[The following is a speech given by Euthyvoulos Paraskevaides at the University of Cyprus on the occasion of the University’s tribute to his father, George Paraskevaides.]
Distinguished and Honorable Guests:
My family and I would like to offer our warm thanks to the University of Cyprus, its Rector Prof. Christofides, and his colleagues for today’s tribute to George Paraskevaides, which is an honor for him and our family. We thank you all for your presence here today on my father’s birthday, to honor his memory.
George Paraskevaides studied Architecture at the Polytechnic Institute of Milan. However, I view him as an architect in the greater sense of the word. His is the architect of his family, the architect of his company, and the architect of his national, social, and philanthropic work.
Despite the fact that George Paraskevaides never sought any reward for his social and philanthropic efforts, I know from some of his personal entries that the only thing he expected for anything that he had done in his life was to be remembered and to have others follow his paradigm. That is why I am certain that he would be particularly honored and pleased with today’s event.
It is difficult, if not impossible, for someone to sum up George Paraskevaides’ work in just a few minutes, which is why I will not try. Instead, I would like to talk about what I believe were the most important milestones in his professional career and his convictions.
Country, his fellow man, company, and family. These were the basic tenets around which George Paraskevaides’ life revolved.
After building up his firm in Cyprus, George Paraskevaides – a man with vision and a sharp intellect – saw that Cypriot scientists and technicians had huge potential and abilities that were being minimally utilized in the small nation of Cyprus, which only had a few projects to offer back then.
It was then that he – with the concurrence of his partner, the late Stelios Joannou – decided to expand the company overseas.
Libya had begun developing its petroleum industry, which is why he made contact with officials there, which resulted in the company getting its first contract in Libya in 1962, in the new capital city of Bayda. That was the catalyst for the start of the company’s overseas activity in the large market of the Arab world.
The first years in Libya after 1962 were very difficult for everyone who worked there. However, they successfully completed the job and lived up to their obligations in full. George Paraskevaides visited the site very frequently to oversee the work and raise employee morale.
After Libya came Saudi Arabia, where the small Cypriot firm successfully competed against larger international companies to win the construction bid for the Dhahran airport. In 1971, the company went to Oman to build the national airport, and then to the Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Algeria, Ethiopia, Qatar, Egypt, and Jordan.
The year 1974 was the most critical. Due to the Turkish invasion, the onslaught from the company’s foreign competitors was merciless.
Foreign firms competing against J&P accused the company of being a non-entity, because its country was now in financial ruin. Morale among Cypriot workers at J&P was low, a large portion of the company’s assets were in northern Cyprus, and to put it simply, everything was ruined!
It was then that my father realized that in order to save the company, he needed to be present at all its job sites in order to defend it and raise the morale of the Cypriot workers.
Due to the situation in Cyprus, however, there was no way to travel abroad. But there was a small route for ships that was still open. We got on board an oil tanker belonging to the Lefkarites Company which was heading for Latakia, thanks to the gracious permission of the Lefkarites family.
We arrived in Latakia the next day, and from there we went to Beirut. We left behind our schools, our friends, our home, and our relatives. We immediately headed for Oman, where the company’s largest project was under way and where it was facing the greatest problems.
All the workers were in a panic because they were worried about their families, especially when the second wave of the invasion was unleashed. My father would gather them all together every night and try to calm them, while during the day he would hasten to the project owner, which was the government of Oman, to reassure them that Cyprus had not been lost and that the company would complete the projects it had undertaken.
At the time, there were senior British military officers in charge of the military projects that the company was building. I remember distinctly that the man responsible for the projects, a British colonel, told my father that if the project is not completed at the agreed time, he was going to imprison him, because the project was a matter of national importance. My father replied “if the job is not complete, let me go to jail!” The job finished on time and the colonel became a very close friend of his!
After the problems in Oman were resolved, he decided that we needed to live in Beirut for a period of time, so he could attend to the company’s overseas needs. His top aides soon followed him there.
A little bit after we moved there, the war in Lebanon broke out. Bullets and bombs were on the daily agenda and things were continually taking a turn for the worse.
That is why we relocated to Dubai, thinking that we would return to Beirut and soon be back home in Cyprus. It was 1975, and we stayed in Dubai for two years. We were not able to return to Lebanon because of the war.
I believe that this was the most difficult period in my father’s professional and family life, as well as that of my entire family.
The growth of the company and its conscious decision to hire Cypriots, purchase service, and buy goods from Cyprus provided the opportunity for an influx of foreign exchange into Cyprus at a time when its economy had been decimated. It also provided the opportunity for thousands of Cypriots to support their families.
As a result, hundreds of millions of dollars poured into Cyprus from the salaries of Cypriot employees working for the company and the purchase of services and materials from our homeland. My father used to tell me that the first serious influx of foreign exchange that entered Cyprus after the invasion was from the salaries of the Cypriots who worked for J&P.
After the company’s expansion overseas, Cypriot scientists and technicians had the opportunity to work on huge projects of every kind and build up their experience, while at the same time proving that they were just as good, in not better, than anyone else working for international companies competing against us.
All this experience made its way back to our homeland, and I believe that it helped support the growth and development of our sector, and by extension, the construction industry, so that it would be in a position to respond to the growth challenges facing our island.
I believe that every major Cypriot construction firm has senior officials who once worked for J&P. Meanwhile, Cypriot engineers and technicians earned international respect through their successes working on these large scale and varied projects, thus increasing their marketability worldwide.
My father’s faith in Cypriot scientists and technicians is what made his vision come to life. It was all due to the diligence, honor, and philotimo of the Cypriots. His deep love for his profession was the driving force that led my father and his coworkers to succeed in the feats that his company had taken on.
His principles, which he implemented in his company, forged lasting relationships of trust with his clients, which were characterized by reliability, quality and speed of service, and honesty. My father’s respect and appreciation for his coworkers helped groom his trusty associates.
He never called anyone an “employee.” They were all “coworkers” and enjoyed equal status, just like the members of a family. In his speeches, he would always use the term “your company” when talking to his coworkers. Everyone would speak about “their company,” and they were – and continue to be – very proud.
Whenever I visit the firm’s project sites overseas, the pride with which our engineers and technicians present their work, the quality of the product, and the praise that they usually draw from the project owner are evident.
My father believed in fair compensation. I remember that foreign competitors had intervened with the government of a nation, who was the owner of a project on which the company was working, and complained that J&P was paying high wages, which they were not willing to give.
My father was a very strong believer in young people. He liked giving advice and encouraging them through his experiences. He set up a technical school run by the company to train young project managers and technicians by utilizing the experience of veteran coworkers.
Of course, he considered it necessary for businesses to turn a profit, but felt that this should not be the motive. The motive was to create, and the most important thing for him were the thousands of people who relied on the company to make a living. He believed in actions, not words, and he would advise me not to pay so much attention to what someone says, but to focus on what they do.
Today, at a time when our country is suffering from a major economic crisis, it is reminiscent of the days of the Turkish invasion. Cyprus will survive the crisis and have a bright future. The Cypriot people have proven this and they will do it again.
Back then, we had the Arab nations. Today, we have even more: the major importance of Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean, our natural wealth, and our European family. Cyprus is desirable to many people for many reasons. Let us remember what our fathers achieved after the invasion, and let us remember the principles on which they relied: unity, hard work, frugality, honesty, and philotimo.
For you young university students, who are the future of our nation, always remember what the previous generation managed to achieve following the destruction of 1974 and respond to those previous generations with the ancient Greek axiom “we will be much better;” because you can be.
If the life led by George Paraskevaides and the thousands who followed him means anything, let it be that they will teach us through their lives, so that we can endow our children with a Cyprus in which they can live happily, in safety and prosperity, proud of their homeland.
I believe that this is the finest memorial we can offer my father and all the pioneers of that era who have passed on.