By Neophytos Kyriakou
A patriot, a hard worker, a visionary, a philanthropist, a man who was deeply knowledgeable, down to earth, and compassionate… That is how three of George Parasevaides’ closest associates, who knew him intimately and worked together with him for decades, remembered him.
TNH met with Harry Sophoclides, former president of the World Federation of Overseas Cypriots, Jordan Christodoulides, a 60-year veteran at Joannou and Paraskevaides Ltd. (J&P), and Panos Panayides, another close aide to the late George Paraskevaides, at the offices of the Cyprus-based global building and engineering contractor J&P, and asked them to look back on some of their memories.
Although all three men are currently retired, they still go to their offices at J&P daily to offer consulting advice. Their main reason for doing so is out of infinite appreciation for George Paraskevaides, a man who died but was not forgotten, nor will he ever be forgotten by his top aides, who spent decades at his side, from the very first steps that this company-turned-colossus made in the building sector.
HARRY SOPHOCLIDES: A Great Patriot
Harry Sophoclides personally experienced George Paraskevaides leading J&P on its long journey to recognition as a worldwide construction giant, however, he also worked closely with him when the former served as president of the Word Federation of Overseas Cypriots (POMAK) for several years and witnessed Paraskevaides’ tireless efforts to find a solution to the Cyprus issue.
TNH: Seven years have passed since George Paraskevaides’ death. You were one of his closest associates. What do you remember most about him today?
HS: We experienced so many wonderful things alongside him while serving as his close associates for so many years. George Paraskevaides was a lover of Hellenic culture and was very knowledgeable about Greece’s ancient and modern history. He was a great patriot, a person whom you could easily approach, someone with whom you could talk and who would tell you what was on his mind, and he viewed everyone in the company – and outside of it as well – more as associates than as subordinate employees. What made him stand out was the decency and compassion that he showed for everyone.
TNH: As an entrepreneur, he was a unique example of a self-made man who built an empire from scratch, coming from a country that had suffered financial destruction due to the Turkish invasion. What do you think was the secret behind his success?
HS: The Turkish invasion brought about major economic damages due to the loss of jobs and property in the occupied northern part of Cyprus. Our company, however, which was established in 1941, was already very large by 1974, and held a large market share in the construction projects taking place in the neighboring Arab countries, primarily, where we were active since 1960. As a result, the company was able to offer financial assistance to Cyprus so it could stand on its feet right after the destruction wreaked by the Turkish invasion, by offering jobs to 12,500 Cypriots, in addition to those whom we already employed abroad. Paraskevaides gave precedence to employing Cypriots, and he did this everywhere, whenever possible. He used to say that there cannot be Cypriots going hungry while we are giving jobs to foreigners. He did this wherever possible, giving jobs to Cypriots who were paid three and four times greater than other employees we had from Asian countries.
What made him stand out as a businessman and an employer was that he loved what he did and he was truly involved in it. Personally, I used to liken George Paraskevaides to a world chess champion. Most of us think about our next move when playing chess, but he would think about his next move, along with the next six or seven moves concurrently. He took all the necessary measures to ensure that he would not lose out on any major jobs and made sure his competition was kept at bay. He would take risks, but he also had great foresight. I remember when I first joined the company and spoke with Mr. Christodoulides – another close aide to Paraskevaides – he used to tell me that he had his own views on things but could be convinced otherwise depending on what George believed. For example, if George would tell me not to travel to the United States on a particular airline tomorrow, I would avoid doing it. We were not superstitious or anything like that, but Paraskevaides was a man who could see deep into the future and he was able to make the right moves and choices. There is no need to talk about what a hard worker he was. He was among the first to arrive at the office and one of the last to leave. He also took care of his health, watched his diet and physical fitness, and began the day with his morning exercises. I remember him from back in the 1960s, when exercise was not yet popular, waking up in the morning and going to exercise at a company worksite in Libya, where we had stayed for a while to oversee the construction of an airport…
TNH: The Greek-American Community, and you, of course, as president of the World Federation of Overseas Cypriots, witnessed his struggles to liberate Cyprus from up close. The occupation of Cyprus troubled him until his dying day. Tell us a little about his work in advancing the national interest, because he also did a great deal of work behind the scenes. What does his absence mean for Cyprus today?
HS: George Paraskevaides did a lot, especially in the U.S., where he operated primarily in collaboration with the Greek-American community, because he believed that the U.S. had the ability to make the greatest contribution towards resolving the Cyprus issue. He had given a great deal of money to a lot of people to inform the public, and so that the Community could support politicians who would promote our national issues. This support was offered to local members of Congress, senators, and even presidents of the United States. For instance, following the invasion of Cyprus, he offered financial support to the election campaigns of all the recent presidents, Jimmy Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton. He was not interested in their party affiliation, but their positions on the Cyprus issue, and he wanted to ensure that the Greek-American Community had access to the White House. He collaborated with all the leaders of the Greek-American Community on this issue. He initially worked together with Gene Rossides (former president of the American-Hellenic Institute, a former cabinet undersecretary, and former publisher of TNH), and subsequently with the Archbishop of America, the President of PSEKA and the Pancyprian Federation Philip Christopher, publishers and media owners, whom he would offer financial backing to promote the Cyprus issue.
TNH: Do you believe that he would have supported the solution of a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation, like the kind that the United Nations is proposing today?
HS: Paraskevaides was a realist and a man who could see the bitter truth. Of course, he himself would have wanted to see a purely Greek Cyprus, but, on the other hand, he knew what was attainable and what not. He would not have been among those arguing against a solution that, in his opinion, would be the best one attainable under the existing circumstances; a solution that would be functional and viable, and above all, would respect the basic human rights of all the citizens of Cyprus.
JORDAN CHRISTODOULIDES: A Man in Every Sense of the Word
TNH: Mr. Christodoulides, you were George Paraskevaides’ right-hand man for decades. Tell us a few words about him.
JC: I would say that above all else, George Paraskevaides was a man in every sense of the word, who was accepting of everyone. Sometimes, he would even stop his work to meet with someone who would tell his secretary that he had come to personally see Paraskevaides. And the most common type of these instances involved people who would come asking him for assistance and money. Especially after the Turkish invasion, he would handle these sort of requests daily and he never turned anybody down.
TNH: Cyprus, its people, and the problem that the Turkish invasion caused in the land brought him great distress, correct?
JC: The issue of the homeland was one of his chief concerns. The reason why he acquainted himself with presidents and heads of state was on account of our national issue. He saw them all and gave a lot of money with his motive always being to get them to help Cyprus and find a solution to the occupation. This was especially true of the United States. Today, I realize that the Americans are pressuring our government instead of the Turks… He enjoyed great fame in every nation he visited. For instance, they even made him an honorary citizen of Muscat in Oman. It was a country that our company has been helping with its modernization since the 1960s.
TNH: How would you describe him as a businessman?
JC: He was a risk taker. He relied heavily on his staff and associates, in whom he placed full trust. And I do not think that anyone ever betrayed him. Everyone worked hard and very conscientiously, and he himself would reward them generously. He helped not only his top aides, but everyone who worked in the company. He was generous and gave money everywhere… In my opinion, the excellent relations that he always had with the company personnel was the element that most contributed to his success and the success of the company. He placed his full and absolute trust in me personally. I have been working in this company for nearly 60 years, since 1946. I was its first technical advisor. Today, although I have retired, I continue to come to the office every day. I do it voluntarily so I can help the company as much as I can…
PANOS PANAYIDES: He Invested in Human Relations
TNH: Mr. Panayides, as a close associate to George Paraskevaides, we would like you to tell us what you remember most about him.
PP: Many things. He was a man with creativity, who made decisions in his life that helped the company become what it is today. He was a man who took big risks, but they were very calculated. Whenever it was something that would expose the company to certain dangers, he would come and we would examine the ways in which to limit those dangers. For instance, we went to countries like Libya. He thought of bringing along a British firm on this project in order to have the security of a large nation like Britain. We went to Iraq for the first time. It was a difficult place, but he once again ensured that there were safety mechanisms in place.
George Paraskevaides was very friendly with his employees and they worked not only for the company, but for him and the company managers. That is how he managed to pass along the spirit to the employees that they were not working for some impersonal company, but for themselves, because the company’s success was their success as well. He was a man who could speak and communicate with an unskilled laborer with the same ease that he would talk to heads of government in the countries where we operated.
TNH: How would you describe him as a businessman? What were his greatest strengths?
PP: He was a man who invested in his relations with the company’s personnel because he believed in one very basic thing. He was fairly detail oriented, but when moving forward, he would also listen to the people surrounding him and make decisions after listening to various other opinions. The company did not get to be this big just by sheer coincidence. It was because he himself had foresight. When we first went to Muscat, for example, it was a country that had only a one-and-a-half kilometer road. Many other companies would have been skeptical of going there. We took a risk by going, but it was a calculated risk and we soon became the largest company that was carrying out the most construction projects in that nation. It was a decision that he was bold enough to make and we took a major step forward as a result.
TNH: Here in the U.S., he is best known for his work on behalf of the national cause.
PP: His work towards the national interest and his philanthropic work are equally important. He sought to help reunify Cyprus, but he died without being able to see the country regain its freedom. He always believed that America was a nation that could provide a solution to the Cyprus issue, and it’s true. And so, he placed greater importance on this nation. He would go to the U.S. and meet with presidents, senators, and members of Congress, and in all the contacts he would make, his message focused on the point that it would be in the best interests of the U.S. to have a liberated Cyprus, free of Turkish occupation and influence. And I believe that everyone knows that this development would be in the best interests of the entire Western world.