THEO PANAYIDES meets the latest rising star of the government who is on a quest for excellence
Looking back, I should’ve probed a bit more for a vulnerable side. ‘Do you ever get depressed?’ I should’ve asked, or perhaps ‘Have you suffered any great personal crisis?’. But I guess she doesn’t, and she probably hasn’t. Sitting in her Nicosia office, Natasa Pilides – our newly appointed, and indeed first-ever, Deputy Minister of Shipping – looks every inch the poised, successful 37-year-old, a rising star of business and (now also) government.
The CV speaks for itself: a First with Distinction in Modern Languages and Literature (French and Italian) from Oxford University, then 12 years in the private sector as a chartered accountant – she was at PricewaterhouseCoopers and Baker Tilly – a couple as Director-General of the Cyprus Investment Promotion Agency (CIPA), and now this new job, to which she was appointed a month ago. Three different deputy ministries were actually going to be created (for Shipping, Tourism and Growth) but only the first ended up being approved by Parliament, which just goes to show how increasingly vital the sector is.
People may not realise what a monster shipping has become, especially in the five years since the haircut. “I think the important thing to communicate, even locally, is that Cyprus is a very small place but, in international maritime affairs, we have a voice that is much, much louder than what our size would imply,” she tells me. “We have the links at IMO level” – the IMO is the International Maritime Organisation – “and we have the links at EU level to actually be a major player”. Indeed, we already are a major player: Cyprus has the 11th-largest merchant fleet worldwide, and the third-largest in the EU.
More importantly, we now have what is known as a “full cluster” – not just ship ownership, but also ancillary services like ship insurance, management and chartering. (The turning point came in 2010 when we became the only EU country with a “fully EU-endorsed tonnage tax system”; no-one else has this, at least to the extent that we do.) The Turkish embargo is a problem, admits Natasa: shipowners are sometimes reluctant to take the Cyprus flag, just in case they ever have to sail to a Turkish port. Malta, for instance, has a much larger fleet than we do, for precisely this reason – “but we have a lot of the ship management companies that they don’t. For us, it’s a great advantage to have these companies, because we have substance. You know, if you go down Limassol there’s 200 companies, fully-fledged, with a lot of people working for them. I mean, some of the larger ones have 700-800 staff”. Thousands of people are employed “onshore” by the shipping industry, most of them Cypriots – not to mention some 50,000 seafarers on board our ships, who admittedly tend not to be Cypriots.
Limassol is also where her deputy ministry is based, with its 150 staff; the office in Nicosia is literally just an empty room in a government building that’s been set aside for when she has meetings. The plan is to decorate the walls with some maritime pictures eventually – but it’s still early days, very early in fact, and the room is entirely empty, the only personal touch being a small metal artwork in the shape of a ship, a parting gift from her colleagues at CIPA. Natasa is still a new face here, and the staff obviously dote on her. “You look beautiful, beautiful!” clucks the older woman from downstairs as the Deputy Minister poses for photos; I assume she feels a kind of vicarious pride in this confident young woman with the brown hair, broad toothy smile and smoothly articulate style. (Natasa’s English is fluent, with no trace of a Cypriot accent.) Later, Natasa’s personal assistant – another middle-aged civil servant – brings coffee and discreetly mentions some ongoing problem: copies have been made of a document but more are required, or perhaps there’s been a misunderstanding. He listens as she issues instructions, nodding solemnly.
She’s become more outgoing with age, Natasa tells me. What’s she like in a group of friends? “Oh, everyone thinks I have loads of news, they ask me what’s going on in my soap opera,” she replies airily. “Just because I’m always doing different things.” One can easily imagine her holding forth, filling in her friends on the latest; I suspect she talks more than she listens, though it’s not because she doesn’t listen – more because she likes to talk, and is obviously good at it. She may have been shyer as a child (young girls of a literary bent quite often are) – but it seems like the smoothness must always have been there, the natural poise of a clever girl from a prominent family. Her mum is curator of museums at the Department of Antiquities, a “very sort of academic person” who writes and lectures; her dad is a chartered accountant, and presumably part of the reason why Natasa did a job interview with PwC while in her penultimate year of college. She went to work straight after graduation.
Growing up was lovely, she recalls: “I’m very grateful. I think I’m a very lucky person, in that I had a lot of encouragement to do what I liked and pursue my objectives”. Part of that had to do with being a woman, and always being assured that her gender shouldn’t make any difference. As a teen, she made careful note of what times her younger brother came home after a night out, using statistics to protest the injustice if it turned out he was being allowed to stay out later than she was. Years later, she did feel the sting of sexism, though only briefly: “I think, when I was hired at CIPA there was a lot of – um, apprehension whether I’d be able to do a good job, as a woman,” she admits, shaking her head almost indulgently. “I think that’s bollocks, sorry for the term.”
“Marriage and all that” wasn’t really in her plans as a younger woman – she was too busy making presentations and learning about business finance – but, as it turns out, being appointed Deputy Minister is only the second most exciting thing that’s happened to her recently. She got married in 2016 (her husband is a maritime lawyer) and had a baby girl in the same year, motherhood having taken her slightly by surprise: five years ago, she was largely indifferent to having kids – but “I never expected it to be as rewarding,” she admits now, and in fact wouldn’t mind having more of the little blighters. Sounds like a lot to juggle, I point out. “Well, last time I had one, I had her on a Friday and I thought ‘That’s good, because I’ve got the weekend to stay in the clinic’!” she replies, laughing – and was back at work, albeit mostly from home, on Monday. You see what I mean about having to probe for a vulnerable side.
The baby is now being raised partly by her 80-year-old great-grandmother, Natasa’s grandma (what with people living longer and having kids later, octogenarians may end up being the child minders of the future). That’s in Nicosia, where Natasa lives – and she doesn’t plan to move, despite her new job, which is likely to prove rather hectic; not only are the working hours crazy, but she’ll also undoubtedly be called upon to attend social events in Limassol as part of the job, not getting home till very late. After all, she’s not just a civil servant: she’s the public face of Cyprus shipping, the lynchpin holding together all the various bits of our “cluster”.
There’s a larger question here, though it’s hard to phrase with precision. The main actors in Natasa’s new milieu – shipowners, management companies – are mostly non-Cypriots. So, one assumes, were many of the big companies she advised and audited as a chartered accountant; so were the investors she tried to attract at CIPA. Here, in other words, is one of our brightest and best – a top scholar, a highly intelligent and dynamic woman – who’s spent her entire career courting foreigners, in much the same way that Cyprus itself has pulled out of recession largely by attracting foreign capital (the ‘citizenship scheme’ being another good example), as opposed to supporting our own entrepreneurs or reforming the public sector. Shouldn’t we be doing more than just providing services? And what about her? Shouldn’t she be using all this ingenuity to improve local problems? She could be saving the Sea Caves or something.
She chuckles, sounding slightly nonplussed: “I think different people are good at different things,” she notes mildly. She does answer the question, however – pointing out that, while promoting entrepreneurship is indeed important (she ran various schemes in support of that while at CIPA), the “traditional route” only gets you so far. “You know, if you asked young people what they would do to be more entrepreneurial, probably a lot of them would say ‘Oh, I’d open a restaurant or a café’.” Bringing expertise from abroad in the shape of large, multicultural companies – not just shell companies with a lawyer and accountant, but “investments of substance” that’ll give Cypriots jobs and expose them to new ideas – is a much stronger way to “mobilise the local community” and create something world-class. It takes me a while to realise just how big shipping could potentially be for us, and how high a bar Natasa is aiming for. “I think Cyprus needs to be thinking about not doing everything, uh, mediocrely,” she cautions, “but doing a few things very, very well”.
Mediocrity is all but endemic here, of course – and the quest for excellence is a frequent motif for this pleasant but driven woman, whose path has run smoothly enough from an excellent degree to an excellent resumé. “If everyone tried to excel at what they do, there would be a completely different picture,” sighs Natasa Pilides at one point – ‘everyone’ being everyone in the civil service, though of course she can’t be too specific (she has nothing but praise for her own Department of Merchant Shipping). Her move from private to public sector has been slightly jarring – even with CIPA acting as a sort of halfway step – just because the rhythm is slower now, with more procedures to follow and sluggards to hurry along: “You have to keep pushing people to do things at a faster pace, if that’s what you want”. The party line about government departments being understaffed is duly trotted out – but she also adds, to her credit, that the understaffing is “because we don’t tackle the problems of underperformance”, i.e. some people work and others sit around. It must be frustrating for a high-achieving type like herself.
What about the future? Might she go into politics someday? “I’m not the sort of person who plans out their life,” she replies, perhaps ingenuously. “I don’t know. I’d quite like to go back to the private sector at some point, I think”. Meanwhile, there are challenges. The Turkish embargo is a thorn in the side of our shipping sector – and we also have to shake off some lingering doubts from the old days, when Cyprus had less “substance” and was more of a flag of convenience. “I mean, it’s more difficult [now] to open a bank account in Cyprus than in any other EU country, pretty much,” she protests (maybe not Britain, “but France and Germany for sure”): we’ve made major strides in becoming more heavily regulated, but the old reputation dies hard – and of course that’s the tightrope to be walked, playing by the rules while keeping our competitive advantage. It’s no easy task.
‘What’s your greatest strength as a person?’ I wonder. “I think I’m very optimistic,” replies Natasa after some thought, “and it makes life easier, more positive”. She does come across as quite sanguine and open – and there’s even a vulnerable side, even if I don’t really probe for it. That literature degree was no fluke; she’s written three novels in her free time (such as it is), albeit unpublished ones and “not very good ones, I think” – and she also plays the piano, speaking of things artistic, though that whole side of herself is somewhat concealed. “It’s weird, because I’m not shy at all about giving presentations and public speaking and stuff – but I get complete stage fright playing the piano, and I’m also very shy about showing people the things I write,” she admits rather ruefully. “So it’s weird. I have split personality, I guess.” Just as long as one of them makes a hit of our shipping sector.