Sun, May 07, 2006 - Page 18 News List

Stelios Haji-Ioannou makes business look easy

The multimillionaire is self-deprecatory and shy -- but he will keep putting on his bright orange jumpsuit

By Jane Martinson  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

PHOTO: AP

It took just over 24 hours for Stelios Haji-Ioannou to reply to an e-mail asking for this interview and the founder of easyJet was overseas at the time. When his reply came, there was no preamble or prevarication. Just one line suggesting a time and place and worrying if it was too late.

Dealing with the 39-year-old entrepreneur is a bit like dealing with his best-known business: direct, efficient, unexpectedly solicitous. And cheap.

When we meet, Stelios (he prefers to be called by his first name and has even patented the domain name) has just arrived from a weekend in Miami. Wearing a Euro-tycoon uniform of navy blazer, striped shirt and chinos, he looks pained at the suggestion that it could have been a holiday. He was investigating destinations for his year-old, low-cost cruise line, easyCruise.

The son of a Greek-Cypriot shipping magnate, Stelios is comfortably one of the 100 wealthiest people in Britain, with an estimated fortune of £727 million. Yet he says he rarely takes holidays, preferring to oversee an online business that extends to buses, pizzas, mobile phones, watches and cinemas. Indeed, a man who has made millions out of cheap travel works hard to dispel any suggestion that he is a wealthy playboy.

"As a self-employed person, the idea of a break is completely foreign to me. If I completely switch off for any period of time I know I'm going to pay for it several times over. For me, it's a lot better and easier to stay in touch and know what's going on seven days a week than to switch off."

His bright orange card reads "Stelios: serial entrepreneur" and he likes to say of his desire to set up new businesses: "It's my compulsion. A serial entrepreneur is a bit like a serial killer but more respectable.

"I enjoy what I do," he says in his jovial way. "I work hard and that's why I don't take traditional holidays."

Cheap and cheerful

Since standing down from the executive team at easyJet, a company he founded at 28, Stelios has worked on creating a brand identified by its low cost and bright orange livery. So there are orange watches for as little as £3.45 as well as flights to see the World Cup for as little as £20.99 (before tax).

Few of the "easy" businesses started in the past seven years -- there are now 15 -- have done nearly as well as the airline. Some, such as easyBus, which runs between London and Luton, have been scaled back. "I'd be lying if I told you everything had gone according to plan," he says. "But then every single one is still in operation."

Conscious of the one-trick-pony accusations, he also reminds me that he sold Stelmar Shipping, started as a 25-year-old, for £1.3 billion last year.

Stelios, who came to Britain at 17 to study at the London School of Economics, does not behave like a venture capitalist by closing down struggling businesses. He believes the more firms there are raising awareness about who he and "easy" are, the better.

"It's a religion rather than science but the theory is that it wins share of mind, share of attention, makes a difference in more people's lives. When you build a brand, people will start paying for it."

Richard Branson inspired the younger man. The chubby Stelios dons a bright orange jumpsuit to publicize his companies and allowed TV crews to film the early days of his cruise line.

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