VIEW FROM THE TOP: The consumer's champion

Stelios Haji-Ioannou tells Holly Williams how he has made easyGroup a household name

Flamboyant Greek millionaire Stelios Haji-Ioannou hardly needs any introduction. A regular face on TV screens and billboards around the country, to millions he is known simply as 'Stelios'.

It is slightly odd greeting one of the City's most successful businessmen by his first name, but that's exactly how he likes it. Since the launch of 'no frills' low-cost airline easyJet seven years ago, Stelios has won the hearts and minds of the UK public.

Exactly a year on from the tragedy in New York which decimated the airline industry, it has largely only been the likes of easyJet and its low-cost rivals that have survived intact.

The 35-year-old larger-than-life entrepreneur is a household name and a brand in his own right, and it is partly this that has kept the airline going. He is seen as a friend of the 'little guy' in the guise of a corporate Robin Hood who steals market share from the rich and cuts prices on services for the average Joe on the street.

The Stelios brand is carefully crafted, through his uncanny knack of knowing what the media wants and the counsel of easyGroup corporate affairs director James Rothnie, the man behind Stelios's personal PR. Stelios says he has received no on the job media training, except some pointers in the 1990s while running shipping firm Stelmar Tankers, which he founded in 1992: 'Since very early on in my shipping days, I've immersed myself in the media world. It's almost been like a constant training session - the last one happened a couple of hours ago,' laughs Stelios. He is referring to the media frenzy surrounding his intention to snap up cafe chain Coffee Republic, announced the day we meet.

Stelios has a fight on his hands for the cafe business, bidding against sandwich firms Pret A Manger and Benjy's. In winning over the City and shareholders to back the deal - which would see all Coffee Republic shops converted into easyInternetCafe sites - press coverage is key. With his already established media persona, Stelios is off to a running start and ready to do with the easyInternetCafe brand what he did to easyJet in 1995: give it the personal touch.

While others in the City have been lambasted for raking in big bonuses and not passing on the benefit to customers, Stelios continues to position himself as the consumer champion. But behind the affable, down-to-earth exterior lies a shrewd media operator.

In his formative years of business, he realised the importance of the brand and the need to connect with customers. This insight, while revealing an aptitude for understanding and dealing with the media, stems from an acute business acumen, honed from years spent shadowing his father Loucas in the running of his maritime group Troodos Shipping.

For Stelios, the concept is a simple one: 'The problem is that when you start a company you never have enough marketing budget and the media are more interested in people. The person behind the company is more likely to generate free publicity. Therefore I decided the way of improving my chances of success was to try and personalise the business.'

On the face of it, a shipping heir with a fortune well into the millions and flats in Monaco and Athens could not be more different from the average British consumer. Despite all this, Stelios is seen to have the common touch. And he plays up to his public image, fuelling the media perception.

'I am a 'serial entrepreneur',' he tells me, repeating the oft-used media epithet. He has never shied away from identifying himself with his ventures, even naming his first business, Stelmar, after himself (formed from a hybrid of 'Stelios' and 'maritime').

His personal stamp on the brand is, however, only intended to last while it serves a purpose, establishing a firm before taking it to the stock market. 'There comes a point when you invite outside shareholders to a company and it becomes uncomfortable,' he admits.

'It has been a constant effort since easyJet has gone public to step back from doing the PR and allow the officers of the company to do more of it,' he says, justifying his decision to step down next March as chairman of the airline, which floated two years ago. The move has been widely misconstrued, he says, and is admittedly his biggest PR gaffe to date.

While he maintains it was his decision to relinquish the role, the wide media speculation suggested it was due to pressure from the City and the need for a board restructure.

'The media insisted that there was a hidden agenda and people couldn't get their heads around the fact that I would: one, do it voluntarily; and two, that it's actually in everybody's interest,' he says, keen to set the record straight. 'Maybe it was impossible to achieve any other outcome, but I believe that move was misunderstood, mis-communicated and misrepresented.'

Stelios has a disarmingly frank attitude to the media. His PR strategy is merely to be open and honest. He accepts in courting media attention, he must take the bad with the good. easyGroup has seen its fair share of less than favourable coverage over the past year, with the press focusing on losses of over £75m across the business in 2001, excluding the profitable airline. The internet cafe brand, then called easyEverything, teetered on the verge of bankruptcy last year, forcing Stelios to scrap the old name and fork out £15m from his personal fortune to keep it afloat.

His only option was to remain candid with the media: 'I don't believe you can keep secrets for too long. It's a bit like making a confession - it gets everything out in the air and stops it being a story.'

Under the guidance of Rothnie, all PR is handled in-house - a policy which is rarely broken and usually only for publicly-quoted easyJet. 'I don't need any help with my private companies, but easyJet is a plc and needs professional advice, support and loads of it,' explains Stelios.

Prior to its flotation, easyJet provided the platform for most of Stelios' communication triumphs. The battle with low cost carrier Go, a rival until its £374m takeover by easyJet last month, was famously played out in the media. Together with a crew of staff clad in orange boiler suits, Stelios sought to ruin British Airways' launch of Go, mass booking the airline's maiden flight and stealing the photo opportunity.

It was a turning point for Stelios: 'If you really asked me when did easyJet become a brand rather than a little airline in Luton, it was during the confrontation with BA. A tiny firm, as it was then with six planes, became BA's arch rival and we stole the agenda.'

There is, however, nothing new in airline bosses grabbing headlines.

Sir Freddie Laker did it in the 1970s, with the first no-reservation, low-cost air service, which revolutionised the British airline industry, earning him a knighthood in the process. Richard Branson took it a stage further with Virgin Atlantic in Laker's wake.

Stelios is the first to admit, it was not just his personal charm that caught the nation's eye: 'Airline bosses and firms in general attract much more attention than they deserve. They're relatively small businesses, but they become so incredibly famous because people have this fascination with flying.'

There is also of course the 'consumer angle'. Anything low cost immediately appeals. Working on this premise, Stelios is hoping the easyGroup portfolio - which now includes easyInternetCafe, car rental service easyCar, financial services firm easyMoney, consumer price comparison site easyValue.com and web-based e-mail service easy.com - will share the airline's success.

He is a man who quite clearly feeds off the buzz of turning round struggling firms and making start-ups work. He is hopeful this year will see the launch of his new venture easyCinema, which promises to offer seats from just 20p. With a little Stelios magic, the idea could take off. 'It's all about bums on seats,' he says. 'You've got to sweat the asset.'

There is no doubt discount services will continue to be in demand, but the very real challenge for Stelios is how to keep the consumer on-side.

The question is: For how long can you remain the people's price champion when the profits roll in? It is primarily an issue for easyJet, which has been a huge success, flying over 8.3 million passengers in the last year alone.

Aware of this, Stelios hints at a different image for the airline in the future: 'I'll be fascinated to see how the easy brand will evolve from a struggling start-up to having one member company becoming more and more successful. The easyJet brand will have to graduate to become a more established company.'

Likewise, Stelios as a brand could face the same challenges in order to match consumer expectations and the anticipated expansion of the easyGroup empire.

HIGHLIGHTS

1992: Founds Stelmar Tankers

1995: Launches easyJet

1998: Forms easyGroup

1999: Launches easyEverything, rebranded to easyInternetCafe in 2001

2000: Floats easyJet on the London Stock Exchange

JUNE 2002: Steps down as easyJet chairman, effective next March

AUGUST 2002: Completes acquisition of rival Go, sold by British Airways to 3i group in 2001

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