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Louise Simpson sails the skies over lunch with easyJet founder, Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, and gets the lowdown on his latest aviation project, fastjet[/caption]
“Aviation and Africa are both risky places to do business,” says Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, “so fastjet is twice as risky.”
I’m spearing Burgundy snails into my mouth as one of the world’s best-known businessmen tells me about his latest venture over lunch at the Quai des Artistes restaurant. It’s the typical Monaco tale where friends of friends end up creating multi-million-euro businesses together. The friend of a friend in question is fellow Monaco resident David Lenigas. Their collaboration started in 2011 when Lenigas chaired Lonrho – a British-colonial conglomerate with a small, unsuccessful airline. Lenigas turned to Stelios for help.
“We need to change the aircraft, we need to change the name, we need to change the business model,” Stelios replied...
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Their brainchild is Africa’s first low-cost airline. To date, the airline has six aircraft and is expanding slowly across the African continent. Stelios remains cautiously optimistic about its future. Although his name launched the brand, he isn’t running the show.
“I’m not on the board. I have only a 10% shareholding so it’s an interesting bet on what happens in Africa.”
This hands-off approach to business is visible in his private investment company easyGroup that owns the easy brand (Stelios had the prescience to form this when he set up easyJet). With more than a dozen travel and leisure businesses currently licensed under the easy name and paying royalties to easyGroup, Stelios doesn’t actually run any of them.
“It’s about putting the right people in the right place at the right time and giving them the right tools. Easy is not a lifestyle brand. It stands for value for money. In a way, I got the brand-licensing and franchising idea from Richard Branson.”
This is neither the first nor last time during our lunch that Stelios shocks me. To give credit to a rival businessman requires exceptional modesty. As a travel journalist accustomed to hearing self-promotional flannel and corporate jargon, I find his plain speaking refreshing. The billionaire businessman exudes the calm confidence of a born entrepreneur. At an age when most of us are cutting our teeth on our photocopying skills, Stelios had already set up his own shipping company, Stelmar Shipping that he later floated on the New York Stock exchange and sold. He went on to set up easyJet in 1995 at the age of 28. The low-cost airline challenged the traditional aviation model doing away with free onboard meals, allocated seating and travel-agent commissions. Two decades later, his no-frills approach has weathered the test of time. EasyJet now outstrips British Airways as Britain’s biggest airline with almost 70 million passengers per year. His success on the profit-margin tightrope of low-cost travel is highlighted when set against the backdrop of countless failures. Who remembers defunct low-cost airlines such as Jetstream Express, Zoom Airlines or Debonair?
While passengers have voted with their customer loyalty, the British press has proved harder to please. The Independent has described him sneeringly as “Travel’s Agent Orange”, while other newspapers attacked his recent easyJet campaign against outrageous pay packages for key executives and for a healthier dividend stream for shareholders (Stelios remains the largest single shareholder with 33%). When his activism paid literal dividends in his negotiation of 40% profits for shareholders and in his restoration of a cordial relationship with the easyJet board, the press remained silent.
“The interesting thing about the press is that they focus on conflict rather than peace,” he observes.
Stelios has been quoted erroneously as author of the aviation adage: the way to become a millionaire is to start as a billionaire and then set up a low-cost airline. Several newspapers point to his wealthy parentage as if that diminishes his success. I disagree. After a decade in Monaco watching gilded youths searching for the meaning of existence at the bottom of a glass of Crystal champagne, the challenge of living up to a successful parent is evident. When I ask him what advice he can give to the principality’s youthful heirs apparent, Stelios chooses his words:
“Not everybody is predisposed to entrepreneurship and starting a business. It’s very risky so I admire equally [those] who invest it in a conservative manner [rather than losing] it. But I also believe there’s a case for giving some of it back which I think is very respectable. If you’ve inherited a lot of money, why not help others?”
Stelios puts his money where his mouth is through his own charity. The Stelios Philanthropic Foundation funds projects in the UK, Greece, Cyprus and Monaco. As well as his ongoing funding of academic scholarships in London and Athens, the foundation’s current focus is Food from the Heart. This foundation programme distributes around 15,000 pre-packaged snacks daily to people in need in Greece and Cyprus via numerous outlets from the foundation’s own premises to churches and even kebab kiosks. His eyes soften and mist over as he describes the misfortunes of high-school classmates who made their fortunes and then lost them as the Greek economy collapsed in 2011.
“I almost feel guilty for my affluence,” he whispers.
Over our main course of tender lamb shanks and veal chops, we turn to the subject of aviation technology. In July 2015, a solar-powered plane managed a record-breaking 7,200km flight across the Pacific. The plane lasted five nights and five days without fuel through the use of 17,000 photovoltaic cells and on-board rechargeable lithium-ion batteries to enable nighttime flying. Given that the pilot had to breathe through an oxygen mask, suffer huge temperature swings and pee into a bottle, I venture to ask Stelios whether such technology will ever become practical for use on passenger planes.
Stelios remains cautious: “Let’s get some cars moving on solar energy before we move to planes. I’m not technically minded. I have a very simple philosophy in business: I like tried-and-tested technology. I don’t want to be the airline that flies the first ever of anything. There is something very reassuring about flying on an Airbus A320 – they’ve made 6000 of them. Let others try and take the risks themselves.”
His risk adversity is understandable given that he weathered a manslaughter charge in his early 20s when his father’s ship tanker sank in the Mediterranean. He and his father were cleared of any charges after a lengthy Italian court case following the accident. Gradually Stelios has found safe harbors in business as in life. One of these is Monaco. He describes the principality as an “acquired taste” that he fell in love with as he sought to spend less time on an airplane. He was drawn by the principality’s multi-cultural edge.
“Everybody is welcome in Monaco. There are no foreigners because we’re all foreigners.”
So the aviation billionaire has settled in Monaco, while safeguarding his globetrotting nature with cold winter months spent in the Caribbean, business trips in London and family gatherings in his beloved Athens. His cosmopolitan spirit is visible even in his palate as he admits to being “equally happy” with French, Italian, Japanese and of course Greek cuisine.
Stelios works a little every day of the year, but does allow himself one hobby. Aptly for the son of a shipping magnate and for the man who has made his name in travel, his hobby is sailing. Stelios likes to go out for an afternoon sail in his “little boat” (a modest way to describe his 36-metre sailing yacht moored in front of the Monaco Yacht Club).
“I usually stand at the helm,” he muses.
At play as at work, the transport king is at the helm.
Article first published August 26, 2016.