NEW YORK – The idea that each and every person of Greek and Cypriot descent can be economic ambassadors for the homelands received a boost when Cyprus’ House of Representatives approved a bill paving the way to for the island nation’s first casino.
Diaspora Greeks and Hellenes have been playing a catalytic role for developments ranging from the casino project to the first business forum presented by the Republic of Cyprus in cooperation the Cyprus Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KEVE) in February, 2016.
The story of the role played by Michael Karloutsos, entrepreneur and community leader is both a cautionary tale about how the countries can squander vital opportunities, and a model of how to seize them.
He first spoke of Greece’s fumble. “I got a call from Congressman Gus Bilirakis, who was attending an AIPAC event. Bilirakis put hotel mogul Sheldon Adelson on the phone and he said he wants to invest $3-4billion of his own money to build a casino in Greece.”
Karloutsos spoke with the then-Prime Minister, who urged him to speak with a cabinet minister who was coming to the U.S.
A meeting was set up, but nothing ever came of it. “I am drowning in work,” the minister told Karloutsos, who pleaded “you don’t understand…other investors will follow his lead and we can stop the crisis dead in its tracks.”
He had to tell Adelson that Greece was not interested.
Sometime later he got a call from Adelson, who said “I am here in Tel Aviv and my pilot says I can get to Larnaca airport in 45 minutes. Can you set up a meeting with the president?
“We had an incredible meeting with President Christofias,” TNH was told, but the AKEL communist party voted not to support it and it all fell apart. Adelson shifted his attention elsewhere, but “that meeting set the stage” Karloutsos said, for the legislation that Cyprus passed last week.
The opportunity returned when Nicos Anastasiades became president and he seized it, sending to the U.S. people like Michalis Michael, Partner with KPMG Cyprus, to do a white paper on the casino industry. The report catalogued the errors made in Greece where “nine casinos were set up through patronage in the wrong places,” Karloutsos said, so “Cyprus decided to build, a big, Las Vegas-style integrated resort – casino, hotel, entertained, hotel, dining, gold, the works, as opposed to what in Greece are called “boxes with slots”- hotels with slot machines with no character to them.
Officials intend for the super casino, which will be built where the winning bidder desires, hopefully by 2018, to be one of the best in the world.
Karloutsos said, “They are thinking big in Cyprus and I like to think we Greek and Cypriot-Americans had something to do with that. We instilled in them this idea of getting beyond what they had done before.”
And he believes the government “is playing it smart. It is using the assets they have, they have not been fighting amongst themselves, they took the initial blow and plugged along.”
“What you don’t see in Cyprus now that you see in Greece are “moutra – long faces.” People are working and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
Andreas Comodromos, honorary chairman of the Cyprus-U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and current President Nicholas Karacostas, spoke with TNH about its recent initiatives.
In 2015 the Chambers met with Anastasiades about groups like their can promote Cypriot recovery and development, and Karacostas the same can be done for Greece.
Among the agenda items was using their relationships with congresspersons to revise those countries’ commercial treaties with the United States.
To promote tourism, the Chamber suggested forming teams of experts in social media to continually disseminate information about tourism in Greece and Cyprus. Karacostas said groups like the Chamber’s Cyprus Young Professionals group, a powerful human resource, could use material generated by the appropriate agencies in the two homelands.
They also want to see ideas that have proven very effective in the United States like incubator programs adapted to Greece and Cyprus.
Comodromos is most excited about the establishment of business forums.
“If you invite 100 people, they are all ambassadors. Each one has a network of another 20 people who have the capability to invest. I myself have that network through 40 years of work that I can make available to Greece and Cyprus,” he said
“Representatives can come to Cyprus from every country in the Diaspora and the government of Greece and Cyprus can present to the extremely successful members of the diaspora what the countries’ needs are, what investment opportunities exists, and create working groups and business to business meetings…The Hellenic and Cypriot Diaspora combined with the business communities back home can create a powerful synergies and relationships at the business and government level, ” said Comodromos.
After the Chamber presented its proposals, Comodromos said, Anastasiades “went back home and he mobilized the responsible agencies and in February 2016 we will have the first business forum,” Comodromos said.
Fotis Fotiou, Presidential Commissioner for Humanitarian Affairs and Overseas Cypriots, is spearheading the forum.
WHAT CAN PEOPLE DO?
The idea does not apply to only businesspersons. People in other fields who do not have Comodromos’ and Karloutsos’ contacts can come into contact with potential investors and direct them people to the right people in Greece and Cyprus.
Comodromos said people should take opportunities they hear about to Greek and Cypriot chambers of commerce that those countries’ trade attaches.
“But they should not just stop there,” he said. “Follow up. Call the attache a month later and ask ‘what have you done about it; have you had you passed on this opportunity to your ministry; what did you hear from your ministry? They must tell them ‘we cannot afford to lose this opportunity.’”
His colleagues didn’t stop with a conversation with Anastasiades. “We spoke to other officials and we kept stimulating the idea,” Comodromos said.
And he says that as troubled as the economies are, they do offer excellent investment opportunities. “If you do it in a way that is organized, government sponsored, and targeted, it will be win-win for the investors and the countries.”
Karacostas gave as an example of new opportunities the deepening relationships between Israel, Greece and Cyprus “which can be enhanced by joint events with Israeli chambers and business groups.”
Karloutsos agrees regarding Israel. Tourism is way up, and there more potential, “If we can help Cyprus build up its hospitality infrastructure.” There is a multiplier effect: Israeli tourists will tell their friends and relatives in America about their experiences.
He also agrees with the Chamber that the members of the diaspora are rich as a result of their networks, the people in the homes or offices next door in New York and London and Melbourne who are looking for investment opportunities.
What makes us rich is the ability to take an idea and then to use that wealth of connections and relationships to bring it to fruition. That is what I am looking to do here.”
“It’s not my job, but it becomes my job to promote Greece and Cyprus – but my last name ends in a “s” and it’s unavoidable,“ Karloutsos said.
His story demonstrates two important things 1) the vital importance of Comodromos’ emphasis on persistence and follow up, and 2) serious investors are aware of Greece and Cyprus commercial potential despite the horrific press they have been buffeted with in recent years.