NEW YORK – John S. Koudounis is President and CEO Mizuho Securities USA, the American investment banking subsidiary of the Japanese financial behemoth. There is a Greek component to the rise to such a position by the son and grandson of immigrants, and he is not a lonely Hellene on Wall Street’s heights.
In a wide-ranging conversation with TNH, Koudounis talked about value of his Greek heritage, his love for Hellenism – and what may be in store for the Greek, American, and world economies.
Pride is an unspoken word in any conversation with Koudounis. Not in his own achievements, which stand out among global standouts in a brutally competitive industry, but in the teams of all kinds he has been part of, and his fellow Greek – Americans.
Koudounis immediately brought up his recent dinner with Thomas Maheras, who was president of Salomon Brothers in the 1990s. “He grew up in Chicago flipping eggs in his dad’s diner by Midway Airport in the 1990s he was one of the most successful bankers on Wall Street.”
It is just a biographical fact that he did not have the benefit of mentors to navigate through a complex career, but he deeply appreciates the input through the years of fellow high achievers like John Calamos, C. Dean Metropoulos, and Andrew Liveris.
The conversation also could not end before he brought up his work in behalf of Greece, especially as a founding Board member of the Hellenic Initiative (THI), Board member of the National Hellenic Museum in his native Chicago, and for his Orthodox faith in a number of capacities.
But like many Hellenes who are thriving in the world of international finance, being Greek is not only who Koudounis is, it contributed to his success.
Throughout his career and especially at Mizuho, he interacted with different cultures. Asked if his two-culture background helped him, Koudounis said “It really helps. I grew up speaking Greek first, and going to Greek school, spending summers in Greece really helped, especially in college,” – the very international Brown University.
FAMILY, TEAMS, EXCELLENCE
Koudounis’ grandfather Spiro went right to Chicago from Sparta through Ellis Island. He doesn’t know where he began to work, but soon he had a hot dog cart. His father continued in the business, but he had a store in addition to involvement in restaurants and other venues.
If opportunity attracted his pappou, hardship brought sent his mother to America. “They couldn’t afford to feed her. She went to Montreal from a village near Sparta called Tripi – literally, the hole, which is still there, reputedly the spot where the ancient Spartans exposed undesirable children” he said.
She eventually went to Chicago, where she met his father. Koudounis share math genes with his older sister Stella who is a CPA.
His mother did work ranging from being a seamstress to helping in the family business. “I think I get my analytical ability from my mom and my personality from my dad,” he said. “I have been accused of being gregarious…and you definitely need patience” in the finance business.
He grew up in the Northern Chicago suburbs, exceled in public school, and loved sports. Koudounis got recruited from all over the country to play college football, and chose the Ivy League, where he played offensive guard, defensive end and outside linebacker.
Mizuho has a huge trading room in its Park Avenue headquarters and that doesn’t work without teamwork. Asked if sports, like his Greekness, helped shape him, Koudounis said “There is no question about it. I captained my basketball and football teams.”
He was also president of his high school class and of a bunch of clubs. He wasn’t sure about his career, but leadership always interested him, as did politics.
That comes in handy because as a world banker his is also part of important global institutions like Bretton Woods, IMF and the World Bank.
His family was not very political, however. “My parents wanted me to be a doctor and I was good in science, but after finishing all my pre-med that is was not something I wanted to do.”
Actually, he was tempted away by a new love. “I was learning about Wall Street. I never knew about it and it was very intriguing.”
There were transferrable skills, however. A financier looks at the world’s economic organs and forces and must understand how they interact, and he has to be a good diagnostician and confident in his commercial prescriptions.
The path led to Mizuho in 2008. Prior to that he was Managing Director and Head of Fixed Income for ABN AMRO North America and he began his career in the financial industry with Merrill Lynch.
The interview with TNH took place during the latest rumbles from China. TNH noted the famous dire warnings of his friend James Chanos and Koudounis said, “Jimmy’s a little more negative than I am.” Others are more optimistic. “Some are expecting 6.6 percent growth this year but the reality is that it will be closer to 4 or 4.5 percent,” and thus he does not think the U.S. will improve on the past few years’ 2-2.5 percent growth in 2016.
Asked if a European comeback will help, he asked “what European comeback?” He said Europe is still lagging the United States and the latter is doing better, as is indicated by the Fed’s rate hikes.
He thinks the stock market will see a lot of volatility, however, though he does not see it tanking – a 5-7 percent rise is likely.
Looking at the bigger economic picture he noted that before the financial crisis in 2008 the world economy was characterized by excess demand. “That demand was created primarily by us, but that’s flipped, and now we are seeing a world of excess supply.”
He is concerned about bond markets with short and long term yields out of whack, and minus yields where they shouldn’t be, like Germany” – the U.S. can slip back into that too. “We have to be very careful about that.”
On the other hand, the turnaround should be a big one. China and India have huge middle classes which should be absorbing that excess demand.
“The new Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, and the new Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley are very sharp,” he said.
Koudounis has lunch with them just before Christmas and he noted “we do see growth, and India potentially having more solid growth than China.”
He ended on a very optimistic note for America. “I think we are set up to have manufacturing come back,” citing lower energy and transportation costs and the gradual equalization of wages and production costs.
HELLENES ABROAD HELP GREECE
With Greece nurtured at home, Church, and trips there. Koudounis is eager to offer his valuable background to help with the crisis.
He can offer nothing but tough love and clear thinking, however, when working with his THI friends and potential investors. Koudounis is part of Mizuho’s loan committee, which means he looks to numbers and financial realities, not his sympathies and interests when making investments.
But there are good signs.
Regarding reforms, “There was definitely something done…I’ve met with Papandreou, Samaras and Tsipras. We were asked to come,” he said, referring to other diaspora heavy hitters.
“It is getting a little bit better, and there are obviously still a lot of issues,” but some positives are overlooked.
There are funds that Greece can get from the EU – Koudounis cannot go into details – but he said THI, which is working with people like Bill Clinton, is helping guide Greece on how to unleash them for things like infrastructure and seed capital for mid-sized venture companies, which he said “really help stimulate the economy.”
THI’s philanthropic component is also critical. “There are still a lot of hungry people there…immunizations and care packages” are still needed he said.
He also touts THI programs for talented young Greeks and entrepreneurs “like hundreds of internships around the world that we are opening up for these kids to help them get a skill set and go back and do things.”
He asked rhetorically if they are putting a dent in situation. “Maybe a little one. We are trying,” he said.
The concern for his homeland is matched by His love for his old and new towns, which connect in interesting ways. “Father Alexander Karloutsos was at my table at the National Hellenic Museum gala and my mother told him that before my final interviews with Merrill when I was a senior at Brown…I lit a candle at the original St. Nicholas.” That was all Father Karloutsos needed to know get him to sign him up for the cause. “I donated some money and will be one of the founders of the new St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox National Shrine.”