The Commodore

Author image

Nancy Heslin   Editor

The Commodore

Whether it’s in business (easyJet) or in philanthropy (the Giving Pledge), Stelios Haji-Ioannou charts his own course. Love him—or get out of his way.

You probably won’t find him at Jimmy’z. Or Sass. Or Twiga. While these legendary institutions in Monte Carlo bubble over with A-listers and influencers (although never before midnight), you will likely find Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou holding court across the port from the Yacht Club. Here on the sprawling sea-facing terrace of easyGroup’s office along Quai Antoine 1er is “the ultimate selfie heaven,” according to Stelios, the company founder. It’s also a definitive place to see and be seen.

Case in point: The annual Stelios Philanthropic Foundation WWF cocktail party and charity auction in 2017, attended by Prince Albert. Three hundred guests put up with standing-room-only conditions on the terrace and happily paid €50 and up for a drink at the Honesty Bar. “The person that posts the most selfies tonight on our Facebook group will win a bottle of champagne from me,” Stelios offered. He also promised his Foundation would double the funds raised during the evening. (A total of €192,000 was donated to the Pelagos Sanctuary in the Mediterranean.)

His terrace cocktail parties bring together those with deep pockets and a variety of causes, from the Monaco Air League’s annual scholarship awards to the AGM of Gustavia Yacht Club, which he cofounded in 2016. He is the first Monegasque to join the Giving Pledge, the notable commitment, launched by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buttett, to dedicate most of one’s wealth to philanthropic causes.

The mononymous Stelios—a.k.a. “Sir” (he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2006) or “Commodore”—is a large figure in a tiny Principality. Tall, beetle-browed, and built like a linebacker, he comes across as affable, droll, even humble; the quiet center of everyone’s cautious attention. When he is in social situations or speaking engagements, Stelios, now 51, betrays little of the steeliness he is known for in business and in
the boardroom. This is a guy who has twice walked away from his entrepreneurial baby, easyJet, the low-fare carrier that, along with Ryanair, has revolutionized flying in Europe.

Yet easyJet (fiscal 2018 revenue: £5.9 billion), and the handfuls of companies that comprise the easy family of brands, is still the main source of his wealth. Stelios and his family control 37.5% of easyGroup; he has a personal net worth of $1.1 billion, according to Forbes. (He scoops up additional income from his extensive portfolio of property rentals in both Monaco and St. Barts in the Caribbean, his two main residences.)

Stelios doesn’t seem to obsess about his place among the galaxy of billionaires. Still, he must have been gratified recently after the Sunday Times Rich List noted his jump to number 48 from 64 last year. Over the same period one of his role models,
Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, dropped in the rankings from 23 to 29. Never mind that Sir Richard has a $3.8 billion advantage on him.

Some critics have needled Stelios about the comparison. “He has not achieved what Richard Branson achieved because of his different attitude to people,” a former easyGroup executive told the Telegraph in 2010. Stelios himself conceded as much when he told the New York Times, “I am a great believer that to make a difference in people’s lives, you are probably going to have to ruffle some feathers.”  


Viewed one way, Stelios’ story is a riches-to-greater riches tale. Viewed another, it is the saga of someone who in business and in philanthropy has always done it his way—a ballad more aptly sung by Frank Sinatra than written by Horatio Alger.

BORN IN ATHENS on February 14, 1967, Stelios was the middle child of Loucas Pelopidas Haji-Ioannou, a Greek-Cypriot shipping entrepreneur who bought his first tanker in 1959. He was a self-made man and one of the few foreigners who did business in Saudi Arabia without a local partner. During the country’s building boom in the 1950s, Haji-Ioannou imported Heraklis and Titan cement. Years later, during the Iran-Iraq war, he operated one of the few tankers from Kharg to the Straits of Hormuz, thanks to his having installed security systems required for affordable insurance. It was so profitable that “the purchase price of a tanker could be recouped within two round-trip voyages,” the Telegraph wrote in his obituary when he died at age 81 in December 2008. “Niarchos and Onassis may have led more glamorous lives, but Haji-Ioannou owned more tonnage.”

After graduating from the London School of Economics, Stelios, who holds passports from Greece and the U.K., went to work for his dad as chief executive of Troodos. “Every morning my father would wake up, pick up the phone and shout at people, go to lunch, and then shout a bit more,” Stelios confided to Forbes in a 2001 interview. What’s not to idolize?

But, of course, success rarely follows a straight line. When their 334-meter oil tanker Haven exploded and caught on fire off Genoa, Italy, in April 1991, five crew were killed and up to 50,000 tons of crude oil spilled into the sea. It was one of the Mediterranean’s worst-ever ecological disasters.

As reported by Forbes, the Italian prosecutor, eagerly backed by the Haven’s first officer, went after Stelios and his father on criminal charges that included manslaughter, extortion, and attempting to bribe a witness. If the Haji-Ioannous themselves were found criminally negligent they would be personally liable for $1 billion in claims; if it was the crew’s human error, the family’s liability was limited to $200 million, all paid for by insurance.

Stelios and his father were acquitted of all charges in 2002. The son has admitted, “The Haven shaped the way I look at life.” Put another way, business is serious stuff—and, to the degree that you can, control the slings and arrows that outrageous fortune deals you.

At age 25, a year after the accident, Stelios branched out on his own. With a £30 million boost from his father, he launched Stelmar (a combination of “Stelios” and “maritime”) Shipping, also based in Athens. Stelmar went public on the NYSE in 2001 and was sold four years later to a competitor for $1.3 billion— four times the initial market capitalization.

"I THINK ALL WEALTHY PEOPLE HAVE A DEBT TO REPAY BECAUSE IT IS THANKS TO THEIR CUSTOMERS WHO BOUGHT THEIR GOODS AND/ OR SERVICES THAT THEY ACQUIRED THEIR FORTUNE".

Meantime, Stelios toyed with other entrepreneurial ambitions. And, once again, in 1995, he hit up his dad for startup funds—this time for a no-frills airline that would rival and outstrip the likes of Sir Freddy Laker and Tony Ryan. “It was thanks to a loan from my wealthy father that I was able to get easyJet off the ground at the age of 28,” he once told a group at a networking cocktail for the Junior Chamber International Monaco, an organization for entrepreneurs under 40 in the Principality. “This would have been much harder to do on my own.”

He didn’t just walk up and say, “Hey, Dad, can you loan me a few bucks?” He presented a thoroughly detailed business plan, spiral bound and telephone book-thick, a copy of which is kept locked up in his office in Monaco.

The formal proposal resulted in a £5 million loan from his father that allowed him to lease a couple of 737s. EasyJet’s first flight left Luton for Glasgow on November 10, 1995— with the £29 one-way fares famously advertised as “fly to Scotland for the price of a pair of jeans.”

The reality was somewhat less glamorous, according to Christopher Foyle, founder of Air Folye, who had known Stelios since 1993. “During the first two years Stelios was technically a tour operator who owned airlines,” Foyle said before the 2014 launch of the Monaco wing of the Air League, of which he is President. Though he is a Monaco resident, Foyle’s roots are deep in London, where his grandfather opened the iconic
Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road in 1906. (Foyle sold that family business to Waterstones in September.)

“EasyJet was painted on the planes,” said Foyle. Stelios “was selling the tickets, he was making profit or loss, but the airline actually operating the aircraft was with my company, although the only way passengers would have known this is that ‘operated by Air Foyle Passenger Airlines’ was printed on boarding passes and safety cards in the back of the seats.”

But easyJet didn’t stay fly-by-night for long. In 2000, Stelios floated a public offering on the LSE, and became one of the biggest U.K. companies by market value (it’s also now on the FTSE100 with a market cap of more than £4 billion). Stelios himself campaigned to set a new policy to distribute half of annual profits by way of dividends to all shareholders, a policy that stands to this day.

A year later, with a fleet of 30 airplanes and valued at £1.6 billion in 2001, the Pantone 021c orange jets carried eight million passengers, flying to 44 European destinations.

Today, according to its website, Europe’s leading airline flies over 85 million passengers every year. Yet investors became unhappy. By April 2002, Stelios stepped down as chairman from the airline, after pressure from major shareholders.

"It is a sign of maturity in a young company to have a chairman who is independent from the controlling shareholders,” Stelios said by way of explanation at a press conference at Luton airport in the company’s canteen. “I took note of the concerns of institutional investors and I want to ensure the company abides by the highest standards of corporate governance.”

Stelios still held almost 27.6% of the stock; his brother and sister had 24.4% combined. By November of that same year, shares plunged 13% in what Andrew Cave at the Telegraph described as their “worst ever day of trading as analysts fretted
over growing competition.”

When Stelios shocked easyJet with his resignation from the Board in 2010—a move to “reject the management’s strategy of relentless growth in aircraft numbers and focus on profit margin increase”—the family still owned nearly 38% of the airline.

At the time, Stelios told Management Today, “Basically, it’s created no shareholder value in 10 years.”

“The only weapon you have is to resign,” he said to the FT. “The inescapable fact is that this airline used to make a bigger absolute profit using far fewer aircraft.”

For the record, Stelios himself has committed similar missteps by way of expanding too quickly. By the end of 2002, easyInternetCafe had generated cumulative losses of £98 million.
At the time, Stelios called it “the most expensive mistake of my
career.”

Two years after stepping away from easyJet, Stelios launched the first low-cost pan-African airline, fastJet. By 2017 it was named, for the second consecutive year, Africa’s Leading Low- Cost Airline by the World Travel Awards.

But then Stelios stepped away from his creation. On June 29, 2017, fastJet acquired all intellectual property rights associated with its brand— fastJet Tanzania, fastJet Mozambique, fastJet Zimbabwe—for $2.5 million from its original owner easyGroup Holdings Ltd. “FastJet is a great brand in all its African markets, making it a highly valuable asset for the company,” Stelios said. “I have accepted the view of the current board that the company should own its own brand rather than license it from me.”

This was in keeping with someone who, according to the Observer in 2002, by his own admission prefers to create businesses,
not manage them. He once told the FT, “I get bored when things do well and move on.” In other words, doing it his own way.

But since Stelios backed away from fastJet, it has rapidly lost altitude. In July it was saved from “imminent collapse” by shareholders who injected some $10 million. Yet by November, the Independent reported the company was “on the brink of closure.” Small wonder. Losses between 2014 and 2017 totaled $185.4 million; from July to December, its share price plunged 86%, and its cash supply was down to $6.8 million. By then the Tanzania Civil Aviation Authority had suspended all flights, citing debts to service providers and an insufficient number of planes.

FOR ALL HIS LACK OF INTEREST in day-to-day operations, Stelios has been curiously aggressive in protecting his company’s brand.
Last July, easyGroup (which owns the trademark “easy.com”) went after the Honduran airline Easy Sky and its Mexican parent company, Global Air, insisting that it “desist from using the Easy Sky brand on the side of its aircraft or from using the brand as a domain name on the internet or social media.”

In November, the company sued Netflix in the U.S. over the series “Easy,” arguing that use of the name breaches its European trademarks. “We own the European trademark in the word ‘easy’ and another one thousand trademarks with easy as a prefix,” Stelios said in a statement. “We can’t allow people to use it now as a brand name, especially when they are doing it mostly with our colours and font.”

In a statement e-mailed to CNBC, Netflix commented: “We’re looking into it but think viewers can tell the difference between a show they watch and a plane they fly (in).”

Stelios clearly doesn’t want to spend his time in court. He’d much rather devote himself to his daughter, born in June 2018, or his charitable causes, which take up many of the 60 hours a week he puts in. There’s the Stelios Philanthropic Foundation, which supports education, entrepreneurship, and the environment in countries where he’s lived and worked: the U.K., Greece, Cyprus, and Monaco. The foundation offers scholarships at the LSE, Cass Business School, and Doukas High School in Athens; more than 200,000 people in Greece and Cyprus receive
meals from his “Food from the Heart” project.

In 2018, it pledged €500,000 for 5 years to the Princess Grace Hospital Centre in Monaco, and sponsored €10,000 to No Finish Line—the 24-hour, 8-day course in Fontvieille where for every kilometer completed, the organization and its partners donate €1 to projects for underprivileged children. Also last year, the Stelios Awards for Disabled Entrepreneurs in the U.K. gave over $70,000 in grants.

Stelios also likes to play. He is Patron of the Monaco Air League and was named the Honorary General Consul for the Republic of Cyprus in the Principality. He became first Commodore of the exclusive Gustavia Yacht Club in St. Barts, which he set up with friends in 2016 to provide “a place to gather and talk about yachting, sailing and all the great activities you can do in St. Barts.” Some 125 founding members signed upbefore the Clubhouse even opened, not surprising for an island that’s the Saint-Tropez of the Caribbean. The Commodore owns the 100-square-meter triplex waterfront clubhouse property; he sails one of his two classic sailing yachts in St. Barts (the other is in Monaco).

As in business, Stelios charts a different course in philanthropy, becoming the first Monaco resident to join The Giving Pledge, 2017. In an open letter he wrote: “When I turned 40, I seriously started the process of repaying my debt to society.

“It took me another 10 years of both ‘thinking’ and ‘doing’ philanthropy to conclude that by giving more than half of one’s fortune to charity, one can balance the needs of family and friends against other good causes.”

When the devastating hurricane Irma smashed the tiny French Caribbean island in September 2017, Stelios immediately pushed the Gustavia Yacht Club to set up a “St. Barts–Hurricane Irma disaster relief fund.” The Stelios Philanthropic Foundation was the first to donate €100,000. The foundation also provided a €505,000 grant for families affected by the Mati wild fires outside Athens in July 2018.

The Giving Pledge, St. Barts relief, victims of a conflagration in Greece—causes that are hardly top of mind for many Monegasques. But for Stelios, just another case of doing things his own way. 

Author image

Nancy Heslin   Editor

Nancy (Wilson) Heslin is an established journalist and lifestyle writer.  She has been the Editor-in-Chief of Forbes Monaco magazine (bimonthly in English) , since the magazine's 2nd issue . Launched in November 2018, Forbes Monaco is part of the Forbes family, with its 7 million readers and 71 million monthly website visitors worldwide.