Doing business in Greece

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The Athens skyline in Greece

There are bright spots within the business landscape of Greece, despite the crisis. A strong tourism industry, burgeoning entrepreneurialism among the country’s youth and newly deregulated sectors could spur economic revival – with opportunities emerging for UK companies

Sunday afternoon in the grungy Athens district of Exarcheia. A swarm of slogan-shirted twentysomethings pile out of a doorway and sprint down a café-lined street, gas masks in hand. As they run,  they pass a piece of street art daubed on a wall, depicting a disillusioned young Greek man sitting atop a stack of books emblazoned with the concepts developed by his ancient forebears which now underpin modern society: ‘Democracy’, ‘Politics’, ‘Plato’, ‘Socrates’. Hovering above him are books he’ll most likely need during life: ‘No Future’ and ‘Survival Guide.’

With youth unemployment in Greece at nearly 52 per cent, the graffiti expresses the life-in-limbo disenchantment experienced by Greek youngsters. The country’s debt crisis has prompted some millennials to spend weekends running from riot police (Exarcheia is an anarchist stronghold) while others are venting their frustrations by spray-painting inventive anti-austerity murals across Athens.

Whether it’s a stack of euros portrayed as a coffin, a mural with the word ‘N€IN’ or the slogan, ‘Then they used tanks. Now they use banks’, these creative flowerings come after Greece has endured five years of social hardship which has seen its economy shrink by a quarter. Following the austerity measures adopted by the Greek government since 2009 – and after multibillion-euro EU/IMF bailouts – stark social disparities are everywhere. While people sip caffè freddos in the sunshine, turn the corner and there are senior citizens queuing for handouts due to their pension funds being savagely wiped out.

When Alexis Tsipras was sworn in as prime minister twice last year, the unlikely coalition his leftist Syriza party forged with the right-wing Independent Greeks promised to usher in a new era with its denunciations of the bailout programme. Yet, almost nine months since a second general election in 2015, the country teeters on the brink of economic collapse with a never-ending tableau of Greek tragedies unfolding weekly on our TV screens – banks running out of cash, anarchists clashing with riot police, refugees washing up on the shores of Lesbos.

With an average of 59 businesses closing every day last year (not to mention the vicious wage-cuts) who in their right mind would want to set up in Greece right now? “Bad publicity is scaring people, but opportunities do exist,” says George Panayiotou, an adviser, non-exec director and ex-City of London banker. “It’s just a matter of going about it in a methodical, well-prepared way rather than just jumping in with a hope and a prayer. Yes, this market has risks, but they can be mitigated.”

One such hope is the Greek Privatisation Fund (TAIPED), which aims to sell off €50bn (£39.5bn) worth of state-owned assets (roads, ports, railways) to help repay the debts incurred by the bailouts. “I see lots of opportunities for British companies such as consultancies,” says Sotiris Leontaris, head of commercial at UKTI Greece.

In 2009, Chinese state-run global shipping carrier Cosco spent £400m on the management rights for half of the Athens port of Piraeus (which along with Thessaloniki, Leontaris believes will open up Greece as a gateway to land-locked central Europe for Asian exporters); while last year the Greek government sold the rights to develop 14 poorly maintained regional airports to German company Fraport in a deal worth €1.2bn. While foreign investment from the UK has been slow, it’s a sign foreign confidence is returning.

The airport deal is part of wider plans to turn Greece into a perennial tourist destination, rather than simply a summer magnet. “If you have regional airports properly managed, it will increase traffic substantially,” according to Leontaris. “Almost everybody will benefit – especially in the supply chain.”

Monastiraki Square in GreeceUK opportunities

Aside from those islands in the frontline of the refugee crisis, Greece’s tourism sector seems somewhat impervious to the country’s recent financial woes. Bookings for Greece are predicted to swell this summer after terrorist attacks in north Africa have caused tourist numbers there to plummet (currently Greece attracts more than 16 million tourists a year, generating just under 20 per cent of its GDP).

HolidayTaxis.com has been providing private transfers and shuttles for holidaymakers in Greece since 2003. Business has never been better, according to chief executive Peter Hilton: “Despite the immigration problems, we actually grew last year, while in 2013 we had a 50 per cent growth from the year before. Greece has always been good at looking after its tourists.”

While the refugee crisis (over 1,000 immigrants arrived in Greece daily during 2015) has affected HolidayTaxis’ bookings on the island of Lesbos (“our bookings were down 88 per cent there this year”), the firm’s business has increased in Corfu (up 35 per cent) and Crete.

“The islands have very much a tourist economy,” says Hilton. “They haven’t been too affected by the economic downturn. But when news items happen, such as the threat of Grexit or putting restrictions on getting money from banks [last year, the Greek government capped ATM withdrawals for citizens, not tourists, at €60 a day], that’s when bookings drop off.”

Although British exports to Greece are tiny – £90m a year – firms such as Marks & Spencer and Vodafone are high-street mainstays that have so far weathered Greece’s economic downturn well. As Leontaris explains: “Before the crisis, Greece was a consumer’s paradise – that’s why household-name brands opened franchises. You might not see Range Rovers or Bentleys on Athens’ streets anymore, but Greek consumers are still brand-conscious which explains why British names are still doing OK.”

Elsewhere, UK supply chain businesses could benefit from the €1.5bn Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (currently BP’s largest project), which aims to carry Azeri gas via Greece further into Europe, while the country’s strong pharmaceutical background saw private equity group BC Partners acquire a €500m stake in pharma firm Pharmathen in June last year.

The other inveterate sector in Greece is shipping. Long associated with playboy-tycoons such as Aristotle Onassis, Greek shipowners control nearly one-fifth (18.6 per cent) of world-carrying capacity. According to Leontaris, they view “British companies, especially the City of London, as a one-stop shop for legal services, brokering and accounting”.

Anti-Europe graffiti

Greece’s youth vent their frustration by spray-painting anti-austerity murals across Athens

Tackling red tape

The perils posed by the worst recession to hit an advanced western economy since the 1930s’ Great Depression have hardly been aided by Greece’s bloated bureaucracy. The country is placed 60th in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings, while IoD members trading there bemoan long payment terms (anything up to 90 days) and the business-unfriendly tax system.

London-based JJK Associates has sold consulting services in Greece since 2003 (see box, facing page). Shortly after entering the market, managing director Jonathan Kingan noticed his main client was deducting 20 per cent withholding tax, which it had been instructed to do by the Greek tax authorities.

“I challenged it, but it took 18 months before I got them [tax authorities] to agree it was incorrect due to the double-taxation agreement with Greece,” explains Kingan. “The timing was a nightmare because 20 per cent of my revenues squeezed my profits down to zero during these 18 months. By the time they’d stopped, they’d deducted €145,000. It wasn’t until 2011 that I got the final payment back – seven years after their first deduction!

To sidestep bureaucracy, not to mention the protean nature of Greek law, Panayiotou recommends, looking at “less heavily regulated sectors that aren’t exposed to public sector decisions and law changes.

“If you buy a plot of land and want to build a hotel, you have to be careful how long it will take to get licences,” he adds. “If you want to add a golf course or a marina, you could get into all sorts of licensing problems. However, if you buy a hotel earning income today – with foreign revenues from tourists, that’s easy – you’re buying/operating an income-earning asset and don’t have to apply for a licence.”

Although Greece is eschewing the corruption that saw many businesspeople employ a meson (an ‘insider’ within a business), Transparency International found that 13 per cent of Greeks paid fakelaki (bribing by handing over envelopes of cash) in 2009.

Both UKTI Greece and British firms stress the need to find a quality agent/distributor. HolidayTaxis.com employs no staff in Greece, using on-the-ground agents/contractors to circumvent some of the irksome bureaucracy. “The only invoices we see are from the agents,” says Hilton, no doubt gladly.

Restaurants in the Plaka district, Greece

Creative youth

While Greece’s woes might seem never-ending (last month the government approved budget cuts worth €5.4bn), there is one illuminating hope. Greece’s under-30s have arguably suffered the most during the debt crisis, and although the country regularly complains of a ‘brain drain’ (the exodus of educated young Greeks migrating to Europe in search of work), there’s been an improbable by-product of its high youth unemployment. Jobless graduates returning to their family homes, unable to afford the rents in larger cities, have bolstered Greece’s once-ageing villages. The upshot? They’re now helping family businesses, discovering skills, crafts and herbs used by their grandparents, which they’re exporting internationally via e-commerce. Whether its artisanal saffron/olive oil producers, grooming products inspired by the rakomelo spirit drunk by their grandfather or cosmetics using rural herbs (Apivita), these buccaneers are blending age-old traditions with digital entrepreneurial savvy.

UK firms, Leontaris thinks, “could help them become more international”, adding: “The under- 30s aren’t necessarily staying in these villages for life, but thanks to the internet, they’re marketing long-forgotten products and services in very novel ways. This is one of the things that makes me optimistic Greece will recover.”

Read our city guide to Athens here

John Kingan of JJK AssociatesGreece case study: JJK Associates

After a career as an engineer at British Telecom and Coopers & Lybrand [later to fold into PwC], Jonathan Kingan went solo with his own management consultancy, JJK Associates, in 2002. Initially selling consultancy services in telecommunications, Kingan began working with OTE (Hellenic Telecommunications Organization), a previous client from his time at PwC. Despite initial bureaucratic problems, by the mid-2000s he had secured “some big contracts”.

At this stage, he says Greece-related business formed around 80 per cent of his revenue (€450,000). This has dwindled to 20 per cent of revenue, which he attributes less to the debt crisis and more to a “gradual decline in terms of the size of the job and less scope for selling on new and different pieces of work, with fewer people needed”.

While JJK Associates has built up an extensive list of clients in other markets, including utilities, Kingan still makes one trip a month to Athens. Furthermore, by working with a Greek client owned by Deutsche Telekom, his company hasn’t directly experienced some of the fiscal problems bedevilling the country. “We’re not seeing the bad end of Athens business,” he says.

On Greece’s future, Kingan says there are steps that could be taken to encourage trade – “having [Greek companies] take up shorter payment terms of 30 or 45 days rather than insisting on 90 days”. Despite this, he prizes the trusting nature and filotimo (sacrifice and help towards strangers) of Greeks. “There’s a high degree of trust among people in Greece. It helps you get through problems.” jjkassociates.com

Jonathan Kingan is a member of IoD Central London

George Panayiotou is a member of IoD London

Greece: how to get there

Flight info

British Airways flies non-stop to Athens from Heathrow. Return fares start at £116. Visit ba.com for more details. Other airlines with direct flights from the UK include easyJet, Aegean and Ryanair.

Useful links for doing business in Greece

gov.uk

@UKTI_Greece

World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings

About author

Christian Koch

Christian Koch

Alongside his work for Director, Christian has written features for the Evening Standard, The Guardian, Sunday Times Style, The Independent, Q, Cosmopolitan, Stylist, ShortList and Glamour in an eclectic career which has seen him interview everybody from Mariah Carey to Michael Douglas through to Richard Branson with newspaper assignments including reporting on the Japanese tsunami and living with an Italian cult.

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