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Shipping CEO Despina Panayiotou Theodosiou builds international business from Cyprus

Despina Panayiotou Theodosiou CEO at Tototheo Maritime & President at WISTA International

“Businesses in Cyprus support each other. It’s a real community,” comments Despina Panayiotou Theodosiou, CEO at Tototheo Maritime & President at WISTA International in an interview with the Cyprus Mail.


Thanks to her long experience in shipping, , brings a great deal to the table in her work at WISTA, at the Commonwealth Business Forum, and at her own company.

“I come from a Cypriot family and I grew up in an environment that was in shipping because my father, my godfather, my family was in the shipping industry. Now the shipping industry works 24/7, and, initially, I wanted to have a more balanced life. So I went and studied economics for my first degree and then thought I would go into banking. This, however, I just hated and gave up after three months. I just walked out the door and said this is not for me,” Theodosiou recalls.

The company that Theodosiou manages has grown into a major international player.

“We now have a group of companies that works around the world. We have customers around the world. We have business partners around the world. But our headquarters is still in Cyprus, because this country has given us the support to grow. So I do believe that Cyprus is still a country that can provide many opportunities to people that seek them, more so than many other countries.”

The Cypriot environment for business promotes success, Theodosiou insists.

“Look at it this way: I’ve opened offices in a number of other countries.  I’ve tried to open companies in other countries. And it sometimes takes months. And it’s so complicated, that it takes away from actually concentrating on business. So I think that the legal framework in Cyprus, one based on Common Law, really supports business.

The business community, which provides support, is also a key factor, Theodosiou notes.

There are many trade organisations and associations and, and they really provide valuable work and useful feedback to businesses in Cyprus. The Cyprus shipping chamber, for example, has been providing us with updates since the pandemic started. Whenever we need something, we have very easy access to these organisations: We just have to pick up the phone. What do we do about this? What does the government say? What is the rule? And having secure access to this kind of information is very important.

Another advantage: It has been very easy to find people in Cyprus, but also attract them from abroad, if there were any functions where we needed particular experience.”

The Cyprus tonnage tax regime is well known as an important growth driver for the shipping industry here. But Theodosiou points to other factors supporting the sector.

“And, of course, it tonnage tax regime has been very important in attracting businesses to Cyprus. But let’s not kid ourselves. The tax regime is it’s not the only factor that can keep a company here, because one can find good tax regimes in other countries as well. We have a maritime center in Limassol predominantly, but we also have shipping companies in other cities as well. There is a strong shipping community across Cyprus that provides key support, and there is a shipping chamber that is very on top of things and supportive. The chamber helps shipping companies coming to Cyprus with the information they need. I think that is a really big factor in actually keeping these companies in Cyprus.”

There is also the character of our shipping industry. There are many companies that may have started from people coming from other countries, but they have been on the island for 30 or 40 years. So there is a long history for our shipping industry, and it is rooted here.  I think, as an industry, we can safely say that shipping companies are here, because they find an environment that allows us that allows them to grow.”

Theodosiou’s success in business has been complemented by her championing of women’s rights – she is currently president of the Women’s International Shipping and Trading Association (WISTA).

“WISTA has really been an eye opener for me, because growing up in Cyprus, we certainly had our problems with diversity and inclusion. But I realised that, in some sense, we have also been very lucky. Because we are a small place, and we need to use all the talent that we have.  We have always known this. I’m seeing that in other countries, even European countries, this can be such a big problem.

WISTA has grown a lot since I took over the presidency late in 2017. Then we had 39 national  associations. Now we’re 54, and they are around the world in all continents. So obviously, there’s still a need for this type of association.

I think what we have been concentrating on, at least since I took over is to promote the benefits of diversity and inclusion in our industry. And the fact that we received consultative status at the International Maritime Organisation IMO) has helped a lot with progress and promoting our message.

We are doing a lot together and only on February 17, we launched together with the IMO the first ever survey to get the numbers of how many women are in the wider maritime industry around the world. As we worked on the survey, we realised why it hasn’t been done before, because there are many difficulties in first defining what is the maritime industry and reaching all these companies around the world.

Diversity benefits businesses and countries and economies and the global economy in general. So I think this is the message that we’re trying to convey that if we want to have a better economy, if we want to keep working towards the sustainability goals that we all have for 2030 and 2050, then obviously, including all talent and all people that are interested in that effort, that should be our goal.”


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