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No place like Cyprus

No place like Cyprus

The man charged with the job of promoting the island to potential investors is a staunch patriot and believes we can weather the storm if we all pull together. THEO PANAYIDES meets the chairman of CIPA

 

I want to make one thing clear, says Christodoulos Angastiniotis in his usual emphatic manner; I have no interest in going into politics. “Everybody thinks that this is my aim – but I’m clearly stating that I don’t want to become a politician, neither a Minister nor a Member of Parliament.”

Why do people think he does?

“Because I get a lot of publicity through the media,” he replies, “and because I’m very active here and there”. ‘Here and there’ is mostly in the world of business. He was President of the Nicosia Chamber of Commerce for six years, and Vice President for three years before that. He’s currently Vice President of the Cyprus Chamber of Commerce as well as Chairman of the Board of CIPA, the Cyprus Investment Promotion Agency. He was President of the Nicosia Tourism Development Company till last month, “then I had to resign because I had too many things going on. And at the same time I have a company to run. Which is this company.”

That’s where we meet, in the offices of ‘this company’ – namely VTN, Vitatrace Nutrition Ltd, housed in a custom-built four-storey building with grey walls and gleaming blue windows. There’s a factory across the street where they make “vitamin pre-mixes and pharmaceuticals for animal nutrition”, for export to the Middle East and Europe; there are about 15 employees in the factory, 20 in the offices. Christodoulos is here every day at 6.15am, 6.30 at the latest (he wakes up at 6; his house is just down the road). He goes straight to the factory, has a coffee with the night-watchman then greets the workers as they start coming in. He’s there till around 7.30, then goes back for lunch (he always has his lunch in the canteen with the factory workers); in between he’s at the office, where he stays till about 5 or 6 – then heads off to his other obligations at CIPA or the Chamber of Commerce, typically going home around 10pm, tucked up in bed before midnight.

“I manage by example,” he declares when I ask about his management style. “I work very hard. I have an excellent team of people here, I’m very proud of them”. He’s short, stocky, balding, very suntanned (“I tan naturally”), kicking off our conversation with an espresso, following it up with a couple of cigarettes. The phone rings; he glances at the incoming number, then picks up. “I’m with guests now, we’ll talk on Monday,” he intones in a heavy voice, and hangs up without waiting for an answer. There’s a natural authority about him, the result of a lifetime of absorbing people’s deference as boss, chairman, president. Replace the cigarette with a big cigar and he could pass for one of those old-school Hollywood producers, barking orders from behind a big desk.

That said, his eyes look tired. It’s Friday morning, and he looks about ready to head off to the coast – as he does every Friday afternoon, spending summer weekends by the beach or on his boat (I suppose that explains the suntan). “I’m a man of the coast, but I live in Nicosia,” he says; he was born in Limassol 54 years ago but grew up in Kyrenia, which he considers his hometown. What’s the boat like? Nothing fancy, he shrugs. It’s actually an inflatable – but big, “about the size of this office”.

I look around the office as he says that, noting religious icons in a corner (is he religious? “I believe in God”), then a prominently-displayed photo of an elderly gentleman. That’s his late father, “a very highly educated and successful professional” who lost everything in the invasion yet managed to found VTN a few years later; Christodoulos took an MBA at the University of Cranfield (where he met his English wife) then came straight to the company, taking over when his father passed away 10 years ago. It’s a real family business. His sister also works at VTN (she’s in Quality Control) and his elder son Alex has just followed in his father’s footsteps, getting his own MBA and coming back to work in the company. His younger son is different – “He’s more interested in music and media” – but that’s fine too. “Right now he’s in Slovenia,” says his father proudly, “representing Cyprus in probably the most important black-metal festival taking place in Europe”.

It’s entirely typical that playing heavy rock music at some sweaty festival in Slovenia should be touted as “representing Cyprus” – partly because Christodoulos is extremely patriotic (he’s firmly of the ‘no place like Cyprus’ school, telling me flat-out that he could never live anywhere else) and partly because bigging up our little island is what he does, most obviously in his work with CIPA where his brief is “to promote Cyprus internationally as an investment centre”. They also provide “after-sales service” to existing investors and seek to modify the law to provide incentives (like offering a permanent-resident permit to anyone who invests over €300,000) – but the main work is promotion and Christodoulos has led several missions, mostly to Russia and China. Do the people he tries to persuade even know where Cyprus is? “Now they know,” he replies grimly. “After the 15th of March, everybody knows where Cyprus is.”

profile-Chinese investors have been encouraged to buy property

Chinese investors have been encouraged to buy property

Clearly, the events of last March – the haircut, the bank restrictions, our near-bankruptcy – have made his job immeasurably harder. “Our pitch to investors is that we still remain a very important financial centre,” he says, citing our “excellent human-capital base” and the government’s determination to get the country back on its feet – yet one has to wonder if investors are still listening, especially those who were burned by the bail-in. Does he ever find himself confronted by angry Russians? Of course, he replies. “Especially nowadays, people confront us every time. But what is the solution? To give up and say ‘Yes, we are bankrupt, we are down the drain, we are never going to recover’? This is not the way forward. Especially if you want to be the Chairman of the Board of the Cyprus Investment Promotion Agency!”

I assume his manner helps here. There are two kinds of salesmen, those who seduce you with promises and those who convince by sheer force of certitude – and Christodoulos belongs in the latter category. He’s very firm, giving the impression of a true believer. One can imagine dubious oligarchs being persuaded to give us a second chance after one of his pitches, or at least consenting to think about it. His whole style is forceful. “I totally disagree with you!” he says emphatically at one point, taking me aback with his vehemence – then pauses for a moment, like a man who’s thrown a hand grenade and waits to assess the damage: “Excuse me for being so straightforward”.

I assume you need that kind of certainty as a factory owner in a country where factories are now an endangered species. VTN is doing well. It hasn’t been directly affected by the crisis – “We could see it coming,” says Christodoulos, adding that they took “precautionary measures” years before the haircut – and recently won the biggest-ever EU research programme for animal nutrition, in co-operation with three UK universities. Far from laying people off, the company’s continuously hiring new workers, indeed the phone rings (again) during our interview and Christodoulos agrees to employ four new people as part of a Ministry of Labour scheme (at the moment, they only hire Greek Cypriots, he adds patriotically: “Our duty is first to the people of this country”). But VTN is an exception. Local industry has been on the ropes for years now, widely derided as weak and uncompetitive.

“There are opportunities,” he insists when I broach the subject. “But for many years we learned [only] to produce shoes, to produce garments – no diversification, nothing. We should concentrate on industries which are not so labour-intensive, we should look into innovation rather than try to compete with the Turks, or the Arabs, or the Vietnamese or Chinese”.

And of course you’ve got the unions, I point out.

He nods emphatically, like a bull to a red rag. “Unions – I dare to say this, and I don’t mind if you write it down – unions have always been a big problem for the correct development of the Cyprus economy. Look around you. Cyprus Airways! Unions – apart from the bad management, and the mistakes made by the different Boards – unions misusing the advantage of the leverage they had in the company. They were gaining benefits, benefits, benefits all the time until the company went bust.

“Look at the salaries of the people in the banking sector! Look how they behave now, the trade union of the banks – they’re still blackmailing the banks. The whole country’s collapsing, we have people queuing up for free meals, we have 70,000 unemployed people, and we still have the unions blackmailing the management of the banks because they want more and more and more and more”. Christodoulos shakes his head, his Chamber of Commerce values shaken to the core. “This has been the story of Cyprus,” he declares, measuring out each word for emphasis: “Irresponsible. Trade. Unionists.”

His own employees aren’t unionised (they’ve never wanted it), yet there hasn’t been a labour dispute in the company’s 30 years. “We are very generous as employers,” he claims (I suppose he would say that) – but there’s more to it than simple generosity. Not only do employees participate in decisions but the door of the Accounts department is open to all; anyone can walk in, check the financial statements and see how the company’s doing. “The company is completely transparent. And I’m very proud of that.”

That’s the final – and perhaps most important – thing to note about Christodoulos Angastiniotis. He’s not just a business leader with the proverbial big cigar, he’s also something of a moralist, a stickler for ethics, a person of principle. The CIPA Board were appointed during the Christofias presidency, so – unusually for Cyprus – they all submitted their resignations en masse at the discretion of the new President, as a mark of respect (most were re-appointed). The job is unpaid and members don’t receive a per diem, nor can they claim expenses if they combine a CIPA trip with their own private business (“we’re very strict with that”). Corruption is one of his bugbears: “We as a generation have made a big mess of this country, because of the corruption that is in every function and part of our daily life. Whether you’re a politician, or an MP, or a civil servant, whether you’re a private doctor and you conveniently forget to issue receipts when you see two customers in the afternoon – everything is corruption”.

He’s been part of the System long enough, I point out. Why hasn’t he done something about it?

“Who says that I never did?” he bristles. “Who says that I never tried? I can tell you details,” he goes on (and does, but prefers to keep them off the record). He’s actually done quite a lot, speaking out in newspaper articles and AGMs as well as more direct action. I suppose it all fits together, part of the same plain-spoken personality: his crusading zeal for honesty in public affairs, his bluff “straightforward” manner, his unabashed patriotism, even the rigorous work ethic and frugal lifestyle. When it comes to having fun, “I like simple things,” he shrugs. “I like to see my friends. I like to wear my shorts. I like to go to the beach, I like to do a bit of gardening, I like to wash the pavement. I like to do simple things. And, when there is time, I like to do nothing as well”.

There are problems, certainly. CIPA’s annual promotional budget is one-thirtieth the size of the CTO’s, and around one-fiftieth of equivalent budgets in “competitive locations” like Malta or Ireland. Foreign investors have complained of red tape and bureaucracy; this newspaper recently ran the story of Indian entrepreneur Ajay Goyal, who complained of harassment and outright bullying. (Christodoulos assures me that CIPA can help with any “just and fair request”.) Yet the Chairman of the Board is optimistic that Cyprus can pull through – just as long as we all pull together. “We should all stop putting our personal interests up front, and think of the interests of the country first. That’s what I believe. And sorry for being so straightforward. I don’t mind if you want to write it down”. Maybe he should go into politics after all.

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