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Cyprus

Businessman Photos Photiades dies

Renowned businessman Photos Photiades, who secured the first licence to produce Carlsberg beer outside Denmark, died early on Friday morning at the age of 98.

No other details were made available though it is understood that Photiades had been in poor health for some time.

The day of the funeral will be announced later.

Born in Angastina in October 1920, Photiades undertook his first major business venture in 1942 with the creation of Photos Photiades & Co Ltd, a foodstuff import company that evolved into an international trading company.

In 1962 Photiades acquired the controlling stake in M. Chr. Platanis & Co. Ltd, the producer of LEON Beer and five years later he managed to secure the first licence ever to produce Carlsberg Beer outside Denmark.

The Cyprus Carlsberg brewery opened in 1969, the first brewery outside Denmark to produce Carlsberg Beer, paving the way for other countries to follow.

 

The Cyprus Mail’s Theo Panayides interviewed Photos Photiades in 2011

If you want to meet with Photos Photiades, you go to the Photos Photiades Business Centre in Nicosia. Armani Casa is on the ground floor – it’s a prime location – and he’s on the sixth, sitting behind a desk with a view of the city: one of the most established businessmen in Cyprus (the man behind Carlsberg beer and Agros water, to cite a couple of his best-known brands), and one of the most powerful. Later on, we talk about politics, and he mentions that he recently invited all the party leaders to this very office, to share his views on the Cyprus problem: “They all came. The Archbishop, too”. An offer from Photos Photiades is hard to refuse.

He’ll be 91 on the 25th of this month; he wears a hearing-aid and his voice cracks occasionally, but otherwise his powers seem undimmed. Three times he interrupts our conversation to take a phone call; three times he turns back to me and immediately resumes where he left off, without missing a beat. He remembers names, dates and places. At one point, when we talk about Akamas (more on this later), he explains that his property is 1056 donums but he gifted 81 donums to the Land Registry. Which leaves … 975 donums, he adds after the briefest of pauses, while I’m still struggling with mental arithmetic. Even now, he swims all year round, and played tennis till about three years ago when the tendons in his arm started feeling the strain.

The office is large but somewhat impersonal. Among the few distinguishing features is a small telescope, set beside the wall-to-wall windows. On a clear day, he can peer at the mountains, watching cars wind up and down the Pentadaktylos – though of course Photos seldom goes in for such levity, leaving it to his kids and especially his grandkids. He has five children, 13 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Most unusually, all five are in the family business (the Photos Photiades Group numbers over 40 companies worldwide), and indeed on the Board of Directors; the shelves behind his desk are stacked with family photos, pride of place going to a shot of Photos with his sons, Pavlos and Alexis, standing on the sidelines of a corporate meeting where “important decisions were taken”. None of this happened by accident. “History shows that private companies” – meaning family businesses – “survive for one generation, two, maybe three,” he intones with a twinkle in his eye. “I’m trying to carry on in perpetuity, if I can.”

The family have called in foreign experts to advise on how to handle the handover from one generation to the next, and also travelled – as a family – to INSEAD Business School in France for a special seminar. But in fact the dynastic planning started decades before, when the children were young; “I prepared them from when they were little,” says the soft-spoken patriarch. In high school, starting in the third form (i.e. from the age of 15 or so), “they all received copies of the monthly reports of the companies, and they had to study them and comment on them, and make criticisms if they had any”. By the time they returned from their studies – invariably in Economics or Business Administration – they knew almost as much about running the Group as he did. “This allowed them to take on the responsibility. It wasn’t ‘oh, I’ll go have fun now and my father can do all the work’, as usually happens.”

It seems strange that at least one younger Photiades didn’t rebel against this early grooming. Maybe they channelled their frustrations (if any) into sport: tennis and skiing are the family pastimes, and three of the five have competed for Cyprus at Olympic level. Or maybe it’s a question of DNA, since Photos, after all, followed in the footsteps of his own father – a self-made man in a small village in Mesaoria, who was minding sheep as a fatherless boy when one of the village elders took a shine to him and asked him to start a village coffee-shop. The set-up was basic – he used rocks for chairs, and tins of condensed milk for cups – but the 10-year-old turned out to be an excellent manager: the coffee-shop grew into a grocery store, then a taverna, then a restaurant, then a hostel for travellers with a stable for their animals, after which Photos’ dad moved into farming, then raising animals, then manufacturing all kinds of things – shoes, boots, tools, ploughs, bricks, tiles, cartwheels. His shop became a hub for the whole area, farmers buying on credit and paying in kind when their harvests came in.

Photos, the fourth of eight children, showed early promise. In his teens, he spent the school year at the Pancyprian Gymnasium in Nicosia, where he was a star athlete –captain of the volleyball team, a champion in the Discus and Shot Put – and spent the summers taking care of business for his dad, who’d developed back trouble and had to ‘take the waters’ at a mountain spa. His plan was to study Electrical Engineering in Belgium, but WW2 put that on hold – so instead he became a schoolteacher in Famagusta (the war made it difficult to find teachers from Greece), then Assistant Base Engineer Officer for the British Admiralty, then Assistant to the Secretary of the Admiral, then finally went into the food business with an older partner, an experienced salesman. They put in £100 each as capital; six months later, Photos had parlayed that into £700 while his partner had only made £156. The partner withdrew, and Photos had his first real business. He was 22.

By this time, he’s telling me his story – a story he’s clearly told many times before, doubtless leaving out things he’d prefer not to dwell on (isn’t it odd, for instance, that it was the older salesman who withdrew, rather than Photos himself? “It seems he didn’t have clean hands,” he replies vaguely). The business grew and grew, Photos showing his dad’s old talent for diversification: he bought a farm, a fishing boat, a rope-making business, started a packing factory, a salami factory, another factory making pots and pans. He recalls all his early salaries, using them as benchmarks – £3½ a month as a teacher, rising to £18 a month in his final Admiralty job – but numbers alone can’t explain his success. What kind of person was he as a youngster? “Well, first of all I was an athlete,” he replies. “I was very, very energetic – and a little bit mischievous. But I had goals.”

He had goals, all right. During his two years as a schoolteacher – Modern Greek, Ancient Greek, History and P.E. – he was also studying French (for the planned trip to Belgium) and also studying for the Civil Service exam in English. He worked his pupils so hard that the Maths teacher complained Photiades wasn’t leaving them any time to study Maths – yet was even harder on himself. During those two years “I renounced all pleasures,” he recalls, “no women, no nothing”. He kept a notebook for money management, writing down every last penny – and was equally disciplined about the Civil Service exam, dividing the material into daily quotas and refusing to sleep till he’d covered the day’s work.

As he tells the story of his early life, a recurring theme is running into people who were “old” or “lazy”; you can almost picture the young, virile, endlessly dynamic figure he himself cut, getting the better of those who couldn’t keep up. The Base Engineer at the Admiralty was an “old man” who didn’t even bother coming to the office after a while, happy to let Photos take over. Later, in the food business, he used to buy fruit cheaply from “elderly” suppliers with no other way of selling them. One of his coups involved an “old and lazy” merchant who had empty cartons piled high on his shelves, and didn’t know what to do with them; Photos, ever vigilant, learned of a paper factory in desperate need of raw materials, offered to take the dusty cartons off the old man’s hands, and made a tidy profit.

Then again, another recurring theme is friendship. “We’d become very good friends,” he’ll say – and of course friendship oils the wheels of business. Just out of high school, he rescued a drowning girl off the coast of Larnaca, who turned out to be the daughter of a rich Egyptian; through the girl’s grateful father, he met the captain of the mail-boat – the only civilian ship docking in Cyprus during the war – and later, having become friends, prevailed upon him to bring in goods from the Arab world, making Photos the only Cypriot merchant importing from abroad in the early 40s. One thing often leads to another. In the 60s, while he was trying unsuccessfully to persuade Carlsberg to grant him a licence outside Denmark, he became good friends with the Danish Ambassador in Baghdad – whose father-in-law turned out to be president of Tuborg beer, allowing Photos to discover why Carlsberg was stonewalling (there was a secret agreement not to allow Danish beer to be brewed outside Denmark) and formulate a winning strategy.   

A certain charm, a gift for friendship, is essential: “That’s one of the talents a businessman must have – the ability to persuade. It’s a matter of personality, a matter of inspiring trust”. But of course actions speak louder than words. Another story he tells me involves Mr. Galanos, the “King of Sugar”, who objected loudly when Photos muscled in on the sugar market, and tried to convince the Bank of Cyprus (where Galanos was a shareholder) to stop funding him – but the bankers held firm, because, they said, “Photiades never had a debt to pay today that he didn’t already pay yesterday” (Photos is apoplectic about today’s big local supermarkets, many of which are notoriously bad at paying suppliers). Discipline, energy, charm – but also being honest and reliable. Is that the magic formula?

Who knows? It’s unlikely Photos Photiades himself could pin down the secret of success after 90 years on the planet – though, if pressed, he’d surely add thrift to the equation, a quality he finds in short supply among today’s younger Cypriots. “In my own family, my children never got a single penny they didn’t need,” he declares. Even with their pocket money, the deal was that anything they saved at the end of the week would be tripled and invested in a bank account at 12 per cent interest (unsurprisingly, they tended to save quite a bit). And he’d surely add persistence too, as with his lengthy battle to establish Carlsberg against the Church-owned behemoth of Keo, following his five-year battle to get the licence in the first place (Carlsberg – with its smaller stablemate Leon – now has 65 per cent of the Cyprus market). Most of all, however, what he’s been blessed with is a more elusive quality, an athlete’s joy in success for its own sake. How is it (I wonder) that he never had any vices? Cars, drugs, women? But he merely smiles: “The love of business,” he says, “of having a goal and succeeding, is much stronger than any other love”.

Maybe that’s why Akamas remains a sore point, his only real failure. I mention it briefly – and wish I hadn’t, because the story tumbles out in excruciating detail, the plot of land he first saw as a 17-year-old on a field trip, later purchased with plans of creating a unique, Ancient Greece-themed development, only to be thwarted by “the English” (i.e. the Bases) who needed the land for their military exercises. Like many people, I’m against development in the Akamas, our last semblance of unspoiled coastline after the disasters of Limassol, Paphos and Ayia Napa – but listening to Photos tell his story, quietly but firmly, marshalling maps and a list of national parks in Cyprus, it’s impossible not to feel he has a point. He talks of sabotage (he remembers how many of his trees the English destroyed in 1966: 3,764), blatant forgery, possible corruption. He talks of his own noble aims, all the research he’s conducted over the years. He makes it all sound so reasonable. I recall what he said earlier: “That’s one of the talents a businessman must have – the ability to persuade. It’s a matter of personality, a matter of inspiring trust.”

Almost time to say goodbye. He’s done almost all the talking, yet I don’t feel talked down to. He recalls one of his biggest-ever deals – back in 1967, when the Egyptian government needed $15 million worth of tobacco but couldn’t pay for it. Photos intervened – and discovered that Turkey had tobacco they couldn’t sell, as well as owing Egypt money through a clearing account. He handled the negotiations himself, hiding the Egyptians’ involvement so as to keep the price down, then sold the agreement to Philip Morris in the States for a hefty profit, which he then used to buy more tobacco. The art of the deal.

“When you succeed at that,” he smiles, “you feel like a painter who’s just finished a new painting.”


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