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Hard work and a little luck

The Caramondanis group is behind the planned new marina in Ayia Napa. It is the latest in a long list of innovations and construction contracts. THEO PANAYIDES meets one of its founders

 

Gerasimos Caramondanis is excited about this interview. “The Cyprus Mail! I’ve been reading the Cyprus Mail for 50 years!” His last appearance in the paper may have been even earlier: perched behind glass, on a shelf in his office, is an old issue of the Mail dated November 14, 1955. The headline on the front page reads ‘From Kyrenia Castle to Beirut’, splashed above a photo of a brooding 18-year-old who seems to bear little resemblance to the cheerful septuagenarian in front of me. That’s Gerasimos on the day of his release from prison, the first of the EOKA members detained under the infamous Law 18(b) – allowing the colonial authorities to detain people without trial – to be set free, exiled to Beirut where he was due to study Business Administration at the American University.

The word ‘exiled’ is no exaggeration. It was made clear that he’d be arrested if he set foot in Cyprus, and could only return “at his Excellency’s pleasure”, meaning the Governor. The young man actually wrote to the Governor as the years dragged on, only to receive a polite letter refusing his request. “I remain, dear sir, your most obedient servant,” ended the letter – “but go to hell, you’re not coming back!” adds Gerasimos, guffawing merrily. He was in Beirut for three years, only able to return in 1959 after the Zurich Agreement. A few months later, he and his brother founded Caramondani Bros, an electro-mechanical contracting company which has now mushroomed into the Caramondani Group, doing business from China to Amman to Morocco.

The sign outside its corporate office, just outside Nicosia, lists the name-plates of around 18 companies. Dotted around the acreage are three small warehouses, all done up in the corporate colours; the office is stunningly designed, light and airy with enormous glass walls and a view of green fields. He indicates the lift as we ascend to the first floor: it’s a special design, imported and installed by one of his companies. The corporate headquarters means a lot to him – because he and his brother had almost finished building new offices and warehouses on Salamis Road in Famagusta (where they were born and raised) when the invasion broke out; “40 years later,” he points out, “we managed to build them again here”.

Life was good in Famagusta. In fact, it was better than good. Ending up in a British jail due to EOKA makes him sound like a wild-eyed zealot, but nothing could be further from the truth. He made no special effort to join EOKA; instead, he and a few select pals were recruited, presumably because the organisation wanted the scions of the city’s top families in its ranks (“We were a group of friends, and we were known,” is how he puts it). Gerasimos was so non-nationalistic that he even piped up while they were swearing the EOKA oath to make clear that he wanted to fight for Cypriot independence, not for union with Greece (“Sit down and swear the oath, kid,” he was curtly admonished). His reason for joining sounds more like noblesse oblige.

He was no revolutionary; in fact, he was royalty. His mother’s father was Loukas Georgiou, a long-time Mayor of Famagusta (his own dad was an Egyptian-born Greek who died before Gerasimos was born). The family had property: shops and warehouses in the Old City, a whole block of flats on the beach. As a teenager, he was something of a golden boy – an athlete, a runner, a rowing champion. He claims to have been “the first guy to water-ski” in Cyprus, when he was around 14, or at least the first local (a mysterious Englishman had previously been spotted skimming across the water). There was only one pair of skis, and it belonged to his cousin; there was only one available speedboat and it belonged to Yiangos Kounnas, a wealthy citrus exporter who was married to another cousin. Gerasimos’ connections were impeccable.

profile2-The new headquarters
The new headquarters

Still, it takes more than contacts to create a successful business. “I was a little entrepreneur from a young age,” he recalls. He’d buy English magazines, in those pre-internet days, and scour the back pages finding items for sale – then import them from England by parcel post and sell them at a profit to fellow students. They could’ve done it themselves, of course, but for some reason they didn’t; maybe their English wasn’t good enough – but probably they just “didn’t think about it”. That’s the talent of the entrepreneur, a knack for thinking just a little bit longer, spotting the kind of opportunity that hides in plain sight.

Luck played a role as well. Luck plays a role even now, in his latest big project, the Makronisos Marina in Ayia Napa, where an ‘angel’ unexpectedly emerged in the person of Egyptian tycoon Naguib Sawiris (“this super gentleman”). Then again, you make your own luck. Famagusta went through a hotel boom in the 60s – but it wasn’t just luck that prompted Caramondani Bros to start importing and installing air-conditioning units on a massive scale, allowing them to thrive in the boom. “All those hotels you can see with binoculars, maybe 90 per cent were done by us,” he says proudly – and a little wistfully, because his house is also among the buildings you can see with binoculars, the life he lost in the Turkish invasion.

Gerasimos was 37 in 1974 (he’ll be 78 in July), young and successful, married to a woman from another ‘top family’, father of two young children. Then he lost it all. “I spent two years [living] on a boat, the first two years,” he recalls. He wasn’t broke, exactly; he’d fled Famagusta with £300 – he’d withdrawn that sum a few days earlier, to pay back a friend in Nicosia – plus whatever he had in his pocket. Others undoubtedly had it worse. Yet his fall was more precipitous, because he’d had so much and now had almost nothing.

The business was dead, or very close to it. The Famagusta bank accounts were gone. Their only lifeline was a contract with the British Bases, which fortunately wasn’t affected by the new situation. “There was nothing else. It took years! Nothing, nothing else. Who was going to build? Who was going to put any central heating or air conditioning?” Gerasimos went to Larnaca, living on his boat – the only relic of his previous life – so he could be close to the Bases project. His wife moved to her parents in Nicosia, taking the kids with her. The strain of the separation – not to mention the abrupt change in lifestyle – was too much for their relationship. The marriage ended.

“My life was completely destroyed. I didn’t want to continue,” he sighs. “I was very disappointed. My brother came on the boat one day, he said ‘Look, we have to start again’. I said ‘I don’t feel like it’. So he told me: ‘You’re the captain of the boat, and you want to abandon ship?’. Well, that hit me, because I was a seaman from a young age. So I said, ‘OK, we’ll try’.”

Nothing came easy. Bankers were scared, and credit was “very, very minimal”. Longtime suppliers abandoned them; one man, for whom Caramondani Bros had made a lot of money while building the Sun Hall in Larnaca, now refused him credit for £15 worth of equipment. “We had to go buy tools. We had to go buy pliers and screwdrivers, with no money” – and meanwhile the vultures were circling, rival contractors trying to persuade the Brits to give the contract to someone else. There’s no loyalty in the world of business.

Yet the firm survived – and eventually prospered. Gerasimos remarried in the early 80s. His two oldest children (he also has three from his second marriage) work in the business – his daughter in charge of the Athens office, “and my son is here, right next door to this office”. He seems quite an affable CEO, determinedly casual (his friends, unsurprisingly, call him ‘Gerry’); he never wears a tie, having “discarded” them 20 years ago. How important is money to him? “It’s not important at all for me,” he replies without even thinking about it. “I don’t care about money – I mean, to hoard money, to have money in the bank, I’m not interested”. He works around 12 hours a day (he goes home at six and keeps on working till eight, when the News comes on), and is happy to do it. The income and expenses on his monthly bank account – he says – tend to cancel each other out.

Everyone wants to be successful, and Gerasimos Caramondanis is successful – indeed, more than that: he was once successful, had to start again almost from scratch, and became successful all over again. How does he do it? What’s the secret of business?

“The secret of business,” he repeats. “Meaning?”

Well, what makes somebody good at it?

“Hard work, I would say,” he replies unhelpfully – but of course everyone works hard; there has to be something more. “Risk-taking,” he adds. “And always try to innovate. Try to be first in things. There are a lot of things where we were first”. Caramondani Bros took on the first BOT (Build Operate Transfer) project in Cyprus, with the Dhekelia desalination plant, and indeed built the first desalination plant. They imported the first desalination unit, which they showed at a local trade fair in 1974. They made the first solar panels, built by Gerasimos’ engineer brother back in Famagusta (they lost the prototypes in the invasion). “We brought the first electric car”, as well as electric motorbikes.

The new marina is another good example – a big costly project that’ll take at least three years. “Look at the land we have to create!” he chortles, showing me a map of the project: just reclaiming land from the sea, and building the breakwater – which, “at the bottom of the sea, will be as long as this building”, rising to 12 feet above sea level! – will cost tens of millions of euros. If you made rocks out of 50-Euro bills and built the breakwater out of those rocks, it would cost about the same, he jokes. That’s the point, however: he can joke about it. He seems totally unfazed, full of ideas about the marina transforming Ayia Napa’s tacky image and attracting wealthy boat-owners from our “unstable” neighbour countries looking for a safe place to moor their yachts. He himself plans to “retire” from the Nicosia office and relocate to Napa, just so he can watch the dream come true. The scale of the project – the risk – seems to energise him.

It also takes him close (or closer) to Famagusta, the city of his youth. He likes Nicosia well enough, he shrugs at one point, but “when you’re a seafarer you want to hear the noise of the waves and feel the humidity, the salt”. The sea reminds him of his own sailing boats – a lifelong hobby from childhood, when he’d borrow bedsheets from his mother and make them into sails. He’s never been back to his hometown, not even since the checkpoints opened – but now thinks he’d like to visit someday, just to show the grandchildren “what they can claim” in the ever-more-unlikely event of a solution.

Meanwhile, there’s the business: meeting people, promoting his products, putting his finger in various pies. There’s a company that operates car parks, another for refurbishing ship’s containers. “My instinct was business, always,” he avers – and it is an instinct, something that can’t be taught. He tells me a story, which took place in Dubai. The Caramondani Group had a pavilion at the Exhibition there, and there was also a Chinese pavilion next door. The man in charge spoke no English, but his female assistant did, so Gerasimos invited them over for a chat.

“I said, ‘We just established an office in China’,” he recalls. “The man was surprised, and asked [his assistant]: ‘What does he want to do in China? What is he expecting?’. She explained to me – so I said to her: ‘Tell him I want to sell one – there was a pencil on the desk – one pencil to every single Chinese person!”. The Chinese man laughed. Maybe he shouldn’t have.

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