In our first meeting, about 18 months ago, in the context of the annual conference of the Hellenic Entrepreneurs Association (EENE), it was with satisfaction that Vassilis Apostolopoulos showed me the findings of a major survey that pointed to a drastic shift of public opinion in favor of entrepreneurship and indicated that citizens’ trust in the private sector as a lever of development had increased.
Our most recent meeting with the president of EENE, who is also CEO of the Athens Medical Group, took place at a completely different juncture. In recent months, several reports have surfaced concerning leading business groups that are on the brink of collapse due to financial misconduct, as well as business executives who appear to be involved in shady affairs.
At the same time, polarization in the political scene has also increased, with the government’s narrative about scandals making a lot of noise but lacking evidence that could point to the actual involvement of politicians in them.
Apostolopoulos remains optimistic. “In people’s consciousness, the position of business, as an institution, is steadily rising. This trend is a source of optimism, as it implies that it is – finally – becoming clear to the wider public that the response to the crisis and the conditions for sustainable and inclusive growth can only come from the strengthening of Hellenic entrepreneurship,” he notes.
At the same time, he does not conceal his concern about what has been revealed. “The examples of both listed and private companies that did not protect themselves, and did not safeguard the credibility of our economy and country, are a source of concern and a reason to be on high alert, as they highlight – among others – the inadequacy of institutions and control mechanisms. I hope that this set of cases will mobilize the Hellenic Capital Market Commission and all the relevant public services, so that the credibility of Greek business and the institutions that govern it and ensure its proper functioning is preserved. The last thing that we want is to have the private sector and the large corporates added to the sense of widespread unreliability that surrounded the country up until recently,” he concludes.
Apostolopoulos, who graduated with distinction from the London School of Economics and holds an MBA from Cambridge and a PhD from the University of Athens, is worried about the political risk that entrepreneurship in Greece entails – all the more so as our discussion takes place amid the unprecedented tension following the Prespes agreement and the “divorce” between the two former government coalition partners, SYRIZA and Independent Greeks (ANEL).
“It is true that the political temperature has risen precariously. Because of its problematic or at least controversial aspects, the Prespes agreement has triggered reactions in society and the political system, exacerbating the already prolonged pre-election period we are currently experiencing,” Apostolopoulos notes, emphasizing one fundamental requirement: “stability.”
“What should be avoided at all costs is destabilization, which would once again derail the utmost national priority of growth acceleration. I believe that securing growth is linked further to its obvious economic dimension – facilitation of entrepreneurship, attraction of investment, to social cohesion and the broader strengthening of our national sovereignty and security. Therefore, the two key national priorities remain the same: stability and growth.”
The area in which Apostolopoulos primarily operates, through the Athens Medical Group, has been at the center of political controversy.
“Was there extensive malpractice in the field of healthcare in Greece?” I ask him. “Yes, there were numerous cases of malpractice, embezzlement and misappropriation in Greek healthcare, and major distortions; and, in a sense, some of these issues persist,” he responds without hesitation.
He explains that “saving public resources was not achieved through the introduction of an overall new standard in health, with real checks in real time or with rational measures and strategic interventions to improve the framework and operation of clinics through single pricing and an integrated assessment. Instead, it was imposed through horizontal cuts.”
With regard to the famous clawbacks and rebates imposed by the memorandums, he notes that, in addition to being unconstitutional, these measures are “actually exacerbating distortions, rewarding those who resort to fictitious charges, since the ‘bill’ is passed on to others.”
Our discussion with the 47-year-old father of four turns to the issue of concentration in the health sector, with Apostolopoulos highlighting that “the entry of foreign funds into the health sector requires distinctive attention, because this is a sensitive field that is not suitable for short-term opportunistic and speculative placements that private equity funds tend to favor.”
He concludes with a critique of the attitude of the Greek state toward business, and, ultimately, the pressing need for a new national action plan that will go beyond austerity and the memorandums.
“In brief, incentives must be given for the creation of new wealth in Greece. Taxes and social security contributions need to be reduced, to facilitate growth. A series of benefits and allowances of short-term nature and ad hoc planning do not contribute to the recovery or the solution of the problems. Practically, a 400-euro one-off benefit to youngsters does not offer them a job. However, the growth and scaling-up of small and medium-sized enterprises gives prospects to young people who have the thirst for creativity and end up either going abroad or seeing their talent go to waste due to the lack of options in Greece. We must provide the younger generations with the tools to produce new wealth. This is the key national priority – not the redistribution of poverty,” Apostolopoulos stresses.
“In what direction?” I ask him, given that the memorandums were the only plan that Greece has had for many years.
“The need for a new growth model is urgent. However, top-down, centralized initiatives will not be enough. Incentives are definitely needed, ranging from the expansion of the development law, which seems to be in the right direction, to targeted tax breaks, growth incentives and facilitation of business moves, investments, privatizations and domestic and international synergies. Above all, we need a stable investment environment and a new national growth plan, with the cooperation of all the country’s productive forces: a ‘Hellenic Contract of Honor and National Restart,’ I call it, which will ensure the stability that is required in order to achieve rapid growth.”
Apostolopoulos talks about excellence, innovation and sustainability – concepts that have been questioned in the context of ideological obsessions, but are, in fact, demanded by the majority of the younger generation.
“The new growth model will be focused on excellence and innovation, as well as the high quality and added value of services and products offered. Specifically, the core of the new production model should include a number of critical sectors and categories: new types of farming cooperatives, a new direction in regional development by investing in innovative methods and extrovert orientation, tourism, new technologies, and startup entrepreneurship [and their smart interconnection, in order to maximize the added value across all these crucial chains]. Strategic investments in infrastructure projects, energy and real estate are also crucial, as they signal that, today, in Greece one can be rewarded with great returns. The smart combination of these elements will form the sustainable basis for the next phase of the Greek economy – a phase of unwavering, rapid growth in terms of extroversion and global competitiveness. To a large extent, this is up to us all; if we – the dynamic and productive forces of the country – work together, we may be able to impose it in a bottom-up manner this time.”