Without a doubt, Brexit has cast a cloud of uncertainty over the UK’s future relations with the EU. Even though it is still not clear what the outcome will be, business must and will continue. As a representative voice of British-Hellenic relations, what are your personal views toward the post-Brexit future? Do you see challenges or do you see opportunities?
Ms Anna Kalliani: I would like to emphasize that the Brexit negotiations between Great Britain and the EU will lead to a satisfactory agreement for the two parts. The relationship between the European countries and Great Britain will continue to be strong and they will work closely. As the British Hellenic Chamber of Commerce, we would like for the business relationships to be maintained as strong as possible and if there are new opportunities, we will strengthen our relationship even further. If Brexit is to be realized, there will certainly be some risks that we will need to consider, especially in some key sectors that could be affected depending on the outcome of certain decisions that are as of yet unknown. There are some specific sectors, such as tourism, which would be of most concern to Greece.
Last month Greece’s Prime Minister, Mr Tsiparas, at the inauguration of the International Fair in Thessaloniki mentioned that Greece has turned the page, “Leaving Grexit and heading to Grinvest.” He was in fact quoting a French investor who joined Mr Macron in his recent visit recent to Greece. How would you describe the evolution of the UK business community’s perception of Greece as a lucrative investment destination? Have you detected a notable change from last year to this year?
Ms Anna Kalliani: Certainly the perception has changed. We realize there are some positive signs of the Greek economy that are reflected in the short term financial indicators. International investors are seeing these positive signs however there are some concerns about the continuity of the reforms including the privatization programme. There are also some obstacles to the realization of major investments in Greece. So yes, there are some positive signs and we must also recognize the reforms that have been carried out after so many years. But the country must continue to take additional steps to make Greece even more attractive for investors.
You have recently been appointed the Greek president of the BHCC. What are some of the fresh ideas that you bring with you in order to foster stronger relations between the business communities of both countries and contribute toward making Greece an even more attractive investment destination?
Ms Anna Kalliani: Firstly, we are working towards becoming a vehicle for investments coming from the UK. We connect UK investors and Greek businesses. We facilitate communication between both sides and give information to those who are interested in investing in Greece.
Secondly, we organize events and targeted activities that can bring closer UK investors and Greek business. Our target is to be more focused on our institutional role, in cooperation with the Greek embassy in London as well as the British embassy here in Athens, to coordinate some efforts that are more targeted at bringing together investors and businesses from both countries. We pay particular attention to the medium and smaller enterprises that might have more difficulty in accessing markets, as well as those companies that are export-oriented.
The role that we are keen to play is more of a consulting role. If an investor is interested in the Greek market, we can provide them guidance and advise them how to deal with certain issues or overcome certain obstacles. The same goes for the opposite scenario, Greek companies who are keen to enter the UK market, or make exports, as the UK is a key market for Greek exports. Smaller companies sometimes do not know how to access the market, or it could be very costly for them. We can assist them, in cooperation with the Greek embassy in London, in order to be able to enter the UK market in the most efficient and targeted way. There are certain sectors that are of most interest, such as pharmaceuticals, agricultural and consumer products and IT services as well.
Certainly the established network that both the BHCC and the Greek embassy already have can be of great value to Greek exporters, right?
Ms Anna Kalliani: The BHCC does not have a physical presence in the UK, but it is something that we are gradually developing. We do have as members of our chamber both Greek companies and British companies. Some of the British companies present here in Greece also import products from the UK to Greece.
Bilateral trade volume between Greece and the UK is up 10% in the fist half of 2017. The UK continues to be a key destination for Greek pharmaceuticals and food products. What other business segments do you feel still hold enormous potential for Greek companies to further tap the UK market? What about services, such as IT?
Ms Anna Kalliani: IT is definitely one of them. There are currently Greek companies, including some start-ups who export services to the UK. There are also Greek entrepreneurs who have gone to the UK to set up their businesses, seeing the potential of this market. UK companies have the opportunity to hire high-end software development services in Greece. Some UK companies have gone as far as setting up a production site in Greece with over 200 software engineers, taking advantage of the more competitive salaries. IT professionals in Greece are very well trained and highly skilled.
Tourism, Greece’s champion sector, continues to rack up impressive results, and is on track to set a new record in arrivals this year, hitting 30 million. That’s 3 tourists per Greek. Quite an outstanding ratio. What are your views regarding the tourism sector, its seasonality, the potential for higher revenues and other crucial aspects of tourism?
Ms Anna Kalliani: Lengthening the tourist season is a challenge for many destinations in Greece. For some destinations, like Athens, it has been achieved. But the majority of destinations are still dealing with seasonality. I believe that there are opportunities in specialized areas such as medical tourism, business tourism or experience-seeking tourism, which is one of the fastest growing segments of tourism worldwide. Last year several new hotel investments have been announced and are under development.
What in your opinion are the fundamental issues that should be tackled first in order to curb the brain drain that Greece is suffering from?
Ms Anna Kalliani: In my opinion there are two main areas. The first is that we must attract as much investment as possible in order to create new jobs. The second point is for Greece to create a more favourable investment environment and try to empower new entrepreneurs to establish and maintain their businesses. This is important because if you create new incentives to start-ups for a few years and then they are not able to take the next steps, then this is not viable. And the financing is also important. In Greece as well as many other countries, we lack the efficient model that the US has, for example. The US has the right environment that helps start-ups become the new leaders of their sectors. In Europe investors might make decisions differently than in the US.