Aristos Doxiadis is a private equity professional and angel investor based in Athens. He has managed consulting and auditing companies, worked on anti-poverty programs for the European Commission, and planned industrial policy for the Greek government. He has degrees in Social Studies (Harvard) and Economics (London) and is a Visiting Fellow at the Governance and Public Management Group, Warwick Business School. Aristos Doxiadis sat down with the Reinventing Greece team at Gazi College near Monastiraki in Athens to talk about entrepreneurship and the future of Greece’s economy.
Reinventing Greece: What do you think are the unique aspects of the Greek economy?
Aristos Doxiadis: The whole idea is to try and push things forward. What I would really like to try and get out of discussions like this is something we talked about in the debate towards the end. We have this great diaspora in the states and all over the world and we’re not, I don’t think we’re connecting, the locals with the diaspora, well enough. As soon as you go and see how businesses work in the states, or in the U.K. or in Germany, and you come back and try to understand how your friends back home work, it’s oftentimes a cultural shock. It’s very different. One has a tendency to say “Look, guys, you’re not doing this right because there is too much bureaucracy, and there’s corruption, and you don’t focus. Let me show you how it’s done.” And this doesn’t work. I think that the best way to connect people, and to produce joint results, is if one accepts that it’s very hard in Greece to work the way you work in Boston; and therefore, I would say rather try and say to the local people: “What do you need from us? How can I help you? I understand that you cannot change your work habits very easily, but I would still like to work with you and make some money together.”
RG: So instead of conforming the people to a system, conforming the system for the people?
AD: To some degree, yeah. Yes.
RG: Where is the starting point for small business? How do we get investors to trust in anything, to invest in anything that is coming out of Greece?
AD: I don’t think it’s very realistic at the moment to talk about large-scale investment in Greece, because there’s too much uncertainty, institutional uncertainty. So in the short term, I think that the best way to help entrepreneurs in Greece is perhaps, not so much funds, as to help them expand abroad. If they have a good product, a good idea, try and build bridges with people in the states. For example, saying: “Look, we think your product may sell through this channel or that channel. I think that would be invaluable.” And perhaps give them feedback saying: “Look this service has potential but you should tweak it this way or that way so that it makes more sense for an American consumer or an American buyer.” This is probably a more realistic way of assisting and perhaps even more valuable than funds at this state.
RG: I see. How about maybe being able to provide many smaller businesses with seed capital…
AD: Seed capital will definitely definitely help, but even more than seed capital, is hand-holding and showing the ropes in the international market.
RG: Perhaps some kind of connection between Greek-Americans and Greeks or Greek-American mentors and Greek mentors, or some sort of combination might work best?
AD: That might work, yes. I think mentors who understand how Greece works and mentors who understand how the technology in the international market works could be a good combination.
RG: Do you think that there are certain markets that benefit more than others? Many applications for funding for Greek-American innovation concepts are now focusing on particular industries such as tourism, shipping, green energy, and agriculture. Do you think that there are other categories that could benefit Greece?
AD: First of all, as a general rule, I think anything that has most, if not all, effort should be directed to export oriented ventures. Within that context, well of course, one would say, is energy export oriented? Not quite, but its import substituting so it is important; I would include energy in there. As I’ve said several times, it’s very hard to pick winners beforehand. To say that Sector A or Sector B is better suited for Greece. There are some basic characteristics that are important. We are not going to have large industries, large new industrial investment in Greece in any sizeable numbers. Maybe we’ll see a couple, 3 or 4 that create 500 or 1000 jobs in one chunk. But this is not going to be typical because to have that kind of investment you would either need a very low-cost labor force, which we don’t have in Greece, or you would have to have already a manufacturing specialty in some area so that the multinational would want to come to Greece to build components of a special kind. No, we don’t have that either in Greece. So we’re not going to have sizeable industrial investment. That means that what is going to succeed is probably going to be small-scale businesses. Then you start thinking: “Well in what type of sectors is small-scale not a disadvantage?” I think there are certain professional services, for example, as many of you heard in the debate, we have so many doctors that we should find a way of exporting medical services, if we could – but not exporting the doctors themselves. In general, we have too many professionals that are just sitting around in very small markets so one would want to find ways to globalize professional services. See how it’s happened elsewhere and try to help out.
I think technology; digital technology in any form is something that could be done. Of course, leading edge, really leading edge is very difficult from here but lets say early application of new ideas would be something that would be interesting. And we see some of that going on, I think.
RG: Do you think that there are any reforms or changes that need to happen now for all these changes to take place, perhaps before the innovation even begins?
AD: Well to address the so-called memorandum and the follow-up program, I think it has for what we are talking about now – the purposes we are talking about now – it has many positive aspects and a few negative ones. The negative one, of course, is that they are trying to balance the budget by relying too much on tax increases, which is a real problem. I am all for balancing the budget very quickly; I don’t think that boosting demand is going to work in Greece. I would much prefer if they balance the budget by cutting down on expenditure weekly. And they’re not willing to do that, so they’re raising taxes. This is a problem.
Now on the positive side, if Greece were to go through all the reforms that are listed in the memorandum, that could change the business climate dramatically in one year. Cutting down on red tape; some of red tape incidentally is hidden red tape – it’s not just signatures. It’s the fact, for example, that you have 170 different pension funds which means if you’re an entrepreneur, your employees might belong to 10 different pension funds. And this among all the other problems it causes to the welfare system itself, also adds to the bureaucracy. Because if you have 170 pension funds, it’s very difficult to streamline the bureaucracy of the pension funds. If things like that, that are written down as measures that should be enacted, if they actually are enacted, I think the business climate is going to get much better. All of that depends on political stability, on not having so many people so angry all the time, so that you never know even if you have good legislature pass, you never know what is going to happen next year in Greece. That, of course, keeps people from investing and trying.
So, to recap: political stability, get through the reforms, and lower taxation. If you could do all three, that would be nice.
RG: So in that climate, do you think that there are particular industries that might prosper over others?
AD: What I would say is that one can expect to see export growth in conventional sectors as well. Agriculture is a tragedy in Greece. It’s a tragic story. Nobody doubts that Greece has the climate and the soil to produce very good niche products. We also have the people who have left their village to go study at technical school or become lawyers or doctors but they have their own little plot of land. These people, who are highly educated, when – if – they go back to their land are the people who are able to search the world market for new techniques, to know what markets the niche markets develop, to be able to learn about prices and so on, which your typical farmer in the underdeveloped world wouldn’t do. So, in theory, we would be very well placed to have small-scale, very high quality agriculture. It hasn’t happened, I think, mostly because people for various reasons like lifestyle and status, have been reluctant to remain on the farm if they could do something else. But I think that now, necessity is turning a lot of people back to the land, and the statistics show that. For twenty years, we have been losing jobs in agriculture every single year. In the past two years, we have seen a return of jobs to agriculture, more than 10%. We had about 60,000 new jobs in an agricultural labor force of half a million. So that’s more than 10%, so 12% – in 2 years. Some of that, but not all of that, has been people like I have been describing: educated people, urban people, who are first or second generation Athenians or Thessalonikians who are going back to their father’s land. And I think there’s a lot of hope in that.
RG: I think that’s a natural transition into the “Intelligence Squared” debate from the other night. As you know, there were three professionals arguing for leaving Greece on one panel and three professionals arguing to stay in Greece on the other. You were one of the three who chose to stay; that was a conscious decision – to stay and to try and improve the situation. We had a question that wasn’t asked.
For Greek-Americans, “sto exoteriko” — the outside — who would be interested in returning to the country and creating a career, there is a stigma of the Amerikanaki, or the American because you’re in between lands. Now, this commentary has stalled a bit, but once the problems have been solved, surely, it will return. How could Greek-Americans establish businesses here?
AD: Yes, you would definitely need to make friends with a local Greek whom you can trust, you both trust each other, and then build upon your combined skills…
First of all, that debate should not have been a debate of that format, let me put it this way. Because this is not a black and white issue… This one is so complex. If it were about one person, then we could get around and say, you stay or you go! [AD smiles playfully]. I think all of us would have preferred to sit around the table and talk about the pros and cons. Now, what I heard from the other side was what I expected to hear and most of it was quite rational. They outlined quite well the reasons why people choose to leave. In the end, what I think is missing is something that I hinted at in the debate, towards the end, and I said here earlier. We are not thinking hard enough, both sides, on how to use the diaspora to help Greek development. We’re not doing that right.
Biography of Aristos Doxiadis taken from: http://www.opendemocracy.net/author/aristos-doxiadis.
By Nayia Moysidis — Athens, July 10, 2011