Stelios Haji-Ioannou: The rebel who wants much more than an easy life

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Stelios Haji-Ioannou likes a challenge. As a callow youth, in business terms anyway, he took on British Airways in the mid-nineties with easyJet and won. A decade later, the 37-year-old has decided it is Vodafone, another British world-beater, which could do with some more competition.

Stelios Haji-Ioannou likes a challenge. As a callow youth, in business terms anyway, he took on British Airways in the mid-nineties with easyJet and won. A decade later, the 37-year-old has decided it is Vodafone, another British world-beater, which could do with some more competition.

On Tuesday, the easyGroup founder unveiled his ambitions for easyMobile, a no-frills calls service, which has already irritated bigger rivals such as Orange, which is moaning about a clash of corporate colours.

"I am a second born which makes me a rebel by nature," says Stelios, who has now turned his hand to 12 different businesses in his efforts to create an easyGroup empire of branded low-cost companies on a par with Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group.

A Greek Cypriot by background, Stelios was back in Athens this weekend for the start of the Olympic Games. He joined his countrymen at last night's opening ceremony and shared the mixed feelings of pride tempered by the furore over the missed drug test by Greece's sprinting hero Konstadinos Kederis.

The son of a shipping tycoon, Stelios does not try to deny that he was served a big dose of luck at birth. "How can I claim I wasn't lucky when I was born into a wealthy family?" he says.

Aged 17, he cut a dash in London as the only student who owned a Porsche: "I had to get it out of my system." But he wasn't about to hang around in the shadow of his father, Loucas, and act the Greek playboy.

"In Greek society terms it was a privileged childhood. It was probably what you would call upper middle class. We weren't so wealthy then, my father would get his really big break later when I was in my early 20s. I went to private school, which isn't that difficult in Greece. I had enough money to come to London as a student aged 17 but I developed a work ethic very early on. I didn't sit on my backside doing nothing. I decided I wanted to make a difference."

That said, Stelios has now joined the ranks of the Monaco-based businessmen who enjoy the tax-haven lifestyle of the Mediterranean. "I have the privilege of being in some nice surroundings from time to time, not in London, Luton or Milton Keynes seven days a week," he quips.

His father's shipping business that eventually spawned huge wealth for the family - he bought his first ship in 1959 - is called Troodos after the mountains in Cyprus where Stelios's grandfather scratched a living as a poor hill farmer. Shipping, shipping and more shipping was his father's philosophy, now inherited by Stelios's older brother who runs the resultant empire.

"My father was a great advocate of focus. He decided what he wanted to do in life and stuck with it. He was very disciplined in not investing in anything else. My brother reminds me increasingly of my father. He thinks anything other than shipping is a rubbish business."

Given Stelios has set up a dozen ventures ranging from airlines to cinemas to mobile phones in the past 10 years or so, there must be some pretty robust debates round the Haji-Ioannou dinner table on his monthly visits to Greece to see the family.

"Very early on I convinced my father to let me start my own business at age 25, although I stuck to shipping. So I set up the shipping company that is now Stelmar but I quickly demonstrated another personality trait I have which is a very low boredom threshold."

Stelios is a workaholic who flits around from one project to another, clutching that badge of honour that no self respecting tycoon is ever without these days - his Blackberry mobile e-mail device. "It's an extension of my hand," he says.

But why does he carry on? His stakes in easyJet and Stelmar alone put his and his siblings' worth at about £400m.

"It's not a question of wanting to prove myself to my father, which was the motive in the easyJet days. I have an independent profile now. I just can't quite picture not working," he says.

His natural restlessness is, in fact, a function of him constantly trying to spot the next big thing to add to his fortune. "It's unlikely that the big idea will occur to you while sitting in an office in Camden Town," observes Stelios, who advises aspiring entrepreneurs to "look around and keep your eyes open". You must be willing to end up poorer than when you started out if things go wrong, he says.

Apart from easyJet and Stelmar, Stelios's most obvious success stories, he has learned the hard way with some of his other ventures. In a painfully honest assessment of his easyInternetcafé business, Stelios wrote in its 2002 annual report that the frenzied expansion of the operation, opening 22 sites in eight countries, was "the most expensive mistake of my career".

However, things have moved on and he regrets being quite so damning of his own performance. "I now want to go on the record and say it has been my biggest achievement to turn it around. It has gone from a basket case to a small business close to break even."

His cinema business, barely a year old, is starting to show promise as well. It is gradually overcoming the opposition of the big film distributors, and is showing more first run films. The Milton Keynes cinema sells tickets based on the principle of yield management which Stelios mastered at easyJet. When demand is low, so are prices, but as bookings get busier, so prices start to rise.

Anyway, having announced easyMobile, to go with easyPizza, easyMoney, easyCruises and easyCar, to name but a few, what's next?

Stretching the "easy" name can only go so far before either one of the businesses collapses and damages the brand image as a whole, or consumers simply become too sceptical.

A collapse has to be avoided at all costs, which is why Stelios has been willing to carry on funding companies that would otherwise have died a death. He acknowledges scepticism is a threat but overcoming it is what drives him on to prove people wrong.

However, he admits that we probably won't be seeing another easyGroup launch for another couple of years.

"Each new business is incrementally less interesting," Stelios says. "Launching one business is a monumental occasion in life. Launching two is even bigger but going from the twelfth to thirteenth it becomes, well, a question of saying 'what did I do last time, I'll do it again this time'."

Perhaps a hint of boredom is creeping into Stelios's life, which he has to live as a very high-profile figure. Like Sir Richard Branson, he has chosen to be synonymous with his brand.

"The buck stops here," Stelios says. "One of the reasons why brands with an identifiable founder work better is because, rightly or wrongly, people assume that person is going to do something about it if things go wrong."

He still gets e-mails from easyJet customers even though he hasn't worked there for two years, since giving up the chairmanship in 2002.

However, there is no chance of a break yet. Stelios is about to carry his first passengers on easyBus and he has got plenty to do before easyMobile is up and running. To keep all these plates spinning, he is going to have to take a lesson from his father and focus.

A not so easy rise to the top

Age: 37.

Pay: None disclosed, but he and his siblings are worth at least £400m from their family holdings in easyJet and Stelmar.

Education: Doucas High School, Athens. Economics degree from London School of Economics. Masters degree in shipping trade and finance from City University Business School.

Career: Founded Stelmar, the shipping line, in 1992 and then launched easyJet in 1995. In 1998 he started easyInternetcafé with the help of Hewlett-Packard and a year after that he began easyCar, the rental company using the new mini-Mercedes. In 2000 he floated easyJet. Stelmar was floated in 2001 and then he embarked on a rapid roll out of "easy" branded ventures including easyCinema, easyMoney, a credit card business, and easyValue, an online price comparison service for shoppers. Launched easyMobile on Tuesday.

Personal life: Single

Hobbies: Cars, planes, boats - "I've made a business out of all of them."