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Sat 1 Nov 2008 04:00 AM

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Sir easygoing

Serial entrepreneur and founder of low cost carrier easyJet Stelios Haji-Ioannou chats with Damian Reilly.

Damian Reilly meets Stelios Haji-Ioannou, serial entrepreneur and founder of low cost carrier easyJet.

Stelios, Sir Stelios to you, actually, is aware of his limitations. "One thing I cannot do," he says between mouthfuls with a finger in the air, "is predict the future. That, I cannot do."

False modesty, surely? Afterall, he has certainly made a better fist of doing exactly that than the rest of us. 40 years old now, at the tender age of 25 in 1992, he started the Greek shipping business that eight years later he floated on the New York stock exchange. In 2005, he saw it sold for a cool $1.3 billion.

In 1995, at the age of 28, he famously started low cost European airline easyJet. In the last eight years alone the company has not only listed on the London stock exchange, but has grown from a 16 plane outfit, to an operation boasting a fleet of over 160 aircraft. I wish I was as bad at predicting the future as him.

I was going to save the question until the end, but seeing as we're already on the subject of the future, I slip it in early. How would he like to be remembered?

Masticating slowly, he thinks it over. "I try to be nice," he says. "I want to be remembered as a nice guy. I don't want to be remembered as being particularly successful, because I am not."

I come close to spitting out my drink. Hang on, you're not successful? You're a self-made billionaire! Of course you're successful.

For a moment this big, friendly, Greek man looks embarrassed. He grins a little sheepishly. "I am not self-made," he says. "I had a rich father. And I am not a billionaire, unless you are counting in a currency like drachmas." Now he is laughing.

If that's the case, then he has had a bad year, or the Sunday Times newspaper has some facts to check. In 2007, that paper's famous Rich List put Stelios Haji-Ioannou's wealth at ₤1.2 billion, which makes him the 49th wealthiest man in Britain. Even if he does not consider himself to be successful, most would.

Another tack, then. When did you realise you were different to the other kids?

"I don't think I am that different, actually. I was born lucky. Because I was born into a Greek shipping family, so from day one I knew that I didn't have to work for a living, which is a blessing and a curse. I was different in the sense that instead of sitting on my backside and staying within the shipping business, I wanted to make a difference in peoples' lives. So I convinced my father to give me some money, and I started easyJet.

"The main point is that I had the tenacity, if you like, to leave a peaceful existence in Greece and go to a place that very few people have heard of called Luton airport in London. Back then, it was even less glamorous. I worked hard, but I was lucky to be able to get the money from my father. I was in the right place at the right time, and created this airline."

Which brings us neatly to the eureka moment. How did someone for whom money was no object, for whom the only way to travel was presumably in first class, hit upon an idea that would prove to be so popular with the cost-conscious middle classes?

"To be honest, I was looking around for something outside of the shipping industry. Amateur psychologists would say I was trying to prove myself to my father. I didn't just want to be a rich Daddy's son. Basically, I was looking at aviation, and I went to the States, and I came across Southwest airlines. Someone in Boeing told me about it. So again, it was a lucky moment, because they are the prototype: Southwest airlines is the original low cost airline. I saw it and said: this is it. This is missing in Europe. I decided that to make money I had to design something for the many and not for the few."

Was Ryan air, easyJet's main rival, in operation back then? "Ryan air was around ten years before us, but in a different model, and they were losing money. At about the same time as we started, they changed, and the two companies have been competing with each other and leapfrogging each other ever since."

But how does Stelios, who seems such a gentle soul at the lunch table, get on with Ryanair's famously sweary Irish CEO Michael O'Leary? Does he like him?

"Not really. He is very arrogant. It is difficult to be friendly with someone who is so arrogant. I think the guy is arrogant because he is successful, but at the same time you have to keep things in perspective and remember that there is an element of luck in all of this. Without your people, and without your customers, you are nothing. He is even rude to his customers. How can you be rude to your customers? But, anyway, we are not here to talk about him."Stelios is an unassuming man. Anyone who met him as I did would be hard pressed not to take away the same impression. At the stroke of 2pm, as agreed, he had ambled anonymously into the lobby of the Grovesnor hotel in Dubai, to meet me for lunch.

Dressed unostentatiously, he was not the larger than life character I was expecting, the celebrity businessman legend in Britain depicts him as. But he is charming and engaging, nonetheless, as keen to learn about Dubai as I was to learn about him.

In fact, he would not allow me to begin the interview until I had answered his questions regarding the prospects for Dubai's real estate story, or the region's vulnerability to the global credit crunch. A graduate of the London School of Economics, Stelios describes himself during our conversation as a "professional foreigner." By that, he means he is practised at doing, so the phrase goes, as the Romans do.

So, what was being knighted by Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain like? Now he is laughing again.

"I don't even put it on my card. It is not something I talk a lot about. I didn't ask for it. Literally, a letter arrived in the post. The guy that opens the post called me and said: I think this is serious. You turn up at Buckingham Palace, and you're there with 200 other people. There is a bit of a feeling of "next" about it all. You get your thirty seconds with Her Majesty, and that is about it. You accept it graciously. It is on my passport and credit card."

Does it help you get upgrades when you are flying? For a moment his eyes widen, before he realises the joke. That big smile again.

"What I have found is that it works well in Anglo-Saxon countries. It is actually laughed at in Continental European countries and socialist countries. If you go around Greece calling yourself Sir Stelios, people are going to laugh. So you have to pick and choose when to use it. Remember, I was born in a country (Cyprus) that is completely socialist; we don't believe in titles."

Why did he float easyJet, and effectively give up running it (Stelios and his siblings still retain a 37 percent stake in the airline)? And does he regret doing so?

"In 2000, we floated on the London Stock Exchange. We did it because it was essential to raise more capital to buy more aircraft. I took the view that I'd rather own a smaller piece of a bigger thing, rather than the other way around. And that is what happened. The main issue is that I decided to design something that would serve as many people as possible. In the last twelve months, easyJet has carried between 43 million and 44 million people. So it makes a difference in a lot of peoples' lives. Just before I floated the company on the stock market, I said to myself: I am not really the corporate type. I can't work for a PLC. The average term of a Chief Executive of a PLC in London is only 4.5 years. I was 33 then. I would have been redundant at 37 and a half. So I thought I had better design a different model."

At this point, Stelios leans across the table to hand me one of his business cards. On the reverse is printed a list of words beginning with the word ‘easy.' easyInternetcafe, easyCar, easyCinema, and others. easy4men leaps out from the list.

"So I separated the ownership from the name of the company. I own the name easyGroup. And I started creating separate companies, some of them better than others, I won't lie to you."

He now wants to talk about low cost hotel chain easyHotel (soon to open in Jebel Ali), which is why he is in Dubai, but I can't resist. What's easy4men?.

"It's a travel pack for shaving foam. After they introduced the 100ml rule for liquids on planes, we introduced this."

It sounds more exciting than that.

"No, it's boring," he says.

But isn't it hard registering the domain names and trademarks? Don't people realise they can make a fast buck by beating him to it? A short time spent on the Internet reveals that Stelios had some trouble claiming the name easyPizza from a man with a pizza delivery company in the UK.

He nods vigorously. "I have been spending a fortune on lawyers. easyPizza is a business we run in the UK, it's a franchise. We have the name now. It's expensive. You spend money on lawyers and everything else. When I started it was difficult. Thirteen years and billions and billions of pounds worth of investment later, I think now we own the ‘easy' brand. We have about a thousand trademarks. easy this and easy that. So we have the legal rights to stop them."

So, for example, if I tried to set up easyPaintbrushes tomorrow, I'd have you on my back?

The smile fades momentarily, and he eyes me with something approaching suspicion. "I would stop you," he says certainly. And I believe him.

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