Yiannis Costopoulos was a true gentleman and a special part of Greece’s history. He was, above all else, a deeply fascinating man who possessed a wide range of interests, from sailing to history. A banker to his very core, he carried within him the DNA of a tradition that had been passed on from generation to generation.
I remember a conversation we had in the early years of Greece’s financial crisis – I believe in 2010. The country was facing collapse, Greece’s squares were full of “indignant” citizens, and bank deposits were rapidly dwindling. During our conversation, he turned to me and asked: “You know what my uncle Panos did in the 1929 crash? People were uneasy and had began discussing withdrawing their deposits from the Kalamas Bank (which was owned by the Costopoulos family). My uncle went to the central square of Kalamata and stopped a well-known city official and said: ‘Come here, I hear you want to withdraw your money from our bank because you are worried. We can go withdraw it now.’ The customer replied: ‘For heaven’s sake, no, Mr Costopoulos. There is no need.’ And with that, the small financial crisis of Kalamata came to an end.”
He continued our discussion as he always did, by following a historical retrospection with a comment on the future. “You know what I learnt from the old guard? That every year will not necessarily be better than the one before it. This cannot last forever, and this is something you, the younger generation, who were untested by crises and setbacks, must remember.” I have not forgotten this piece of advice that has, until now, proven true.
Costopoulos was passionate about history, traditions and flags. God forbid if he ever saw a torn or faded flag on any of Athens’ emblematic buildings. He would make a call the very same day to send them a replacement and ensure it was hoisted correctly.
He was one of the men whose moves made the Greek economy dynamic and outlooking. He enjoyed the power game, even if it led him to make some wrong moves in banking. This was a chapter he did not like to discuss as he withdrew from the bank’s leadership and witnessed the gradual erosion of his life’s work. Maybe he understood, as a responsible man, that he put up with much and that he could have used his power to stop much that led the country into decay and crisis.
The last years had been hard because he understood that his era and the world of his prime was no longer. However, he always picked up the phone to tell a joke or to correct an inaccuracy in an article published in the newspaper on who established what sailing race. He shared his unease that the Costopoulos Foundation could no longer support giving scholarships and that minor shareholders no longer received dividends as they did in the past. In many ways he was a special and distinctive individual who left his mark, gave back, and lived his life in an intense and unique way.