SOCIETY

US success story of a Cretan entrepreneur who left Iraklio with $22 dollars in his pocket

When 18-year-old Eftichios Vlahakis boarded a ship headed for the United States in 1953, he had no idea that he was about to embark on a professional journey that decades later would become the subject of a feature-length film. So, when the curtains fell on the premier of the film “A Green Story,” a narrative of the life of Van Vlahakis – as he was named in the US – he could not help but wonder how it all happened.

Originally from the Cretan port city of Hania, Vlahakis managed to live the American dream even though he left his homeland with just $22 dollars in his pocket. Today he heads a small empire known as Earth Friendly Products, America’s largest producer of environmentally friendly cleaning products.

“When I first came to America, I noticed that World War II hadn’t caused total destruction as it had in Greece,” Vlahakis told Kathimerini. “What I also remember noticing was that Americans weren’t as friendly as people in the homeland.”

His dream was to become a doctor like his grandfather, but he quickly realized that he didn’t have what it takes and turned to chemistry instead.

“In the end it was a radical decision that changed my life,” said Vlahakis.

The road to success was not without obstacles, of course. Until he could stand on his own two feet, he took on all sorts of menial jobs and slept wherever he could find. With the help of some fellow compatriots, he got a job as a waiter at a Greek restaurant.

“Even though I only worked 20 hours a week – because I went to university during the day – this job paid enough to cover food, accommodation and tuition,” said Vlahakis.

Upon receiving his degree, Vlahakis got his first job as a chemist. Later, in 1967, he founded his first business, Venus Laboratories Inc, in Chicago, which produced cosmetics, lotions and shampoos. By 1989 Venus had expanded to California, New Jersey and Florida, and Earthy Friendly Products was founded. The company was quick to become a success and is today considered a leader in environmentally friendly cleaning products.

Vlahakis attributes his success to a combination of his inherent Greek entrepreneurial spirit and the US’s business-friendly environment. “When I needed money, the banks were ready to give me loans and finance my business. We need to do the same in Greece; it’s not that hard,” he said.

Vlahakis has always had a soft spot for his motherland. In fact, he plans on building a factory for his company in Crete, from where he hopes to send his products to Europe, Turkey and the Middle East.

“We are the Number One company for cleaning products in the United States, and we have five huge factories. We can do the same in Greece. We have the talent and we know there is a market. But we only have one problem: the Greek government is not friendly to its people. Perhaps one day we can change this,” said Vlahakis. “We need to sit down and draft a plan that will make Greece Europe’ s Number One country. Let’s stop worrying about yachts and castles, and let’s return to Greece the money that is sitting in Swiss bank accounts,” he added.

Vlahakis is trying to bring his business to Greece at a time when most investors are leaving. What would he say to the thousands of Greeks who are leaving their country, as he once did?

“I would tell them that wherever you choose to go, you will succeed… if you stay away from drugs and stay focused on your goals. I feel terrible that you don’t have the opportunity to pursue your dreams in Greece,” he added.

“A Green Story” is currently playing at Greek theaters.