the mid-1960s.
Within a few years he managed to dominate the field of shipping, amassing a fleet that at some point exceeded 50 tankers thus awarding him the title of “tanker king”. During these times of family glory, the second son came to life: Stelios did not experience deprivation but immediately realized the value of work and creation. “It would be disingenuous to say that I have been through difficult times. My father was in good financial condition and God blessed me with a comfortable childhood. But I think that what he instilled in me was hard work. The fact that you have to get up in the morning and go to work in order to create”. With this daily example of his self-made father, he completed his studies and moved to London to continue to the highest level in Economics and Shipping. However he bore the sad memories of a motherland that was quickly divided into two.
Although he never lived for long periods of time in the birthplace of his parents, Cyprus has always been the one and only motherland. “Every summer we used to visit Cyprus to spend time with our grandparents. In 1974, when the invasion took place, I was 7 years old. We did not go that summer. However, during the summer periods of 1971, 1972, 1973, we took our vacation there, in Platres, a mountainous village about 40 kilometers away from Limassol”. Back then the beaches had not developed yet as a holiday destination, and during August, the wealthy families fled to the mountains for some cooler weather. “I remember playing foosball in the village cafeteria and I have nostalgic memories of Lania, the village that is the birthplace of my grandmother from the side of my mother, Nedis”, he adds. For him, however, Cyprus is much more than just a place of holiday and nostalgia. “My mother still speaks with a heavy Cypriot accent; therefore this language is extremely familiar and dear to me, even though I mainly speak in a Greek accent”. When it comes to food though, he is 100% Cypriot. He considers the islands cuisine a serious reason for someone to visit it and he raves about the haloumi cheese which “fortunately we can find everywhere”, while one of his beloved meat dishes is the traditional seftalia, made with minced pork and lambs pluck. “I don’t just feel Cypriot, I have the Cypriot citizenship and I am more Cypriot than Greek, if you will”, the cosmopolitan billionaire emphatically concludes.
The value of entrepreneurship
As a personality, Stelios is the mix of many different experiences, Mediterranean and Western cultures, high education and humble origins, family principles and adventurous spirit. All this is reflected in a sincerity that instantly wins you over. The transparency of his thinking process goes hand in hand with his directness and he is not afraid to admit things that others would not even dare talk about. For example, when we ask the proclaimed “business superstar” about the recipe to his success, his answer is completely unexpected: “A great deal of luck and circumstances have certainly played a role in such a success as easyJet [founded it in 1995]. The start of a low-cost airline in todays market would not succeed. I found myself in the right place at the right moment, in the appropriate industry and with the right father, who handed me the initial capital (5 million GBP). I was lucky enough to travel to the US and observe the standards of these companies, I came back to Europe and I was amongst the first ones to attempt something like this. The fact that I risked such a large capital was certainly a privilege of youth. At the age of 28 you do it. Now I do not know if I would. Probably not”. Notably, before setting up the airline, he had created the Stelmar shipping company in 1992, which was introduced to the New York Stock Exchange in 2001, which was sold in 2005 yielding a massive profit. That’s how in 2006, at the age of 39, his services in entrepreneurship earned him a knighthood by the Queen of the United Kingdom, Elizabeth II.
Today, Stelios holds all rights to the brand name “easy” (including easyJet) within the private equity investment firm easyGroup, based in the Principality of Monaco (where he has been permanently residing in recent years and since 2009 he has been Honorary Consul General of Cyprus) and in London. In this context, he primarily targets the influx of copyright revenues for use by companies such as easyBus, easyHotel, easyCar, easyOffice, easyGym, easyCoffee, and the newly introduced easyFerry, which is expected to revolutionize Greece’s passenger shipping. All of these companies are geared to the principle of offering more value for less cost and constitute the large “easy” family. “I took a lot of risks in my life and did not always succeed. After 27 years in business, however, you learn how much risk you need to take and how much you are willing to risk for success”, he notes on his current business philosophy.
The virtue of legacy
Having his father as an example, Stelios quickly realized that entrepreneurship, as profitable as it may be, needs to have a purpose. Many people ask him what made him decide to donate half of his fortune to charitable causes (scholarships, entrepreneurship support, donations), an estimated 1,5 billion dollars, through his homonymous foundation, which was founded in 2009 and he serves as chairman. Indeed, the target is not to move up the order in the list of the richest people in the world. No, it is not the spirit of capitalism that motivates him, certainly not the way it used to. “It’s not just about making profits, creating growth and job opportunities. What matters most is what you will leave behind you after death, what you will give back to the community. Unlike my father, who was a business-to-business ship owner, with 10 to 20 corporate customers, my own businesses have tens of millions of customers each paying a very small amount. As far as I am concerned this is a circle. I am grateful to the people who pay for our services, I acknowledge that luck has been on my side and I want to give back to society”, he mentions.
In 2017 he became a member of the Giving Pledge charity network, founded in 2010 by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, that today accounts for 190 donors, the richest people on the planet being amongst them. What unites all these elite members is their commitment to surrender at least half of their fortunes for a good cause. Through this public commitment he wants to ensure that his charity has enough resources to continue its function in perpetuity. “Another reason for publicly participating in this initiative is to encourage others to join, publicity, in my opinion, working positively in this case”. Besides, according to him, the first two Greeks who started the Giving Pledge, before it was even “discovered”, were Onassis and Niarchos. “I consider them to be very good examples. I study and try to learn from their lives. Onassis died in 1975. His name still exists with a good reputation for so many years, through his foundation that offers so much good to society”. Thus, it is legacy and a sincere sense of responsibility that motivate him.
At present, the Foundation has consistently implemented important initiatives to strengthen vulnerable social groups in Greece, Cyprus and Britain, the countries that are relevant to his business and personal life. Just recently, he donated more than half a million euros to those affected by the deadly fires in Eastern Attica, while one of the programs that the Foundation implements on the island is the inter-communal cooperation awards: They are awarded to Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots who collaborate in Cyprus. “Since 2010 we have been giving these awards to ordinary that join their forces. It is an example of how you can utilize financial aid in order to promote peace. If these two communities can live peacefully with each other, it would certainly be a success, even if the ‘Cypriot Question’ has not yet been resolved”, he notes.
The return to the future
Lastly, he focuses on the modern face of Cyprus and he boils down its DNA within a few lines. “As it is known, in 2013 Cyprus has had a bank deposit haircut and entered a Memorandum. However I realize that we have recovered relatively quickly and that we have overcome the difficulties”, he mentions. He traces the causes in the past, but also from an interesting kind of patriotism thriving on the island. “Certainly Cyprus is more organized than Greece and its people are more hard-working. I do not want to give all the credit to the British, but they have certainly played a positive role. You see, the Ottoman domination had a different influence in Greece than the British one in Cyprus. The British were colonizers who helped their colonies, and it is no coincidence that most talented Cypriot students will be studying in England at some point, becoming either a lawyer or an accountant (or another two or three professions). As far as I am concerned, this is an important indication of a certain philosophy that says ‘we will study, we will be educated and we will go back to help our motherland’”. With regard to the brand name that Cyprus represents, the businessman who has created one of the most successful brands in history realizes its inexhaustible dynamics. “One thing is certain, that Cyprus as a tourist destination is very attractive and hospitable and has a reputation for its great food and good chartered accountants”, he concludes in his unique cheerful style and the conviction that things will continue to evolve positively for the island.