History learned on the knee of a favorite grandparent is never forgotten. Michael Tsamaz, the steady hand who steered the Hellenic Telecommunications Organization (OTE) through its transformation into a healthy, successful company, had a Cretan grandfather who had fought in the 1893-1908 Macedonian Struggle. It was his stories that planted the seed of Tsamaz’s love of country and thirst for knowledge of the past. As a student in distant Canada, he would hole up in the university library during the summer break from his studies in business management and read Greek history.
It was hardly surprising, therefore, that this technocrat was behind the launch two years ago of Cosmote History, Cosmote TV’s channel dedicated to Greece’s history, civilization and folk culture. With more than half a million subscribers today, he has every reason to be proud of the venture.
On the occasion of Cosmote History’s two-year anniversary, K met Tsamaz at his office on the 13th floor of the emblematic OTE building in the northern Athens suburb of Maroussi, on one of the rare occasions that he has agreed to an interview.
My first impression is of confidence, calm and vigilance. Before we talk about the television channel, I venture a question about his family background. “My father’s family were refugees from Asia Minor and my mother’s roots were in Crete. I was born in [the Athens suburb of] Kaisariani and grew up hearing stories from my Cretan grandfather, Captain Giorgis Giannakakis, a fighter in the Macedonian Struggle,” he recounts. “I would say that I was raised in an environment that taught me how to act, how to receive guests, to give, to respect your family and others. Both my parents wanted me to study and do well in life because theirs was a struggle for survival.”
If Tsamaz had succeeded in his first choice of studies, he would now probably be in the Hellenic Navy, but he failed to get into the academy and decided to go abroad instead. “I wanted to do a science for the future, which of course back in the late 70s was information technology. I eventually got a degree in business management but I have always been interested in new things, in innovation. I feel as though I got two degrees in Canada: On the one hand I learned how to learn at a university level and on the other how to take charge of my life, how to manage my own career. This is one of many things I was taught at university and I often repeat it to the young men and women who receive scholarships from our group,” says Tsamaz. “The other lesson was about never settling for your achievements. I always set higher goals for myself, I always look ahead for something more challenging. Cosmote History was precisely such a challenge.”
The birth of the channel
Cosmote History was in part a response to disappointment with the quality of Greek television in general, says Tsamaz, adding that he also started observing a tone of condescension toward Greece on his professional trips abroad after the start of the crisis. “I remember completely changing a speech I was to give to an audience of 1,000 people abroad at the last minute so that I could talk about the shock of the crisis and the impact it had on the lives of the average pensioner and worker. They were speechless,” he says. “I started to understand that in order to reverse the situation in our country we needed positive role models from own history, we needed knowledge of our past and of all the different challenges we had managed to overcome. That was how the idea of Cosmote History was born.”
Personal experience had taught Tsamaz that the stereotypes about Greece and the Greeks are completely untrue, that the country is not just “bribes and misery.”
“I knew that if someone believes in themselves and chases their dream with consistency and passion, they will succeed,” he says. “Personally, I found myself in a top executive position not because I had a powerful family or political backing. I had none of that. I grew up in modest circumstances, in a working-class neighborhood, and went to public school and then to a university abroad. I also served in the Greek military as a reserve, where I learned a lot of important lessons in human resource management. I put my foot down with my family and told them that if they interfered with my career to get me a job in the civil sector, I would leave the country. I worked in a lot of multinational companies in order to get here. There are a lot of people like me in Greece, people who keep their heads down, work hard and succeed.”
Tsamaz is confident that Cosmote History will continue growing and making inroads with its own productions so that, in terms of content and quality, it reaches the level of similar channels abroad. “We need to show consistency for this to happen, but we also need investments,” he says. “What makes me especially happy is that the channel is being run by young colleagues who may have had no particular expertise in this particular area, but have learned fast and are doing very well. We often see that formal qualifications are not always as important as character.”
As a father of two, Tsamaz is very concerned about the future of young people in Greece and especially their career prospects and one of the most important benefits to have come from the channel’s operation is the fact that it provides jobs to screenwriters, writers and directors, to a job sector that has been hit particularly hard by unemployment.
“We have studies evaluating OTE’s annual contribution to the job market and right now we have 13,000 people working for us all over Greece. In a recent study by the [think tank] Foundation for Economic and Industrial Research (IOBE), we saw that OTE indirectly sustains 75,000 jobs in the economy. That’s not to mention the 1 billion euros we pay the state in taxes and social security contributions,” he says. “We are very aware of our position and of our responsibility to a society that is being sorely tested. Cosmote History started in the middle of the crisis with the idea of boosting morale and giving young people hope through knowledge of our history, our country and our people.”
Are the humanities important to someone like Tsamaz, a genuine technocrat?
“I personally did not take any such courses, but I did learn quite a bit of sociology and psychology that helped me in business management and in decision making. You can’t manage without knowing something about these two areas,” he says. “The humanities certainly offer a view of the world that helps a person be more balanced and dynamic in a team or a business. Having said that, I would argue that university studies are not enough in themselves. I am very happy to have learned social sensitivity at home, but also to have excellent associates who are deeply knowledgeable and who support me in all our endeavors. We need to look at the world around us, to show empathy. I think that OTE has a lot to show in this area as well.”
How does he see the future for Greece? “There are a lot of good, capable people who have potential and want to get ahead,” he says. “These are people who don’t expect any help, who work hard, who keep their eyes peeled for opportunities and who know how to rely on their own strengths. These are precisely the qualities the country needs to move forward.”
This article first appeared in K magazine, Kathimerini’s Sunday supplement.