GIG: AmCham Greece is an advocate of pro-growth policies focusing on increasing bilateral investments and promoting the creation of an economy that is more extroverted and outward looking. How exactly can this happen?
Bakatselos: On the one hand, I think the most tangible way to strengthen the relationship between the U.S. and Greece is increased U.S. investments. And I’m not only talking about investments in greenfield projects; I’m referring to capital investments as well, meaning buying into Greek companies. Companies that U.S. investors believe can grow can be used as a foundation for them to enter the European Union and engage in business relationships with this part of the world.
Investments bring about the creation of jobs and increased turnover in the Greek economy. That in itself will create the virtuous cycle we are looking for.
GIG: How satisfied are you with the most recent policies geared towards incentivising business and investment that have been pushed forward by the new government?
Bakatselos: Important steps have been made in the right direction, but Greece must now have a stable and investor-friendly tax system. There is a lack of confidence, but we are betting on Greece’s progress.
GIG: The past few years have resulted in a strengthening of American-Hellenic ties, with U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt having recently said that relations are at an all-time high. What role has AmCham Greece played in making this happen?
Bakatselos: I think this is a direct result of the partnership between the U.S. Embassy and the American-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce. The ambassador, whose role was invaluable in this context, played a significant part in the success of the U.S. Pavilion at the Thessaloniki International Fair in 2018. I believe this cemented the start from which everything else followed.
Firstly, through the partnership between the U.S. Embassy and the American-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce, we were able to count on the strength of the U.S. government as well as the link between the U.S. government and the Greek government. This was thanks to the role of the U.S. Embassy. Secondly, there’s the business side, which comprises the companies that we represent as the chamber, which are mainly either owned by American companies, the subsidiaries of American companies, or are somehow affiliated to the United States.
GIG: You assumed the leadership of AmCham in late 2019. What are your priorities for the chamber during your term as president?
Bakatselos: My priorities as President of the American-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce are to increase the value that we deliver to our members, increase our membership, strengthen ties between the U.S. and Greece, as well as boost investments from and to the U.S.
GIG: You’ve been particularly outspoken about the need to support Greece’s digital transformation, Greek start-ups, and the reversal of brain drain. What is your assessment of Greece’s start-up scene? What efforts are being undertaken by the chamber in this direction?
Bakatselos: The digitisation of the state is crucial for any reform effort by the new government, and reforms are necessary for investment and any efforts thereof. The role of the chamber in this respect relates to the fact that we have a very strong information and communications technology (ICT) committee that represents about 90% of the ICT industry in Greece. Most of these companies are multinationals and have experience from abroad which they can contribute. In this manner, we can help the government in its efforts to digitise the economy.
We, as AmCham, would like to help create the conditions to stop the brain drain and actually reverse it into a brain gain. I believe that by increasing foreign direct invest, and creating more opportunities – jobs and start-ups – we will achieve this.
As for start-ups, the added value that AmCham can provide them with is literally taking them to the U.S., to incubators, to teach them how to successfully grow their start-ups, by learning what American companies have learnt over time. The start-up culture mainly originated in the U.S., primarily in California. So, by taking Greek start-ups to Silicon Valley, for example, as we did last summer – in June 2019 – I think we are providing them with a service, we are helping them grow, and we are also boosting the development of young, Greek entrepreneurship.
GIG: When foreign business owners ask you for advice on whether they should launch operations in Greece, what do you advise them? Under what conditions do you foresee them returning to the market with real investment?
Bakatselos: If there was ever a time to invest in Greece, it is now. Greece is a wonderful country, both in terms of its geographical location and also in terms of the people that live and work here.
We have a country that is an archaeological site spanning from north to south, and east to west. We have wonderful schools, and wonderful, hard-working people with linguistic skills, most of whom speak English. We have infrastructure, including airports and ports, and we are the gateway to the European Union. We are a very stable partner in this part of the world – in the southeastern part of Europe and the southeastern part of the Mediterranean.
There are opportunities in every area of the Greek economy. For example, there are opportunities in real estate because real estate in Greece is undervalued; opportunities in energy because Greece is becoming an energy hub; opportunities in logistics because Greece is the first port of call from the Suez Canal, as well as a gateway into the European Union; and there are opportunities in tourism because tourism is the strongest industry here in Greece.
To sum up, every single part of the economy is worth investing in. There is great interest, but there is this “wait and see strategy” at this point. Investors are expecting to see reforms coming through. They’re expecting to see emblematic projects roll ahead. But the starting of the Hellinikon project, for example, is clear evidence that our government is ready to pursue this business-friendly policy they have announced.