ATHENS – More than ever Greek officials and business leaders emphasize the importance of help from the Hellenic Diaspora for Greece to recover and thrive. Elias Spirtounias, Executive Director of the American Hellenic Chamber of Commerce (Amcham) and Grigoris Stergioulis, Chairman of Enterprise Greece, a government agency designed to attract and assist foreign investors, recently discussed the main matters with The National Herald.
The issues brought up by potential investors include frustrating bureaucratic red tape, maddeningly-slow law courts, sluggish bank lending, and questionable growth prospects.
Investors also emphasize the importance of the rule of law and stable conditions necessary for company forecasts, including tax rates and the regulatory environment, and they cite the long-delayed Hellenikon development as a litmus test for Greece’s seriousness about generating large investments.
“We all have to understand that Greece is competing for investments with more than 100 countries. If we don’t improve our business environment and make it more friendly to investors, it will not happen,”said Spirtounias.
Stergioulis knows well the pain of Greece’s courtsfrom his days as CEO of Hellenic Petroleum, “but this bothers all of us. Those problems are not characteristics of a serious country.”
“There are good intentions and numerous politicians and ministers have attempted to improve the situation,” Spirtounias said, “but they are blocked by the whole political mechanism” and the expectations of the people. He asked rhetorically “who will come out to explain to the average citizen,‘guys, forget about the past. Up to now the state could feed you, but now it cannot.’ But as a business organization this is what Amcham tries to covey somehow.”
There are reports of progress, especially with tourism investments, and the success stories of young entrepreneurs suggest mindsets are changing.
At a recent press conference on Mediterranean hotels and resorts“I was shocked to hear that the Greek hotel sector will gain the lion’s share of new investments – approximately 22 billion euros in the next six years,” Stergioulis said.
MAKING FAST TRACK FASTER
Stergioulis says there can be special arrangements for the legal requirements of foreign investors, and regarding bureaucratic obstacles, ”I must note that Enterprise Greece includes a program called Fast Track. It began five years ago” an initiative of the prior government – “and we are currently strengthening it.”
With Fast Track, “every businessman will receive rapid answers regarding issues or problems with their investments…we also make efforts to coordinate with other agencies at all levels of government so that it can truly be a “one stop shop…Our aim is to monitor and assist investments from start to finish…we know it is easy say this…now we must show this,” he said.
These are crucial developments for Greece’s future, and Spirtounias said “speaking of American companies, they are not governmental driven…they are looking for profits. In order to make their investments here, they will check off all the prerequisites…they will plug in the numbers and only if they are ok will they make investments. As Greeks we need to understand that.”
And Stergioulis agrees, saying investments “illustrate all the issues with a country’s economic development, but Islands of excellence and people who get it do exist.
Spirtounias told TNH that “as a chamber, we are in contact with all kinds of companies, including startups, and you can’t believe how many diamonds we have here in Greece, especially in the periphery” far from Athens.
The Diaspora’s help is needed to educate foreigners of Greece’s diversity of goods and services and Greek excellence in IT and other fields in science and technology, and about the successes of young entrepreneurs. Stergioulis noted that groups like The Hellenic Initiative (THI) have helped tremendously, but we must all help the startups.”
Spirtounias added “there are great businesses that few people know about. We usually spotlight these kinds of businesses at Chamber events,” especially with the diaspora, but he acknowledged that You can’t think about Greek-Americans only when you need them, when there are catastrophes and disasters.”
He recently emphasized on Greek TV the importance of reaching out to the diaspora and bringing them closer to the motherland, for example, by giving them the right to vote. To strengthen the bonds with the second and third generation, “it’s a matter of strategy, but we don’t have that strategy.”
Stergioulis also emphasizes that“we must address the bad perceptions of Greece in the diaspora, and they are correct, based on their experiences. They have lost money. We must be fair, because Greece cannot exist without the Diaspora.”
He has a personal incentive: “my daughter lives in Los Angeles, so I know about the reality of the brain drain. I want to reassure the diaspora that we will protect their investments and guard their interests.”
But there are more positive things for Stergioulis to accentuate, like the tremendous potential of the agricultural sector where young people are pursuing opportunities and thought is being given to overcoming challenges like the sector’s fragmentation and the predominance of small plots which interfere with markets’requirements for large scale operations. The EU is funding a number of “smart farming” pilot projects in Greece through Greek companies like Intrasoft.
Returning to recent tourism gains Stergioulis urges American investors not be left out, citing not only direct investments in “five-, six-, and seven-star hotels, but the accompanying needs for food service, medical care, spas and other areas.”
Amcham has helped with its investment road shows to the U.S. in conjunction with the Athens Stock Exchange and its annual Greek Economy Conference in Athens which will be held December 3-4.
Among the positive recent developments Stergioulis says is that “Greek relations with the United States are the best ever, thanks to efforts of both countries,” but he warnedwe must be careful to maintain them – and the recent deepening and strengthening of relations with Israel is on all levels.