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From the seas to the skies: easyJet founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou discusses his rise to the top

Written by Natalie Seery, Zen Terrelonge on Thursday, 10 January 2019. Posted in Big business, Interviews

Setting sail with shipping and taking off with aviation put him on a journey to wealth but 23 years after starting easyJet, Stelios Haji-Ioannou has no end of industries to enter as he fosters rising entrepreneurs while also giving back to society

From the seas to the skies: easyJet founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou discusses his rise to the top

Obtaining billionaire status is something many can only dream of. And there’s no question that plenty who would achieve such a net worth would be all too ready to put their feet up for early retirement to live a life of luxury – and who could blame them? But this isn’t the case for Stelios Haji-Ioannou, the founder of easyJet, who still has plenty more goals he wants to score.

Having made Monaco his home, Cyprus-born Haji-Ioannou can be a tough man for a UK-based journalist to secure face-to-face time with. But when the stars aligned in both our diaries and the opportunity presented itself, I made my way to London to meet Haji-Ioannou at the new Fulham site for easyHub, an all-new co-working space designed to provide business owners with an affordable workplace. The entrepreneur was in town to provide a presentation on the new site while giving interested parties a taster of what they could expect.

While Haji-Ioannou remains a shareholder of easyJet, he has his fingers in a lots of succulent deep-filled pies through the easyGroup, a private investment arm he owns. Through this, he partners with companies interested in leveraging the easy brand, either in an investment capacity or one where they can licence the easy name to get a headstart with their company – such as easyCoffee or easyHotel, both of which happen to be franchises. “I had one good idea which [was starting] an airline and I had the second good idea to own a brand,” says Haji-Ioannou, discussing his transition from air travel. “What I’m trying to do now is develop a well-diversified portfolio of ventures using the easy brand. Some will be bigger than others but at the end of the day what I care about is this predictable income stream that all people in franchising know about. Being a franchisor is a good business.”

But what drives him? Where did Haji-Ioannou’s appetite for business come from? He didn’t have to look far – his father cooked up that hunger. A self-made shipping tycoon, he created his own wealth, which helped lay a foundation for his son, the would-be aviation magnate. “[My father] helped me finance my early ventures, so he was instrumental in providing the money,” says Haji-Ioannou. “And he was also an inspiration [because] between generations sometimes you learn how to do things and how not to do things.” With a 40-year age difference, the then-young Haji-Ioannou was keen to find his own methods of doing business. “I did things differently because of the generation gap,” he says. “I guess I wanted to prove myself to my father and the rest of the world that I wasn’t just a daddy’s boy. It’s a big motivator actually, to prove yourself to your father.”

Prior to the interview, it was obvious Haji-Ioannou’s time was precious. Between the speeches he gave on the day, his partners and prospects were all excited and eager to get time with him, whether for the opportunity to talk shop or snap a selfie. And having been in business for 23 years exactly at the time of meeting, a point he referenced in his presentation, it’s a milestone I was keen to raise. “You’ve been listening,” he smiles. 

Discussing how the business and his interests have changed over more than two decades of operating, Haji-Ioannou explains building a brand around easyJet, which is effectively a lifestyle operation, and diversifying was pretty straightforward – at least when you compare it to what other businesses would have to go through. “McDonald’s had to build a brand out of one business – building burgers,” he reasons. “I’m in an unusual situation that I use the umbrella brand built primarily by easyJet but also other companies to enter new sectors. So that’s very interesting to me, very appealing.”

Continuing on the theme of his tenure and what motivates him to continue pushing on day in and day out, there are multiple drivers behind his reason to get up and crack on in the morning. “The easy brand is my pension fund,” he laughs. “It’s what I will retire on.” It’s not just about him though. On a more serious note, he points to his charitable project, the Stelios Philanthropic Foundation, as something that ignites fire in his belly. “The way I think about my workload at the moment is I say I’m going to spend one third of my time on the easy family of brands,” details Haji-Ioannou. “One third of my time will be saved for investments – like real estate, shares, stocks, bonds and things like that. And one third will be charity – giving it back.” He expressed that it’s important not to have a single-minded approach in order to achieve his targets and also why profit is so important. “To give back to society, you need the income to come from somewhere,” he laughs. “So the easy family of brands is my income stream.”

Having already detailed that his father was the special ingredient to give easyJet lift off, he still encountered difficulties that helped inform what would become wisdom as time passed. “Starting an airline at the age of 28 as a poor little Greek boy with an unpronounceable last name was not an easy task,” says Haji-Ioannou. He notes that getting the airline in order was “a big uphill struggle” but clearly this didn’t hold him back. “The lesson has been never bet the farm. Never take a risk you can’t afford to lose.”

Looking at our surroundings, he points to the easyHub as a fine example of risk assessment and management. “Let’s say this building is a complete disaster and nobody wants to occupy this space, which is unlikely but, you know – I can afford to take that risk for a few years,” he offers. Continuing, he laughs: “But I can’t do that with a million square feet if you know what I mean.”

With his wisdom in mind and recommendations for anyone looking to follow in his footsteps, Haji-Ioannou has a great suggestion. “One [tip] is get a rich father,” he chuckles. “If that doesn’t work, try and raise the money. Borrowing or raising money as equity with investors is the way you can build a bigger business. For generations, you had to be born into wealth to have wealth. I think what changed in the last half a century or something is you can now raise the money from other people. There’s now enough of a marketing capital to grow your business.”

With easyHub, the latest project he’s been working on set for a grand opening in 2019, Haji-Ioannou is willing to bet – not the farm, of course – that it will go down well. “I think it will be a hub for the easy family of brands to come together,” he opines. “I think we’ll see many of our customers coming from the family. I think it will be a great hotbed of entrepreneurship. I think many entrepreneurial companies will find a home here and appreciate the flexibility and the good prices. But fundamentally it’s London real estate. Hopefully, if you don’t pay too much for it, it will keep going up [in value].”

Having already witnessed great progress over his 23 years in business and adapted with the changing times, Haji-Ioannou’s expectations for the next couple of years aren’t too wild. “I’m expecting to see incremental change rather than anything too dramatic,” he concludes. “So it’s about adding brands and empowering new entrepreneurs to use the easy brand in fulfilling their dreams.” 

About the Author

Natalie Seery

Natalie Seery

Seery is the keen snapper who paps our cover stars each month. And she’s had plenty of experience, with a portfolio of shots of some of the UK’s hottest music stars as they strut their stuff on stage.

Zen Terrelonge

Zen Terrelonge

As editor, Terrelonge can be found on the hunt for all things startup and scaleup – that's when he's not busy talking babies via DADult Life. Whether it's health or hospitality, food or philanthropy, tech or travel, he'll be seeking out the most interesting entrepreneurial developments to run in the magazine and online.

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