A Vision for the Future of Greece

Be it budding sectors like renewable energy or digital services, or mainstays to the Greek economy like shipping or tourism, the key to harnessing Greece’s potential lies in the creation of an ecosystem that fosters a knowledge-based economy, prioritising lifelong learning, increased employability, and a stable and business-friendly environment, says Leonidas Demetriades-Eugenides, President of the Eugenides Group of Companies, Eugenides Foundation, and IMO Goodwill Ambassador in Greece.

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GIG: Greece’s political leadership has committed to restructuring the economy to enable it to bounce back to growth, while prioritising the attraction of domestic and foreign investments. Given your active footprint across many of Greece’s key economic sectors, what needs to happen for Greece to become a more competitive investment destination from a comparative point of view? What structural changes do you prioritise and why?

Demetriades-Eugenides: To assess what needs to be done, we first need to understand where Greece has come from.

The country managed an astonishing economic comeback after the past 10 years; we should not forget where Greece found itself after the Lehman Brothers crisis hit in 2008, particularly from 2010 onwards.

Having said that, I think it’s indeed extraordinary that Greece has managed to restore confidence. A very important indicator is the fact that we can borrow from the markets for 10 years at a rate of less than 1%. So too is the fact that the rate of unemployment has declined from 28% at its peak to 17%, prior of course to COVID-19. While this is still not an acceptable figure, the decrease is, nonetheless, quite an accomplishment.

On the other hand, Greece managed to achieve positive economic growth for a number of consecutive quarters. And while we have still not resolved all our problems, we evolved from being the “black sheep” of Europe to performing decently as an economy and as a society. This was achieved thanks to the efforts of the Greek people, of the society as a whole, and of a political system that has matured considerably. This evolution set the foundations for the new government to develop a necessary and ambitious development programme.

Who is in power at a governmental level is of equal importance as the existence of a strong political system that supports solutions, with vision and long-term planning. A stable political framework is a prerequisite to operate within any market, and while drastic changes cannot happen overnight, there can be a wide array of basic axles, of different views and ideas, working within the political system.

Last but not least, the assistance Europe provided to Greece during the crisis period was crucial, on a number of levels, in enabling the country to get back on track. As a known Greek politician once said, “It’s so sad that Greeks needed someone else to tell them what Greek politicians wouldn’t dare say.”

Looking ahead, our key priority should be growth while maintaining social coherence. We need to focus on the development of a strong ecosystem that enhances the employability of skilful and incentivised people, while prioritising indicators like quality of life and unemployment. However, the development of such a system should be based on a vision and actions emanating from a proper dialogue between stakeholders.

From a reform perspective, creating this ecosystem touches upon many areas. For instance, I believe it’s very important that we’ve laid the ground towards the creation of a more transparent banking system thanks to the European Union. However, there is still much more that needs to be done.

It’s very important that we have taken significant steps to improve our justice system. Justice needs to be fair, expedient, and independent from political parties. Judges are responsible for the application of laws that have been democratically passed. So, it is good to see changes happening in this direction. Furthermore, we welcome the introduction of mediation, for example.

A prerequisite for the existence of a strong and sustainable ecosystem is the establishment of a stable fiscal framework, which is a sine qua non condition. Furthermore, such a business ecosystem necessitates parameters according to which a company can first be competitive, productive, and able to make a profit; hence, profitable thereafter taxable.

A major issue, which is still the object of a great deal of discussion, concerns the employability of our workforce and labour law. I’m a very socially conscious person, and I honestly believe that we need to have effective checks and balances in place for this factor to work appropriately.

While I consider that we are currently in a relatively balanced situation, we need enhanced work mobility across economic sectors. At the same time distance working and flexibility issues have to be properly addressed. This requires the possibility for lifelong learning, for people to be attuned and adaptable, nurturing the development of the soft skills needed for people to perform in a plethora of jobs.

Yet, achieving this depends on the prudent behaviour of employers, underlining the importance of a “checks and balances” system, and of course, this doesn’t only apply to Greece, it’s a global challenge. The biggest challenges, even in the United States, have surfaced from the fact that the economy was not attuned to the onset of new technologies. As a result, the workforce lacked the necessary skills to adapt to transformative sectorial changes –in areas like mining or manufacturing, for example – resulting in the loss of jobs and of respect for human dignity.

As for the impact of COVID-19, Greece was in a much better place than many would have expected prior to the pandemic. And while the health crisis has caused a tremendous shock, I believe the country’s management of the first wave of the pandemic stands as a paradigm of effective response, both from a health perspective and with respect to the country’s capacity to embrace change, particularly in terms of digitisation and distance working.

Then the second wave hit, much sooner and in a worse way than anyone expected, creating a situation that is very difficult to sustain, for Greece and the world, particularly considering that we are unaware of how long this problem will last.

Looking ahead, I honestly believe that it is vital that we engage both the political system and all stakeholders in a joint dialogue to identify those key sectors in which Greece has a comparative advantage, to streamline all efforts in the same direction, exploring new possibilities, and leveraging opportunities in the digital era and the green economy.

Certain sectors will never be the same, while others will arise. But it’s up to all stakeholders to collectively define which sectors these will be, while also defining the future skills that the educational system will be required to adopt for the day after.

GIG: Greece’s new development plan prioritises green and digital investments along with infrastructure mega-projects. What sectors do you believe should spearhead Greece’s economic recovery?

Demetriades-Eugenides: It is self-understood that we can and need to build upon those economic sectors that are already strong and sustainable, like shipping and tourism. There’s no doubt that they can be a catalyst for new opportunities through their linkages with other sectors, which in the case of shipping we call “maritime cluster”.

Then there are the sectors where Greece has or can establish a comparative advantage. These, in my point of view, are the up-and-coming sectors like renewable energy, the digital economy, and start-ups, which should operate in a proper ecosystem and shall be primarily based on people in this country, their ideas, the resources we allocate to R&D, and our universities. If we unite these elements, Greece will succeed and flourish in the future.

As for infrastructure, this is a crucial sector that goes beyond construction and encompasses ICT, among other sectors, which is why Microsoft’s decision to invest in Greece is very encouraging. Infrastructure investments are linked to the revitalisation of the real economy and need to be carried out in tandem with those sectors where we have a comparative advantage.

When China’s exports suffered, for example, China invested in infrastructure to support their exports. If infrastructure investments are implemented in a smart manner they will spur growth, which is why we need to make an optimal use of the resources we have available, marrying the right infrastructure – balanced infrastructure – with sectors which shall be the backbone of the Greek economy’s evolution.

However, it’s important to note that Greece will be successful when besides attracting investment funds it attracts institutional investors as well; there’s a huge difference in terms of their added value to the real economy. And most importantly, besides the attraction of investments, it’s essential that Greece retains those investments that are already in place or else all future efforts will be meaningless.

In conclusion, by jointly creating a roadmap for the future, we will be able to focus on the creation of a conducive ecosystem, which will allow businesses to grow within a stable environment through which we will be able to build the next day, respecting the past, and welcoming the new digital and sustainable era!

GIG: You are most notably known for your role within Greece’s shipping industry. How does this sector contribute to economic and social development in Greece?

Demetriades-Eugenides: From an economic perspective, shipping is not only important for Greece, it’s important at a global level. 90% of global commodities are moved by sea, with Greece owning between 18-20% of the global deadweight tonnage, and 53% at a European Union level. Besides the size of the Greek fleet this is also a very modern tonnage, averaging one year below the age of the world fleet, and spread across all kinds of ships.

Aegean Speed Lines Copyright: Eugenides Group of Companies

We are proud that Greece leads a sector that contributes to the wellness of our planet. Shipping has the lowest environmental impact, amongst all forms of transportation, and is fully compliant with the UN Sustainable Development Goals within the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, actively promoted by the IMO.

Shipping is the vehicle through which the almost 8 billion people who inhabit our Earth are able to produce, feed themselves, prosper, and recover from disasters.

As for the shipping industry’s contribution to Greece, just consider that during the crisis period shipping outperformed other sectors and industries with respect to its contribution to both employment and production. Gross inflows of water transport services surpassed €10,5 billion in 2013 and 12 billion in 2017 and 2018, while shipping’s contribution to GDP represents an estimated 6%.

In terms of employment –which is perhaps the most important contribution in this era– approximately 30,000 people work directly in maritime professions, both on-board and ashore, with 140,000 additional jobs deriving indirectly from linkages with the shipping industry’s activities. This represents as much as 170,000 jobs in total, which is vast as far as national employment is concerned.

And then there’s the shipping industry’s strong weight in Greek diplomacy. Since the end of World War II, Greek ship orders have contributed significantly to drive economic growth through shipbuilding in countries ranging from Germany (after World War II) to the Far East (nowadays).

Beyond the direct impact of the shipping industry nationally and worldwide, Greek shipowners have also been key investors in the country’s most important economic sectors ranging from banking and leisure across to tourism and manufacturing. The reality is that Greek shipowners are there to invest ashore like any other investor, as long as they have the right opportunities and the necessary incentives; namely, a stable and incentivising business-friendly environment.

Finally, there’s the shipping industry’s social responsibility. The biggest and oldest benevolent non-profit foundations in Greece, which have been particularly active during the COVID crisis –much like the Eugenides Foundation– are financially backed by the shipping industry. It’s important to underline Syn-Enosis, which is the social welfare and solidarity programme developed by the Union of Greek Shipowners, through which we all come together, over and above what we do on an individual basis. We stand by our country and we respond to its needs based on whatever the circumstances may require.

GIG: How do you see this role evolving as Greece looks to restructure its economic model? What needs to happen for the maritime industry to expand its economic footprint?

Demetriades-Eugenides: First of all, there is a lot of room to increase the shipping industry’s footprint in terms of job creation. Based on the efforts we are undertaking on the educational front, we are seeking to considerably increase the number of Greek officers and seafarers, contributing to employment and overall employability.

Secondly, I’m very happy to see current efforts to revitalise our shipyards, particularly within the context of ship repairs, which is a top priority for both our coastal and our ocean-going vessels. It’s unacceptable that we have reached a point where we lack a larger number of operational shipyards in a country that once-upon-a-time built a vast number of very good ships. We welcome the rebirth of Greece’s ship repair industry, irrespective of who will back the investment, as long as it creates jobs and has a tangible economic impact.

And then there’s what is known as the Greek shipping cluster, more commonly known as the Piraeus shipping cluster. While we have a very strong legal outfit that supports our shipping industry, technical and supply infrastructure, I believe we lost an important opportunity to develop this further with distinct ancillary services. Nevertheless, looking ahead, what is of great importance is for us to be in a position where we can capitalise upon Greek know-how and technology to support the industry, leveraging areas where we have a competitive edge like research, naval architecture, and mechanical engineering.

From a technical perspective, Greek professionals perform exceptionally well because they boast a unique ingenuity fostered by a long tradition of education. For example, the internationally renowned educational institution, the National Technical University of Athens, is one of the oldest in the country producing many of the best engineers, naval architects, and chemical engineers.

The University of Piraeus and the University of the Aegean are other excellent examples in terms of education in the areas of finance, accounting, and maritime executives in general. But more could be done to complement the sector; we need excellence and to source the best available talent.

Our vision for our economy should be to leverage our know-how to create an ecosystem that fosters the creation of a knowledge-based economy, be it green or digital.

Mr. Demetriades-Eugenides during the Slide2Open Shipping Finance 2020 conference Copyright: Eugenides Group of Companies

GIG: By assuming your position as IMO Ambassador in Greece in May 2018 you become an official advocate for the maritime and seafaring profession. What are the biggest barriers to attracting young Greeks to the shipping industry? What are your main priorities?

Demetriades-Eugenides: To begin with, and contrary to what you have heard, with the exception of cruising which has been victimised more than any other segment as a result of the pandemic, merchant shipping, per se, has managed fantastically well in these difficult circumstances.

We are engaged in the passenger business, and thanks to good diligence, things fared well in terms of incidences, primarily because we don’t lodge people on-board.

And then as far as ocean going shipping is concerned, I’m very proud that our industry, thanks to the leadership and intervention of maritime unions – primarily the Union of Greek Shipowners – has been very active in two directions:

Firstly, in implementing all necessary steps to ensure health & safety on-board vessels, thanks to which there were very few incidences on ships. And secondly, by working tirelessly to facilitate the repatriation of crews, which is the most serious problem our industry is facing. If anything, this has served to highlight, the need for society at large to acknowledge the importance of shipping, and for a united and global solution to be achieved.

I would say that the overall good handling of this difficult situation does not justify the extremely negative publicity that the crew repatriation matter has received, which, in my point of view, only serves to deter people from the maritime profession.

Within my capacity as IMO Goodwill Ambassador, and having had the opportunity to travel across Greece to promote shipping among younger generations, I’ve realised that the importance and opportunity presented by the seafaring profession hasn’t been fully understood. Yet, I’ve been encouraged by the fact that through personal interaction and dialogue with the youth of this country I’ve been able to really generate an interest.

Based on the results of studies we’ve assigned to researchers from the Athens University of Economics and Business, the key to attracting people to the sector is word of mouth: for people who are already working at sea to talk about their experiences, as this serves to awaken that passion in potential new recruits. And while we need to work hard to improve the way we attract people, there has been an increased interest.

This is reflected by the fact that the entry marks that are required to enter the Maritime Academies have substantially increased, signalling an upgrade in the entry standards and quality of people who will be entering the sector.

GIG: You signed a protocol earlier this year with the Greek Ministry of Shipping geared towards the creation of a new institutional framework for maritime education. What are your objectives in this respect?

Demetriades-Eugenides: We’re very privileged that the government and the shipping industry entrusted our Foundation to conduct a study, which is now in its final stage, focused on the modernisation of our maritime educational system. Our study, which was enriched by our research experience and involvement in international shipping related projects, puts forward a holistic approach towards the modernisation of our existing maritime educational system through competitive, yet realistic, proposals focused on several key areas.

Our study also supports the introduction of blended learning, foreseeing the merger of both conventional and remote learning well before circumstances brought it to the fore.

In fact, during the COVID-19 period, the Eugenides Foundation assisted the Ministry of Mercantile Marine and Insular Policy to design and roll-out a distance learning platform for students of maritime academies using Microsoft Teams. I’m very happy to say that the collaboration worked; and it worked with impressive results.

While we don’t believe that distance learning can fully substitute contact sessions, we do believe a blended model can prove highly beneficial.

Secondly, we are working very hard to ensure that our future seafarers, particularly officers, will have the skills required for enhanced employability. This could be achieved through our merchant marine academies, bearing in mind that graduates from maritime vocational high schools (EPAL) recently acquired the right to follow an officer career. In our proposal, we suggest for all future officers to have followed one path, rather than having two different speeds. Also, we believe the English language should be gradually further incorporated into the teaching process across maritime education to enhance safety and efficiency through improved communicational skills.

We also believe in the development of a common programme between private and state education. Bearing in mind that what is certified at the end of the day is learning outcomes, seafarers should have to pass common professional examinations, being tested and accredited with a Greek flag certification, regardless of whether they graduated from a private or public organisation.

Mr. Demetriades-Eugenides in the University of Piraeus. Copyright: Eugenides Group of Companies

We should not forget that Greek seafarers already have the possibility to study at other institutions in Greece or abroad, obtain a valid non-Greek certification and, through bilateral agreements, work on-board Greek vessels.

There’s also a big debate concerning the possibilities available to seafarers to pursue postgraduate university studies. We believe in the lifelong learning process; the system should allow for people to evolve. Nevertheless, we believe that a seafarer needs to be trained to be a seafarer, and the industry should be able to choose the best seafarers to recruit ashore based on their careers at sea, for them to become chief captains, chief engineers, or even evolve into future shipowners.

Commencing a career at sea is not going to provide seafarers, per se, with a competitive advantage in the so-called maritime professions. In actual practice, new regulations and regulatory demands require the engagement of first class chief accountants, first class financiers, first class lawyers, and first class engineers, all of whom must have a very deep technical background. This results in companies prioritising top university graduates, although sea experience always helps.

It’s up to the shipping industry to support our seafarers’ professional training and ensure their development of these soft skills which will be key in enhancing their future employability, regardless of whether this in on-board Greek, German, or Chinese vessels. They are international professionals.

GIG: Bearing in mind the global undersupply of seafaring professionals and that most ocean-going fleets carry Asian crews, particularly Filipinos, what role do you see Greek shipping professionals assuming within the wider global maritime industry?

Demetriades-Eugenides: From an objective perspective, all people pose the same potential in terms of professional development, irrespective of their nationality. With that said, Greek seafarers are widely known within the shipping industry for their drive, intuition, capability, and flexibility. They are great problem solvers and strive to find solutions in complex situations when others cannot; it is called “centuries of tradition”. So, I honestly believe that Greeks are there to take on the most complex types of operations.

While every job poses its own set of challenges, I’d like to believe that Greek seafarers, as they have so far, will always be and are playing in the top league. Within the context of the new era, seafaring professionals need to have a wider grasp of new sciences, and a good understanding of STEM disciplines, to enable them to excel in the hybrid relationship that is developing between offices and vessels.

GIG: In your opinion, how can Greece and its maritime industry best prepare for the future based on the lessons taken away from this pandemic?

Demetriades-Eugenides: If Greek shipowners and shipping professionals continue working in the same manner we have, we will continue to excel in what we’ve done best over the past three to four hundred years: turning threats into opportunities.

I also have a very big wish: The backbone of the Greek shipping industry is comprised of small and medium sized companies. Within the current paradigm, I think it’s more important than ever for companies that think alike to forge collaborations. It’s not only a matter of economies of scale; rather, it’s about combining skills and forces.

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