At just 28 years-old Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou set up his own airline. Today he runs 17 different companies under the famous easyGroup brand. Now he plans to emulate that success in the Middle East.
Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou makes it all sounds so easy. Describing how he started his now multibillion-dollar business empire with the launch of easyJet, he says: "I was just a rich boy. My father gave me some money."
"I arrived at this place called Luton Airport, rented a couple of planes and said, ‘Let's start an airline that goes from Luton to Glasgow and Edinburgh'."
If you'd asked me a month ago when the oil price was at $146 a barrel, I was very worried. At $109 a barrel, life will be a lot easier.
"And that's all I had ambitioned for at the beginning. My only concern was, ‘Can we survive? Can we have a couple of planes flying up and down and not lose money?'." And while this is by no means a rags-to-riches tale - Stelios's father was the famous Greek shipping tycoon Nedi Haji-Ioannou - the easyGroup founder's achievements are no less remarkable.
Today Stelios (as he likes to be known) has a personal fortune of $2.58bn. Aside from having been a pioneer in the UK's budget airline sector, he has set up 17 brands under easyGroup - so many, in fact, that during our interview he has to refer to a list he keeps handy, admitting: "Even I forget sometimes. I'll pull out the list, hold on."
While you'd expect the average tycoon to be embarrassed to admit he can't remember the names of his own companies, Stelios, who ranked 49th in the Sunday Times 2007 Rich List, is unashamedly not a man who concerns himself with the details of running his business.
"I make a distinction between successful managers of businesses and entrepreneurs. There are competent people who know how to run businesses and I'm not one of them - and there are entrepreneurs.
"We're a different animal," he says.
His strength is in generating ideas and making them work - well, most of the time anyway. The easyJet business has been a ground-breaking success flying 157 aircraft on 392 routes throughout Europe.
And unlike several of his competitors in the UK aviation market, Stelios is confident that it will survive rising oil prices.
"easyJet has one of the strongest balance sheets in the industry so I have no doubt it will be one of the winners.
"If you'd asked me a month ago when the oil price was at $146 a barrel, I was very worried. At $109 a barrel, life will be a lot easier."
However, it is fair to say that his other lines of business have met with mixed success.
In 2004, according to the UK's Sunday Times newspaper, the cumulative losses of his businesses outside easyJet reached $254m, and in its first year of business easyInternetcafé alone cost the company around $160m.
easyCar, which launched in April 2000, suffered first year losses of $42m and easyCinema failed to grow beyond one cinema, converting to a DVD rental business soon after its launch.
But Stelios says he has no choice but to take risks and to regard each new launch as a process of trial and error.
"Not all of them are as successful as the others. I'm not going to sit here and say I have not made mistakes. "I have made mistakes and some people say I should focus on fewer brands," he admits. "But if only I knew which ones would be successful in advance I would focus on those. There is no other way of carrying out entrepreneurship unfortunately."
"If only you could go to a consultancy and ask which brands would work and follow their advice and be guaranteed to succeed. Then everybody would be an entrepreneur."
But if anyone is qualified to judge which new businesses will be a success, it's Stelios. And today he has his sights set firmly on seizing new business opportunities in the Middle East.
"The whole easyGroup is about diversification so it's a case of picking the right brands, picking the winners, and coming over to the Middle East and seeing whether we can introduce them into a booming region, certainly not a region that is going into recession.
"The biggest problem in the UK at the moment is that the economy is going into recession, which means that people will have less and less money to spend."
"So I'm looking forward to investing and spending more time in Dubai and in the Gulf," he says.So far he has announced the launch of his budget hotel chain easyHotels in the Gulf in partnership with Nakheel, with plans to launch five properties in the region - the first of which will open in Dubai by the end of next year.
He admits the process has not been easy and that the company has had to adapt the easyHotel model to fit the requirements of the Dubai authorities.
"The irony is that easyHotels Dubai will be the most comfortable, luxurious easyHotels anywhere."
When I first started the business, I was only focusing on surviving the first winter.
"It's not the end of the world, but the concept had to be adapted slightly more upscale in order to comply with the Dubai tourism authority's minimum requirements."
"They've asked us to do certain things the British licensing authorities have not insisted on. There are minimum requirements about windows and everything else. Which may sound normal to people, but at the end of the day I was very impressed with the British authorities - and nobody can accuse them of being anything other than very strict - who were very happy to allow rooms without windows. Provided there is enough air conditioning and ventilation and fire escapes."
But he has no intention of stopping at hotels and, when he visits Dubai in October, will be on the lookout for other opportunities to establish his brands in the region.
"We work largely on the basis of franchising so, in the same way that we found Nakheel for easyHotel, I hope that I'll be able to find other reputable local companies to take on other EasyGroup brands in the UAE.
"I'm talking about anything from bus operations to and from the airport on easyBus to pizza delivery with easyPizza. These are the more humble, pedestrian day-to-day activities that every city needs."
Stelios has particularly high hopes of establishing a Middle East branch of easyOffice - a company that provides office facilities to let on a weekly basis, payable by credit card.
And in a city where soaring office rents and construction delays make sourcing and renting office space on a long-term basis tough for new arrivals, it would be a very smart move.
"Being such an entrepreneurial place, I think it would be an excellent opportunity for someone who owns their own business, who doesn't want to be tied up on a long lease, to take a franchise on easyOffice and be able to operate it on a short-term, flexible, prepay, by-the-week basis," he points out.
"If you go to easyOffice.co.uk, you will see that you can book office rooms in London by the week and pay by credit card, and I think that would be a very welcome opportunity for Dubai."
"But again we need a local partner in real estate," he goes on to say.
Stelios is keen to state, however, that he won't be setting up a budget airline in the region - despite the strength of the market - claiming there is already formidable competition in this area.
"Short-haul flying is our core market but I think Emirates (flyDubai) would be a formidable competitor, as well as all the other low-cost airlines that have started now."
While Stelios is always brimming with plans for the next big idea, he says he never looks further down the line than five years ahead. It is because of this that he didn't realise the full potential of his easyJet business until four years after it had been set up.
"When I first started the business, I was only focusing on surviving the first winter. It was only three or four years later that I realised that I was onto something. There was a brand and people had this sort of aspiration and good will and love for the brand."
He is hoping to spread this love to the Middle East. And if his success in the European markets is anything to go by, the region's entrepreneurs had better watch out.
Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou will be the guest of honour and keynote speaker at the CEO awards next month on October 13th at Raffles Dubai.
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