Christos Panayiotides talks to George Koukis, who left Greece at a young age to find a better life abroad and after building a career in Australia ended up in Switzerland where his Temenos Group became a world leader in banking software.
Our world is a world of no values; just short-term profits, anything that is expedient.
George Koukis was born in Chalkida, in 1946. The post-war years in Greece were difficult years. Keeping your head above water was an achievement. At a fairly young age, he met the woman of his life. They got married but going against the current was a difficult task. So they decided to emigrate to the UK, despite the fact that they did not have the required work permit to stay legally in the country.
Soon they were confronted with the dilemma of being sent back to Greece or “forwarded” to Australia. They chose the latter, despite the fact that Mrs Koukis was pregnant and they only had 140 Australian dollars in their pocket. Within a few weeks they both managed to get a temporary job there. George ended up working for QANTAS at day time and going to university at night. It was the time when airlines were timidly breaking into computerisation.
Koukis thought that since everybody had to learn a new (programming) language to venture into computers, opting for a career in computers would mitigate his handicap of speaking poor English. He volunteered to assume the task of creating a computer-based solution to “a difficult airline problem”, with a phrase he still remembers very vividly “me do it”. He also remembers the response of the person in charge of the selection process, holding his head in his hands with a facial expression of absolute despair. George, however was the only volunteer willing to get involved in this new unexplored field of business activity. Within six months, though, the QANTAS computerised system was up and running.
His first success, against the odds, provided him with the fuel he needed to keep himself going. Within a few years he was recruited by MSA, a then well known Atlanta-based software company and in less than 3 years he was in charge of its Australian operations. His wealth started accumulating at an impressive pace but all his savings were lost in the stock market crash of 1987.
In 1993, however, he spotted a small but dynamic Swiss company, which specialised in developing software for the banking industry. The company had a great team of software engineers, who had created a state-of-the-art product but they were running out of cash and, as a consequence, they were confronted with bankruptcy. He and an Australian friend had $300,000 in their pocket but they needed $950 thousand to buy the company. A venture capitalist stepped in and an amazing success story was launched with Koukis in the driver’s seat.
That was about the time when I had the privilege of meeting him for the first time, as I was in charge of the due diligence review that was commissioned by a second venture capitalist, invited to invest in the Temenos Group, the satisfactory outcome of which was a precondition for the additional investment. I soon realised that I was looking at a team with a great potential and a leader that had the ability to inspire the team and capture success. That was the starting point of an ongoing professional relationship that in June 2001 led to the Temenos Group being listed on the Zurich Stock Exchange. I was the reporting accountant on its listing memorandum. The listing was a big success.
However, shortly, catastrophe struck, when the terrorist attack on the twin towers in New York threw the banking industry into a deep recession. The negative impact on the Temenos Group was inevitable. With a lot of hard work, the Group gradually recovered from the shock sustained in September 2001, to become the worldwide leader in the field of banking software. In 2011, Koukis retired as chairman of the Temenos Group but remained a member of the board until a few months ago.
His achievements are impressive, by any standards. He has been reported as one of the five wealthiest Greeks in Switzerland. He has visited Cyprus many times and knows the island very well. This prompted me to approach him and ask him a few questions
Greeks appear to be doing extremely well when they find themselves outside of Greece. What is holding them back, when they are playing “at home”?
I am and I have always been in love with Greece, the Greek language and the Greek culture. We have inherited a culture that spans over 3,000 years; it is a unique culture. Certainly, not the only civilization that has flourished in the history of mankind but a civilization that is in many ways unique and still forms the cornerstone of Europe. Nonetheless, I left Greece, when I was 21, and migrated to Australia. Why did I seek a future outside the country I am in love with? I did it for the same reason that has prompted 450,000 trained professionals to leave Greece since the beginning of the financial crisis. The recurring theme is that Greek governments (excluding the current one; to be fair, the jury is still out) have been incompetent or downright criminal. The country is bankrupt; the Greek civil servants and the public at large are embroiled in a world of bureaucracy, avarice, greed and a “what’s in it for me, today” mindset. They thrive – or so they believe – in this environment. Survival is the name of the game. Mediocrity is the yardstick. Sadly, I do not see Greeks getting out of this vicious circle in my lifetime. It would take generations to change this mindset.
Mr. Koukis, the Cyprus Problem has remained unresolved for almost a century and poses a growing threat to peace and stability in the Eastern Mediterranean. What do you think is the root of the problem, which is proving to be so persistent?
I recall my very early years. On January 15, 1950, 95.7% of Cypriots voted in favour of “enosis”, i.e. in favour of becoming an integral part of the Greek State. I recall overhearing the discussions held in the kafeneion of my neighbourhood as to why our friends and allies were letting us down, by ignoring the wish of the Cypriots to join their motherland. Like most of the teenagers of my generation, I took part in demonstrations, waving the Greek flag and shouting “enosi, enosi”.
An explanation as to what has gone wrong is that the personal goals of the politicians, who were supposed to deliver on the wishes of the majority of the people, were set at the top of their list of priorities. A string of people, who knew how to manipulate the voters, have caused the current situation to prevail in Cyprus. It is an undeniable fact that Cyprus has been partitioned on the ground but the politicians act as if nothing has happened. Even though there are organisations – like the United Nations – and international treaties that are meant to regulate the behaviour of countries and force them to respect the fundamental principles of fairness and justice, this is not happening; instead what prevails is the sectional interests and the will of those who have the power to impose their choices on everybody else. This explains why the Cypriots, who, almost 50 years ago, were thrown out of their homes by the force of arms, have not succeeded to return.
Because of its geostrategic significance, Turkey is a country backed by powerful forces. It is a country run by someone with grand ideas, who is inspired by religion and would like to see himself playing a dominant role on the world stage and certainly in the region of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. What have the Cypriot politicians done in the last 70 years to confront these threats? Judging by results, it is obvious they have done very little. So, the same observations I made about Greece apply to Cyprus.
If your assessment of the situation is correct, what can we do about it?
Well, you are a patient, I am a doctor. You have abused your body all your life by doing all the wrong things, you are riddled with diseases, yet you ask me to prescribe a potion that will cure all the ills overnight, so that you can be an Olympic athlete in a few days. I am sorry, I cannot do it!
What is lacking is leadership with integrity. Any system, be it social, business or government requires leadership. When the leader is capable, educated, trained and gifted by nature, then one can see potential benefits flowing into the system. However, being adequately trained and naturally blessed are not enough; you need to have a value system that transcends skills, you need to have Integrity (ακεραιότητα χαρακτήρα). History is littered with examples of leaders with inverse Integrity, resulting in massacres and other atrocities committed wholly and exclusively for protecting their power base.
A leader should have a dream of what it is to be achieved that spans beyond the normal term of a politician. A true leader wants no personal rewards (what he/she gets by being in that position is more than adequate), no applause, no popularity. What the leader wants to achieve is to leave a legacy that will inspire younger people, future generations so that the foundations are laid for a fairer and just society. A leader that would say to himself “I achieved a lot in my life, I enjoyed my life, my country helped me, now I will put back into my country as much as I can, as a genuine gesture of gratitude and appreciation”.
The politicians, irrespective of where they stand on the political spectrum, invariably transmit the same messages. If you read their manifestos they are full of platitudes, smartly drafted to please and attract as many voters as possible. They all present themselves as magicians capable of solving all the problems overnight. No mention of the painful choices that must be made. And, then, once elected, they all become “upper class”, demanding from the ordinary citizens to subsidise their ill gotten spoils or their disastrous decisions.
I understand that in Cyprus and Greece lists exist of who has been found to have funds in bank accounts that cannot be justified and/or of non-performing loans that have been written off. To add insult to injury, not only the offenders are not prosecuted but they are “rewarded” by the system and given significant positions in “major” institutions; some of them lecture young people. I wonder what do they teach them? Unfortunately, the international framework operates on a similar basis. While we advocate peace we spend billions to destabilise countries and regions, promoting wars and conflicts and all of that because the main objective is the pursuit of power and money. Our world is a world of no values; just short term profits, anything that is expedient.
Why all these? Because we, the voters, have forgotten that we have enormous collective power as a group. We have allowed “them” or “the system” to divide us. We carry a good part of the responsibility for what has happened. In the spring of 2021, elections will be held in Cyprus for electing the members of the House of Representatives and in the early part of 2023 a new president will be elected in Cyprus. Make sure that you vote for competent people with integrity. Do not fall for the looks or the rhetoric of the candidates, resist the temptation of being overtly affected by slogans, listen and critically evaluate what they will be saying.
Mr Koukis, I find it strange that a man who in his lifespan has succeeded in accumulating significant wealth appears to be against the concept of profit. How comes?
No, I am not against the concept of profit. On the contrary, organisations must be profitable, i.e. they must generate “added value”, they must generate more resources than the ones they consume, in order to be able to survive. The higher the efficiency of the organisation, the higher is the profit. However, increasing profitability by, for example, not adequately rewarding talent and effort is short-sighted and, in the medium/long term, is going to adversely affect profitability. It is true that I have never thought of profit as a goal in itself; it was more a by-product of a process that was generating added value for society. I have a suspicion that most successful entrepreneurs share this view.
Christos Panayiotides is a regular columnist for the Cyprus Mail, Sunday Mail and Alithia