For one man, a lifetime at Helios and other top jobs has become a thing of the past. Following a lifelong love of cars, he now runs a tyre shop. THEO PANAYIDES meets him.
What would you call your tyre shop, if you owned one? Some might call it ‘Formula One’, to convey a sense of roaring down the street on brand-new tyres. Some might choose something generic to appeal to petrolheads, like ‘Auto’ or ‘Turbo’. George Pavlides is having none of that: his shop is located on a main road in Aglandjia (a second branch opens soon on Tseri Avenue) – and the sign on the front reads ‘Safe Drive’, helpfully adding ‘Wheels, Tyres, etc’. The emphasis on safe driving over flash or speed may be down to personality, or perhaps it derives from his profession (or maybe it’s a case of a certain personality having gravitated to a certain profession). Not his current profession, however, as the owner of a tyre shop and tyre recycling factory – but his old one as a banker and accountant, including stints as financial director for a number of well-known companies.
The shop looks conventional enough: tyres stacked on the shelves, a garage space where a car can be parked and fitted – and George himself in an office behind a glass door, greeting customers, writing out cheques for suppliers. A jokey cheesecake poster on the wall shows a woman in a 40s-style swimsuit posing next to a caption reading “Dad’s Garage”, presumably a gift from his son and daughter, 29 and 25 respectively (both are chartered accountants, but his son also helps in the shop on Saturdays). George’s private office upstairs from the garage – where we retire for the interview – is a lot more stylish: there’s a grandfather clock, a rug on the wall with an image of the Taj Mahal, and a coffee table with recent issues of Economia, the official magazine of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales. “Accountancy – Finance – Business” reads the motto beneath the masthead.
“Many of them say ‘Re mastre, I don’t understand that stuff’,” notes George, speaking of the times when he tries to guide a new customer through the thicket of possible tyre options. ‘Mastre’ is the Cypriot appellation for a craftsman or technician, usually implying a man of rough manners and limited education; “When I start to talk, though,” he adds – “and I’m not saying this in an arrogant way – they realise that I’m not the classic ‘re mastre’, and they listen to me”. He’s almost 57, an affable chap with trim grey hair and a square face topped by rectangular glasses – and his manners are indeed quite refined, speaking good Greek and addressing me in the courteous plural form instead of the more informal singular. This is something of a pet peeve for George, especially when it comes to the sad state of young people today (more on this later): “Personally, I’m a very strict family man,” he explains. “I used to tell my kids, when they were younger: ‘If I ever catch you talking to an older person in the singular form…’”. He lets the sentence trail off, shaking his head ominously.
The name of the shop reflects the man behind it. Safety over flash is his personal philosophy, where ‘flash’ means taking risks and cutting corners while ‘safety’ means caution and also integrity. He was financial director for the late Takis Photiades around the time of the stock-market boom (Photiades’ company owned several major businesses, including the franchise for McDonald’s), and was certainly well-placed to dabble in the market and make lots of money – but “I didn’t even touch it,” he says firmly. “I understood it was a bubble. Things were being done that were unethical – fake accounts, inflated profitability to bump up share prices”. Some accountants were part of the scam, valuing the closing stock in company warehouses at many times its true value – because, explains George in a fluent burst of accountant-ese, higher closing stock lowers the so-called ‘cost of sales’ (which is defined as ‘opening stock + purchases – closing stock’), thereby artificially increasing a company’s gross profit. “I predicted that this would be our downfall,” he intones soberly, “and so I departed”.
His departure actually came a little later, when he’d left Photiades to work briefly for Lambros Christofi, “the well-known – uh, businessman, let’s say,” as George puts it, trying to gloss over a bad experience (Christofi was later charged with conspiracy to defraud), and thence to Helios, the private airline where he worked as financial director for about three years. I didn’t change my job for 15 years, he muses – he was at Hellenic Bank till the early 90s, rising to branch manager – then changed three jobs in about half that time. He left Helios in late 2004, less than a year before the infamous plane crash that capsized the company.
George has a lot to say about Helios, and indeed said most of it to the investigators seeking to determine the root cause of the crash. He talks of waste and mismanagement, but the crux of his analysis is that “the Helios plane was brought down by the culture” which prevailed at that time within the company – a culture, as he puts it, of “I don’t obey anyone, I do what I want”, infecting personnel from top to bottom.
Once again, it’s framed in his mind as a clash between playing safe and taking risks – because, when he first joined, Helios was a charter airline, and a good one (“Believe it or not, it was the top-ranked airline at Gatwick Airport for punctuality and service”), but then its management changed and decided to turn it into a scheduled airline. A charter airline has a good cashflow, he explains, because you’re renting a plane to a tour operator so you get pre-paid, irrespective of passenger numbers. A scheduled airline is “high-risk”, potentially more profitable (tour operators haggle fiercely when chartering) but also less secure, requiring huge amounts of working capital. Once again, George Pavlides sides with safer bets and good business practice, against what he views as greed and recklessness.
He wasn’t surprised by the plane crash, he admits sadly – but in fact there’s another, more personal addendum, because he and his family were supposed to be on that plane. “I had a ticket on that flight, so did my wife, and so did my children.” Their lives were saved, indirectly, by the Qatar Electricity Authority – because George was working in Qatar for George Vassiliou at that point (he’d left Helios but still kept in touch, and always got a discount on plane tickets), for a company doing the electrical work on a couple of skyscrapers, and he had to be in Doha for an official inspection so his leave was cancelled at the last minute. Instead, in a truly macabre coincidence, his tickets were given to another family, also a couple with a son and daughter, whose ages exactly matched the ages of George, his wife and their kids. “Can you believe that? And I was saved, and that other family was wiped out…”
He’s actually been close to death twice in his life (proving, perhaps, that playing it safe only gets you so far). The other time was in 2014, when George and his wife went to Zygi for a fish lunch and, after eating, he was suddenly laid low by a crippling pain in his stomach. A doctor later ordered a colonoscopy, which revealed a tumour in his colon that turned out to be malignant; an operation removed around 25cm of intestine (“I’ve got a scar from my sternum down to my navel”), to which were added eight months of intensive chemotherapy. Fortunately, he’s been cancer-free for two years now – and indeed the cancer had an unexpected positive effect, prompting George to follow his dream. “I’ve always loved cars, and wanted to work with cars – so I said enough accountancy, enough economics, enough numbers! I’ll do what I want. I don’t know how much time I have left.”
It’s true that he’s always loved cars (he’s a collector, in a small way, and owns one of only three Jaguar XK8 Convertibles on the island), but in fact he’d already moved away from accountancy at the time of his illness, having invested in a recycling factory – his first business after a lifetime of working for others – that collects and shreds tyres from all over the island. He’s still involved in the factory, and goes there every morning at six before coming to the shop (it’s absolutely no surprise that he has a big sign reading ‘SAFETY FIRST’ prominently displayed on the factory floor), but the doctors warned him to keep his distance after his ordeal, recycling being a dusty and dirty job – so instead we have ‘Safe Drive’, which opened in 2015 and has already grown (he says) into the second- or third-biggest tyre shop in Nicosia. Indeed he’s now planning to expand into a franchise, his vision being for two shops in each town and maybe three in the capital.
Even so, says George, his career move has been met with disbelief in some quarters. Owning a factory is one thing, but a tyre shop? Watching mechanics change people’s tyres, and potentially pitching in himself – a former banker and financial director? “Don’t you get all dirty?” asked his brother-in-law light-heartedly. “What about all those suits and ties in your closet, who’s going to wear them?”. My son can wear them, replied George – and he’s more than happy to observe his kids in accountant’s garb, following in his footsteps, “but I’m doing something else, and I’m perfectly satisfied… And I’m not doing it for the profit,” he adds, “because thank God I’ve put my kids through college, I’ve got my house and my summer house, I’m doing fine. I’m not doing it for the money. I’m doing it because I’m the kind of man who wants to create something”. The shop makes enough, he shrugs, reeling off the numbers with a former accountant’s ease – enough to cover his expenses, at any rate – “but the name of the game is not profit, the name of the game is service and creativity,” he proclaims, lapsing into English.
Ironically, ‘Safe Drive’ is probably the least safe thing George Pavlides has ever done, at least professionally – but his fundamental character hasn’t changed, he’s still quite conservative and a stickler for the rules. “I don’t allow anyone [in the shop] to go into a car without putting a plastic cover on the driver’s seat,” he says sternly. He expects everything to be in its place, and will fume if it isn’t. “I’m a perfectionist, which is both good and bad”.
Unsurprisingly, his conservatism extends into social issues too. He firmly believes that youngsters today are lazy, disrespectful and apathetic, not like in his day, and also believes that we in Cyprus let foreigners get away with too much – “We have not provided guidelines for our visitors,” is how he puts it – comparing the situation here unfavourably with the situation he saw in Qatar, where everyone’s polite but non-Qataris know exactly where they stand. (He was once stopped by cops for drinking water in his car during Ramadan: “Sir, we know you’re not a Muslim but please don’t do this again, because it’s a temptation for Muslims”.) To be fair, George is used to the old village life, having grown up in Klirou where his dad – a colourful character who’d previously lived in France for 27 years – owned a grocery store, plunging the boy in the business from an early age. Also, to be fair, he has some blood-curdling anecdotes of young Cypriots being rude, abusing their elders, not turning up for work, etc. Kids used to work because they had to; “Nowadays, ‘who bloody cares?’,” he concludes bitterly, lapsing into English again.
The wisdom of a tyre repairman? Some will object, and George Pavlides is fine with that – “I have certain ideas that some might call odd, or cranky” – but he’s surely more than just a tyre repairman, bringing years of life experience and commercial nous to his rather jaundiced view of modern society. (It’s not just young people; he also rails against banks, MPs and Central Bank governors.) More to the point, his own life stands apart from all that, having made a fulfilling sideways move after years of high-level labour. “Now, after all those years in finance and the life of an employee, I feel free,” he declares, then hesitates: “I don’t know if I left it too late…” Maybe a little unsafe driving isn’t such a bad idea occasionally.