Ask Sir Stelios Haji- Ioannou how many people it takes to change a lightbulb and he’s likely to reply ‘more than it should’ – then start a lightbulb-changing business. The entire easy empire has been built on removing cost, offering value and living the no frills ideology it pioneered.
Yet the organisation in the shape of its leader is paradoxically adventurous and ambitiously prodigious. In his latest show of self-rebellion, Stelios (his preferred moniker) discarded his vow to never venture from consumer to B2B by launching easyOffice. As you’ve no doubt lost count, that’s easy company number 17 in what’s been a rollercoaster ride of launches, losses, cut-backs and more launches, since Stelios cut distance from flyaway success easyJet and went brand building. Growing Business went in search of the real Stelios: risk-taker or risk-averse?
A bear of a man, Stelios is BIG in every sense. You find your hand lost in his when you shake it and your personality irretrievably surrendered when he talks. We track him down giving a talk to budding entrepreneurs: when he speaks there’s awestruck silence; when he laughs the room reverberates; when he leaves he’s mobbed. The two-minute stroll to our interview location exceeds 15 as he gives thumbs-ups to tooting black cabs and poses for photos with passer-bys.
Stelios is big three and rising. Only fellow knights Branson and Sugar are as well known by Joe Public – and let’s face it,
if it weren’t for gruffly hollering ‘you’re fired’ Sir Alan’s profile would be as prominent as Amstrad’s post-80s, while Sir Richard remains iconic but increasingly detached with his head in orbit and his PR stunts Stateside.
The Sunday Times’
Rich List for 2007 ranks Stelios
at 49 with a personal fortune of £1.29bn – yet, unmistakably, he’s the new entrepreneur of the people. Perversely, as an LSE economics grad not drop-out hippy or cockney Del Boy, he’s business’ Beckham. OK the analogy stumbles at looks, but he’s a consumer champion and boy does he know how to work it.
In the easyGroup brand manual he coins himself ‘Stelios the serial entrepreneur’ – and he puts everything into living up to it. From his frenetic commitment to brand extension to his frequent speaking slots; to his £3m 10-year scholarship scheme with LSE and Cass Business School; and funding of a £50,000 annual award scheme for disabled entrepreneurs with charity Leonard Cheshire Disability; Stelios breathes entrepreneurship and has enough material to dissect anyone’s questioning of his 2006 knighthood for services to it.
Not that he would, of course. The son of a Greek shipping magnate, his modesty over his upbringing borders apologetic. “I always respect self-made people more than rich boys like me,” he says. “I cheated because I got money from my father. Then again, when you’re 28 and you want to start an airline; and your last name’s unpronounceable, venture capitalists aren’t going to give you any money!”
Creating something off his own steam – the basic principle of entrepreneurship – drives Stelios. His admiration for his father is edged with a determination. “When I started easyJet the main drive was to be independent. Whatever I did in shipping people would say ‘your father told you to do that’.”
EasyJet and Stelios' meteoric rise
That achievement’s been meteoric. Incredulously less than 13 years ago barely anyone in the UK had heard of him. By then he’d already started Stelmar Shipping Ltd, which was later floated on the New York stock exchange and sold for $1.3bn. In November 1995 he founded easyJet without any of his own aircraft, a yield management model and a budget mentality that did away with expendable luxuries such as seat reservations and in-flight meals. He set about exposing the industry’s incumbents as staid dinosaurs and took his message to the people via bright orange everything and ITV fly-on-the-wall Airline.
We’ll leave easyJet where it is: a roaring success – December 2007 end-of-year profits of £201.9m tell us all we need to know. Stelios remains the single largest shareholder of easyJet Plc, which licenses the easy brand from easyGroup but remains independent. It’s easyGroup that tells us more about Stelios and how he works.