Enterprising Diasporas: From Brain Drain to Brain Gain

Enterprising Diasporas: From Brain Drain to Brain Gain

If you fulfill these prerequisites, you have a chance.
Address of Mr. Constantelis at Reload Greece
Held at Rooms on Regent's Park, adjacent to the London Business School
Saturday 24th September 2016.
Supported by the London Business School and in cooperation with the South East European Studies (SEESOX) programme of Oxford University.

"I assume that most of you here this afternoon are either entrepreneurs or investors. I too am an entrepreneur, although a latecomer to the field. I only began my entrepreneurial career in 2010, after 21 years in the corporate world, most as a senior executive, in my case within Bristol Myers Squibb. Furthermore, I took up the entrepreneurial challenge at a time of overwhelming financial crisis in Greece, a crisis which still bedevils the economic security and prospects of the country.

This afternoon, however, I want to galvanize all of you, those with tested entrepreneurial skills and these now ready to hone such skills, to put your efforts in the service of the revival and expansion of the Greek economy. In my view, as my story will, I hope, attest, you can be the vanguard – the only really credible vanguard in my opinion – of stimulating the Greek economy.

I can tell you right off the bat that there are incredible opportunities for investment in Greece. Pick your strategic area, whether, for example, tourism, renewable energy like wind, solar and geothermal, real estate, banking, shipping, telecommunications, health care. It doesn’t really matter which area you choose. However, as I shall argue in detail, your success depends upon your having prepared a complete, detailed and thorough Business Plan, which clearly reveals you have a clear competitive advantage. Then you need to apply three important business principles, which I shall call my own three P’s. Product/services: Life Cycle management for each product. People: No compromises when selecting talent: Establish incredibly high standards. People with high energy, positive attitude, committed to excellence. Your staff must be smart, diligent people who demonstrate gifts for innovation, communication, and concrete achievement. Finally the third P, Payers: Handle external environment. Establish and sustain a close understanding of your stakeholders.

If you fulfill these prerequisites, you have a chance.

Still, many, if not most of you, might think I am barking up the wrong tree, simply because business conditions in Greece are currently so uncertain and unpredictable as to make investment in entrepreneurship a lost cause. The principle underlying this attitude is that maximum economic security and certainty - attract investment, whereas their opposites repel such investment.

Of course there is much to be said for playing it safe, especially in Greece, where the business impulse is regularly stymied by ever-changing and ever more complicated bureaucratic requirements, tax scales subject to overnight upward revisions, and so on. Why invest when it is so onerous to wade through the swamp of multiple bureaucratic hurdles, only to reach an agreement the terms of which might be unilaterally abrogated at a moment’s notice. This sense of insecurity generates mistrust, dashes enthusiasm, and in general sours the spirit of an otherwise positively disposed entrepreneur and/or investor.

All of aforementioned deficits are true and in need of radical change. Still, and this will be one of my central themes this afternoon, entrepreneurs seek uncertainty and thrive in climates of uncertainty. This apparent paradox draws attention to the dangers of risk aversion, for the aspirant entrepreneur afraid of risk is no entrepreneur at all, but someone better suited for a career within the organizational structure of a large and supportive corporate entity.

From what I have already said you might think from my description of obstacles confronting entrepreneurs in Greece that I am a sullen forlorn contemporary Sisyphus, constantly pushing with great effort the stone up the precipitous slope only to see it come tumbling down again. Perhaps it is so, to some extent at least, but sometimes, I believe, one can manage to get the stone to the top and keep it there, even under precarious conditions. In consequence, so as to describe in as much detail as my time allows, how this happy outcome can come about, I will turn to my own professional experience of both corporate and entrepreneurial engagement. I hope to show you that entrepreneurial enthusiasm is alive and well in Greece and would welcome the input of new creative entrepreneurs and investors.

And this is an appropriate moment to pay tribute to the late Stavros Niarchos and the foundation in his name, which, along with the London Business School is hosting this event. Stavros Niarchos, arguably, is one of the greatest entrepreneurs in the history of entrepreneurship. His extraordinary business trajectory can aid us to understand the nature of zero risk, calculated risk, and just plain risk.

In 1956 Stavros Niarchos, a young Greek American from a wealthy family started buying ships. Eventually he build the biggest supertanker in the world at that time, and named it after his new born son, Spyros Niarchos. Consider the timing. We were in the middle of the Cold War. Many business people thought a 3rd World War was imminent, and they did what most business people do at a time of great uncertainty, namely, sell everything and convert their earnings into gold.

Well, Stavros Niarchos did the opposite. Risk taking, foolish risk taking, or calculated risk taking you might ask. As we know the Suez Crisis erupted in 1956, just a few months after the completion of the construction of the supertanker I have mentioned. As it turned out, the increasing demand for oil, propelled by the Suez Crisis, made him a billionaire overnight and a giant in petroleum shipping. His name will live forever! He was certainly lucky, I guess. Definitely not. He made his own luck! Had things been otherwise, and he faced bankruptcy, no government would have bailed him out. A bracing story of ‘calculated’ risk-taking at its best! High risk and high reward!

In what follows I don’t want to bore you by reiterating things you already know about entrepreneurship, nor can I provide you with anything like a manual entitled ‘ The Ultimate Guide to Entrepreneurship in Greece’. What I want to tell you in support of my clarion call for ambitious entrepreneurs to consider assisting Greece, is for the most part biographical, that is, an account of what I have learned from my experience as an entrepreneur in Greece from 2010 to the present. I shall arrange my remarks loosely around four themes or questions, with a fifth and final theme very close to my heart but not as easy to articulate. I’ll come back to it later. The first four themes/questions are:

a) My Background: Who I was and what I knew?
b) The Greek Economic Crisis: ‘Didn’t you see it coming?’
c) My personal experience as a novice entrepreneur: What was it like to move from the corporate world to that of an entrepreneur in Greece?
d) ‘Winner Takes All’: The Rewards of Entrepreneurship

My Background: Who I was and what I knew?

On several occasions I have written, sometimes extensively, of my experience and development as a senior corporate executive. Today I shall only highlight some salient points relevant to the theme of my address.

First of all, growing up in Montreal was a formative experience for me. I was just seven years old when my parents immigrated to Canada from the island of Lemnos.

Upon arrival in Montreal my parents, my sister and I became part of a tightly-knit, hard-working, but also inward-looking Greek community. At the time of our arrival the Montreal Greek community was 75,000 strong, with everyone living within close reach of each other. Indeed, such was the size and closeness of the Greek community that many older arrivals from Greece, my parents included, never learned to speak either English or French beyond a few words and phrases. I shall never forget the warm welcome I received to Canada from the French community, and, later, the English community. They made me feel truly at home.

In addition, we were all of us, young and old, fiercely proud of our being Greek, so much so that, unlike Greeks in America, none of us changed or shortened our surnames. Some with rather embarrassing surnames might have wished to have been able to change their names, but never did so.

Such, too, was the highly idealized conception of Greece to which we felt absolute allegiance that, though you may find this hard to believe, we youngsters never swore in Greek. Swearing in Greek was for us an abomination, a betrayal of our heritage. Indeed, whenever we heard an older person swearing in Greek we were deeply upset and scolded him. The purity of the Greek language was sacrosanct for us.

Of course in all cultures swearing under certain circumstances is a colorful and expressive facet of language. So we youngsters swore, but only in our newly adopted languages. We were lucky we could swear in 2 languages not just one: English and French. You can imagine the shock those of us so raised abroad felt, when we first visited Greece: the land of our ancestors - upon encountering contemporary Greek cursing in our original homeland. It was a culture shock!! It is a miracle we were not scarred for life! We were especially shocked by the ubiquitous “M” word which occupied such a prominent position in colloquial Greek, a word which ultimately came to mean, not just a pejorative insult, but a term of endearment. Interestingly, in my experience not many of us diaspora Greeks, raised as I was raised, adopted these locutions.

As I look back, and now ask who I am I can unhesitatingly answer that I am proud to be Greek, proud to be Canadian, and proud to be a Quebecois. BODY & SOUL analogy. My body is Canadian while my soul is Greek. Once I became 15 years old and a day I applied for and received my first provincial employment card and started work as a busboy at the Hilton Hotel in Montreal. I attended Concordia University, where I received my Bachelors in Biology, and then went on complete a Graduate Diploma in Management & Business at McGill University, followed later by a post graduate MBA business degree at Insead.

In 1989 I began my career at Bristol Myers Squibb. Among my achievements at BMS was my appointment as Director of European oncology, and, later, in 2000 my appointment as managing director and responsibility for legal entities in central eastern Europe and in 2003 of Greece, Cyprus and Malta. I was considered an overachiever! When I took over as CEO of BMS in Greece the company was in something a tailspin, what with steadily decreasing sales, poor staff morale, prevalent disorganization, and a general feeling of malaise. When I left BMS to begin my career as a private entrepreneur, I was proud of the corporate revival of BMS Greece, as under my leadership sales doubled and profits tripled.

My professional trajectory is similar to, though definitely less impressive, than that of some of the Greek giants of corporate management, namely, Roy Vangelis (ex-CEO of MSD – in my opinion the greatest pharmaceutical executive of all time); Jamie Dimon (CEO JP Morgan Chase, perhaps the world’s most influential banker) and Andrew Leveris (CEO Dow Chemical and Chairman of the Hellenic Initiative, which I recommend you all examine.)

Oddly, I became an entrepreneur in Greece by accident. BMS had offered me a choice of firstly China and then Middle East and Africa for my next CEO appointment. However, my very supportive wife finally put her foot down after so many moves during my career, and argued that we should remain in Greece, especially as our three children were now at school. However, my new career as a novice entrepreneur got off to a somewhat rocky start as it coincided in 2010 with the bankruptcy of Greece and the imposition of the 1st Memorandum, which Greece signed with its lenders, the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF. At the time I thought, wrongly as it turned out in part, that my extensive corporate experience alone would enable me to become a successful entrepreneur. If I can make money for them, I can make money for myself.

The Greek Economic Crisis: ‘Didn’t you see it coming?’

You may ask of the Greek Economic Crisis, ‘Didn’t the Greek business community see it coming?’ Of course we saw it coming. Indeed, we welcomed it with open arms! We initially felt confident that Greece and the Greek political class would finally be compelled, even belatedly, to implement necessary reforms. What was needed, among other things, was a truly transparent public sector, with all transactions computerized and accessible; a credible and comprehensive national property registry; an efficient, effective justice system still mired in a backlog of cases, the resolution of which, for those who could afford the legal funds, might be delayed for up to twelve years; the abolition of protection of government ministers from prosecution for felonies committed during their tenure of office. This list, as all of you are certainly aware, could be extended.

What we expected was that three successive governments since 2010 would do what any senior business executive would have done in such predicament, namely, control expenses and simultaneously grow the economy. We also expected that our lenders – the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the IMF – would also promote such policies, not simply merely demand compliance with stringent monetary and social cutbacks without the prospect of growth. On the other hand, governmental foot-dragging on the implementation of needed changes combined with a refusal to own up to the real causes of national bankruptcy also dashed our hopes for substantial change.

Greece was a long–festering problem that was mishandled from the beginning by all parties: respective governments and troika.

This failure to stimulate growth in tandem with control of expenses has left us with a moribund economy, soaring unemployment, and no change in our crippling national debt. Ultimately, crestfallen, we expected nothing, and we got nothing. Actually we got less than nothing.

My Personal Experience as a Novice Entrepreneur: What was it like to move from the corporate world in Greece to that of an entrepreneur?

My experience as a fledgling entrepreneur in Greece has taught me much. I want to share this experience with you, partly to warn you of some avoidable pitfalls in your entrepreneurial efforts, but also, and most importantly, to encourage you to get on board as ambitious bright Greeks who through creative entrepreneurial projects in Greece can lift us from the doldrums, galvanize our economy, and, of course, enjoy the personal satisfaction of having launched profitable entrepreneurial ventures in your native land.

Things of course can change, they can go wrong and, as always, mistakes can be costly. One thing to bear in mind is that within established large corporations ‘blame’ for failures tends to shift from one entity within the corporation to another, for example, from sales to marketing, or from finance to everyone. The corporation is usually large enough to absorb setbacks. The entrepreneur, on the contrary, stands alone confronting setbacks, naked with no place to hide. The buck stops with her/him. So you as entrepreneurs must possess exceptional self-confidence. You always know that there is a great chance that you may fail, but you have the kind of grit and perseverance that keeps you going. If you don’t have it, you should remain in the corporate world. Risk-taking is at the heart of your entrepreneurial projects. Leave zero-risk taking to others.

Another litmus test for you as a self-described entrepreneur. If you’re working on your Business Plan and you’re not having fun, choose another profession. Also, if you see your boss as perfect, but can’t see yourself as in some ways better than your boss, you’re a ‘follower’, most likely a competent and productive ‘follower’, but still a ‘follower’.

Now I should like us to get down to some of the nitty-gritty of entrepreneurship in Greece. I want to consider three central issues which have to deal with crucial realities, namely, corruption/transparency; nepotism; and, of singular importance, CASH FLOW.

A glance at the 2015 international Corruption Perception Index confirms that Greece is still bedeviled with transparency issues. The results though are not that bad. Out of 170 countries - it is in the 58th position, with Italy listed at 61. Arguably, there is corruption everywhere, even in those countries with squeaky clean transparency index ratings. And, as you known, Greece is famous for pervasive bureaucratic red tape. What do you do to keep your head above water and your conscience clear in this often enveloping miasma of expected ‘gifts’, known to most of us here as ‘fakelakia’ ? Well, never try to run the red-tape battle on your own. You must have a knowledgeable and experience lawyer plus a capable and experienced accountant. You need consultants! These two crucial advisors can give you all the viable options and save you time.

In Greece, as we know, family has been and remains pre-eminent. Once the word is out that you’ve returned or come to the homeland as an entrepreneur, you will be bombarded by relatives, even distant ones, seeking positions for themselves or others. What do you do? Well, the answer is simple and final. Don’t employ ANY RELATIVES. If you employ anyone whom you can’t envision firing, your BUSINESS PLAN is immediately AT RISK. Your BUSINESS PLAN is based on your choosing and hiring the best people. NO RELATIVES! And remember, should you succumb to pleading on the part of relatives and bring one on board you will remember the adage, ‘Those who don’t remember history or ignore history are condemned to repeat it.’ The expression is attributed to: Sir Edmund Burke (1729-1797) & George Santayana (1863-1952). By the way I have 23 cousins, only 2 of which now speak to me. Relatives, it seems, don’t relish the defeat of nepotism.

My personal entrepreneurial learning curve concerns two commonplace business terms, namely, BUSINESS PLAN, already mentioned above, and CASH FLOW. For us entrepreneurs the BP is the very nucleus of success. It must be fool-proof! And a warning for all of you with entrepreneurial ambitions! Subject your BP, again and again, to the most stringent scrutiny against even the most farfetched negative scenarios that you might be tempted to dismiss out of hand. Your BP is your personal bible. Every word, every figure counts. A BP so carefully constructed as to endure any untoward winds of change is invaluable. It must be first-rate.

As I already mentioned, I have profited by understanding and assessing errors, which have arisen by my mistaken assumption that my corporate experience and success would have provided me with all the requisite skills for entrepreneurial success. As part of my entrepreneurial BAPTISM by FIRE, I made careful plans to launch in one specific company 7 generic Central Nervous System pharmaceutical products for distribution once their exclusivity expired. I even allowed a longer period than initially seemed necessary to attain the required governmental approval. This approval for six of these pharmaceuticals was unexpectedly delayed, the delays reaching three years instead of the months I had prepared for.

The lesson here is simple. Don’t trust history. Be prepared for unpredicted delays. Above all, assure sufficient CASH FLOW for any extended waiting period. Insufficient CASH FLOW under unexpected circumstances can derail your project. I eventually divested my company of these products, fortunately with minimal losses, and devoted my time to much more ambitious projects for which I could guarantee funding sufficient to provide regular and ample CASH FLOW.

So, to sum up my advice, regard CASH FLOW as your alpha and omega. Your BUSINESS PLAN is your BIBLE. You must know every word, and subject it to the most strenuous Devil’s Advocate scrutiny. In other words, you BP must be comprehensive and secure enough to survive the perfect storm. If you have a Competitive Advantage you need TIME. Don’t ever say something can’t happen. Don’t forget that corporations can manage the time factor with relative ease as they have unlimited CASH FLOW. You, on the contrary, must secure your CASH FLOW.

Winner Takes All!

I imagine that much of my description of ‘entrepreneurship’ and its challenges, especially in a climate of uncertainty, is already familiar to you. What gives my remarks and advice added relevance, I believe, is that I have been working tirelessly since 2010 as an entrepreneur on the front lines in troubled Greece. As I have already mentioned, I have made mistakes, as we all do, learned from them and subsequently set goals even more ambitious than any previous ones. The stakes are high, the challenges unremitting, but the rewards, as you know, can be transformational for you, your investors, and Greece.

Hence you shouldn’t waste time mulling over the uncertainties, and shelve your initiatives waiting for necessary changes to be implemented by the government in power at the time. There’s no time to wait, uncertainty is your element, a plethora of viable ideas your toolkit, and confidence, resilience, determination, and unflagging hard work your virtues. You’re on your own, taking major risks, unafraid of losses, and driven by your great Business Plan and your assured Cash Flow. THE OLDER YOU GET – THE MORE YOU RISK TO LOSE! You are young!

You must outwit your competitors with a solid competitive advantage, bolstered of course by your powerful Business Plan and secure Cash Flow. Finally, don’t forget the necessity of a Time Line, which, should delays of one kind or another darken the horizon, will tell when to divest with minimum losses. Remember the sharks are waiting for you. If you falter even slightly, they’ll rush to your customers and let them know you are dead and buried, out of the game forever. Your goal is to stay in the game, and be perseverant and flexible enough to win the game! So now is the time for you as an entrepreneur and/or investor to be one of the winners in the resurgence of Greece.

A Secret Ingredient!

And now, as I come to the end of my talk this afternoon I want to fulfill a promise. Earlier, when I listed the themes of today’s talk, I named four topics, and hinted at, but did not specify a fifth and final theme. This theme is close to my heart. However, it may strike some of you, at least initially, as consolatory sentimentalism or a last-ditch attempt to rescue a modicum of national pride from a pervasive sense of national humiliation engendered by the economic/social crisis and ongoing recession in Greece during the past six years. As I just remarked, this stimulating new creative agent is close to my heart. Please bear with me as I further indulge in personal narrative.

By way of background, none of us in Greece these past years of crisis, no matter how successful we may have been, and in many cases still are, has been immune to the sense of humiliation, often downright despair. Suicide rates once the lowest in Europe have increased by 40%. Our self-esteem has been battered, and often, when travelling abroad and having to endure snide criticism, we have really felt like the black sheep of Europe. I too have been plagued by this feeling. I took it personally. Lazy Greeks they said!! My ‘Greekness’, was under threat and the source of great discomfort.

This story I am about to tell you is in essence, a personal story of how I have recovered and am recovering my ‘Greekness’, as I like to call this unexpected source of creative energy, which has reinforced my personal entrepreneurial projects and future ambitions. It’s just a quiet story of personal development, but it’s mine and it’s true.

Hitherto, the offices of my group of companies were located high up on Kifissias Avenue, at a considerable distance from the center of Athens. This area, consisting of mostly high-rise office buildings, is home to the majority of the largest companies in Greece. The areas, however, is devoid of any special history, let alone charm. Indeed, you wouldn’t go there unless you had a practical reason for doing so. Think of it as a something like a modest Wall Street.

During our residence there I began to feel increasingly troubled and unsettled. Try as I would, I couldn’t put my finger on what was bothering me. The day came, however, when, almost out of the blue, I felt a deep urge to touch base with my Greek roots, to acquire what the late Montreal poet Irving Layton called ‘improved binoculars’, namely, a sharper sense of vision and a resurgence of inspiration.

So I decided on the spot, to relocate our offices to the celebrated historical center of Athens. A continuing joy for me now, as I tackle with renewed energy and confidence my entrepreneurial projects, is the magnificent view from my vast office window. The window commands a stunning view, which, in the foreground just past Amalias Avenue, reveals the beauty of the Zappeion National Park, and, to the right, a view of the Temple of Olympian Zeus.

AND THIS IS WHERE MY STORY BEGINS!! One day while looking at it Temple of Olympian Zeus from my office, I wanted for whatever reason to know more. And I googled it.

That Temple has a fascinating and very complex building history. Construction began in the 6th century BC, around 520 BC, during the rule of the Athenian tyrants, who envisaged building the greatest temple in the ancient world, but it was not completed until the reign of the Roman Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century AD, some 638 years after the project had begun -- and this is what initiated my curiosity. I WANTED TO KNOW WHY? And I got my answer. The temple was left unfinished during the years of Athenian democracy, apparently because the Greeks wanted it to be a testament for all new generations to never trust politicians! They wanted it to remain a sad ‘white elephant’, a testimony to generations of unscrupulous, incompetent and self-serving politicos.

In the treatise Politics, Aristotle cited the temple as an example of how tyrannies engaged the populace in great works for the state (like a white elephant) and left them no time, energy or means to rebel or think.

And this is where it all made sense to me. My ancestors were talking to me but all this time I was not listening. These last 5 years were not my fault. The blame lies elsewhere. I should be ashamed of nothing.

Now, on a daily basis, I leave the office for an hour a day, and begin my own walking exploration of the nooks and crannies of Ancient Athens. I like to think I am myself becoming something of a peripatetic philosopher, as I walk along Dionysiou Areopagitou around the Acropolis, past the Pynx, along the Agora and down to the Thission Temple. I am no classical scholar –– far from it- but my personal engagement with Greek history in situ, energizes me and makes me eager to learn as much as I can. I feel moved as I imagine myself walking along paths where the great Greek philosophers, historians, and poets, and even, alas, politicians, might have walked and talked with great animation, as Greeks still talk today.

The remarkable and rare experience I enjoyed as I wandered among the ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus took me by surprise and left me profoundly moved. Somehow, influenced by the beauty of the setting and its great historical resonance, I felt utterly transformed and energized. I was both the same George, but also a new and happier George, with a relish for new challenges, among them the entrepreneurial ones I have spoken so much about today.

Well, I want you to trust and gain strength from your own ‘Greekness’, whereby you needn’t wait for any political class to be trailblazers,as you are the trailblazer. You are the entrepreneurs/investors with big realizable dreams. Also you are the entrepreneurs who can produce those invincible Business Plans and attract investors, many of them among us today, to assure the Cash Flow you will need, as you proceed.

As you can see, my continuing engagement with the cultural history of this great city, has revived my ‘Greekness’, and put this ‘Greekness’ in the service of my entrepreneurial life. This renewed sense of connection with a great past, makes me want to continue advance my current projects, with unflagging energy and confidence, grow the Greek economy, and, above all, provide through my endeavors and those of my colleagues, a stream of new jobs in Greece. You too are leaders, who can set Greece on a new path to prosperity. So trust your ‘Greekness’, as one of the engines of your dauntless entrepreneurial energy and motivation. Please make a difference, and join us in this project of Greek revival."