Story

His beginnings, his family, his Foundation.. Sir Stelios opens up in a major interview

sir stelios foundation
© Stelios Philanthropic Foundation

The Monegasque resident and easyJet founder spoke at length about the origins of his company, but also about his very special ties with the Principality.

“I wanted to prove that I wasn’t just a daddy’s boy.” The Irish newspaper Business Post used this quote as the headline of a major interview with Sir Stelios, published on 3 December.

The lengthy discussion took place during a visit to Ireland by the Monegasque resident and his family, with the easyJet founder speaking about the beginnings of his company, but also about the expansion of the “easy” brand across Europe and his many charitable activities.

“It wasn’t always pure fun,” recalls the businessman, speaking about his beginnings. “It was very stressful and risky at times, with a lot of sleepless nights. Thankfully, it worked out. But I still think you have to try and create publicity for a new business through PR. Marketing alone is very expensive.”

While Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou was keen to find resources to build his empire, taking advantage of his family’s comfortable situation was out of the question. The Athens-born entrepreneur’s father, Loucas Haji-Ioannou, also built his own business, Troodos, which was at its peak in the early 1990s.

Creating a famous brand

Troodos Shipping had a fleet of more than 50 tankers, making Sir Stelios’ father the world’s largest independent ship owner and one of the wealthiest entrepreneurs in Europe. But for the founder of easyJet, waiting to inherit his share was not an option. He wanted to think bigger and, above all, make his own mark.

“When I was in my mid-twenties, I had two things that drove me, two motivations. One was to prove to my father and the rest of the world that I wasn’t just a daddy’s boy, because my father was a very successful, self-made shipping magnate. (…) I was determined to prove myself in another industry. The second (…) was that I wanted to build a famous brand. Our family business was in shipping, and because shipping is a B2B industry [Business to Business, Ed.], nobody knew what I was doing for a living. I had started my own shipping company in my early 20s, called Stelmar Tankers, but it was also a B2B business and therefore it didn’t become famous. So I set out to create a world-famous brand. That’s what I wanted,” says the businessman.

With that aim, Sir Stelios launched easyJet in 1995: an airline “offering flights within Britain for the same price as a pair of jeans.” A revolution.

28 years later, the easyJet brand has grown to the point where it has bought out some of its European rivals, who were not able to compete with the group’s lean operating model. But for Sir Stelios, it was above all an opportunity to create a more global brand: “Starting an airline is a great way to create a brand,” he explains. “It is used by millions upon millions of people every year. In the year prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, easyJet carried 96 million passengers.”

Developing the easy empire

An epidemic whose travel restrictions  impacted the airline. The Business Post article recalls that in September 2021, easyJet had to raise over £1 billion via a share issue to recover financially from Covid. Today, Haji-Ioannou and his family still hold a 15% stake in the company, which is valued at around £450 million of the company’s overall £3 billion market value.

As we emerge from the crisis, Business Post naturally asked Sir Stelios about his post-Covid vision of air travel: “I believe that leisure travel is probably going to come back to normal very soon.” But he believes it may be different for business travel. “I’ve learned that predicting the future is always risky, but maybe all of these Teams and Zoom calls that we do will change things.”

But the easy group has more than one string to its bow. As witnessed by the many other subsidiaries, such as easyHotel, easyCar, easyMoney or easyStorage. The concept, as summarised by the Irish newspaper, is simple: any company in any sector can apply to Sir Stelios for a licence to use the brand for their product or service. In exchange for this visibility, the company pays a licence fee to easyGroup.

“The best business idea I had was starting a low-cost airline. The second-best business idea I had was keeping the ‘easy’ name in my private company, so I could expand the brand and retain ownership of the name,” says Sir Stelios, before turning to a part of the group he is particularly excited about: easyHotel, which he considers the most “logical” extension of the brand.

“I think it’s a great brand. And it is a business that institutional investors and private equity funds have invested significant sums of money into to build hotels in the easy brand,” Sir Stelios enthuses, revealing that there are some 50 hotels in operation or under construction, notably in Dublin.

Very personal ties with Monaco

It would seem that Ireland was not a random destination for the entrepreneur’s trip, since it is the birthplace of his partner, Orla Murphy, who he met for the first time… in Monaco!

The article explains that the two met at a party at Sir Stelios’ Monaco home during a F1 Grand Prix. Orla Murphy moved to the Principality in 2008, where she worked as a sales executive for an interior design company that specialised in yachts and private aviation. The couple had a baby girl, now four and a half years old, born two days after the 2018 edition of the same Grand Prix!

Memories and ties that explain why, among the many causes supported by Sir Stelios, some are based in the Principality. The article concludes with a few words about the entrepreneur’s charitable work. Since 2011, the Stelios Foundation has been the focus of much of the entrepreneur’s time. 

“I work almost 60 hours a week, every week of the year, even over the festive season. I try to divide those 60 hours into three parts. (…) The last third is spent “giving back to society. The recurring revenues from the easyGroup have made it possible for me to give to charity regularly. I really believe that if you are lucky enough to make some money in life, you have to give some of it back to society, which is why I signed the giving pledge.”

This pledge is that Sir Stelios will bequeath half of his estate to his Foundation upon his death.  “So it’s not to make one big bang donation,” he says. “It will endow the foundation with capital that can be invested wisely to produce income and spend that income on good causes in perpetuity. I’d like to think that if I can endow my foundation with enough funds, it can continue to do good in my name. That will be my legacy. I think it’s important, how you are remembered. You have a duty to do good in your own lifetime, but I decided to structure the foundation in this way so that the giving back carries on after the end of my natural life.”

This translates into various actions, for example in the fight against hunger in Greece, the struggle for peace in Cyprus, where his parents are from, or more recently, gifts for hospital staff in Greece, Cyprus, Great Britain and Monaco during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Different causes, but with a common thread: the countries supported are those with which Sir Stelios has a personal bond: “some problems are too big and too far away geographically. We prefer to give back to the four or five countries that I spend my time in,” he concludes.