He started from India, with $8 in his pocket, for Canada. He was 22 years old. Today he is among the richest Canadians. His firm, Fairfax, manages funds in excess of $60 billion. And 5% of the total funds are invested in Greece.
Speaking on “Vima tis Kyriaki”, Prem Vatsa explains the reasons why he has been investing in Greece for years and why he believes in the country’s prospects and huge opportunities. In the last 10 years, he has invested more than 3 billion euros in Greece and declares that he is not thinking of selling anything. The opposite!
We met him in one of the villas of One and Only Aesthesis, in Glyfada. Simple and excited by the beauty of the landscape and the well-designed resort, he raises his hand to be seen. In no way did it give you the impression that you were meeting one of the most successful people in the world, who was enjoying the sun while waiting for us for the interview.
“Look here, my friends! What a beauty. Your eye can’t get enough of seeing the sea. What a beautiful country you have!” he would say as he shook our hands tightly and guided us to the terrace where we would drink our coffee. And he was right. It is a stunningly designed ultra-luxury hotel spread over 278 acres with 2.2 kilometers of coastline, housing 127 rooms and 14 private residences. A jewel hotel for Athens and Greece as a whole.
Mr. Watsa, you are a famous investor with a strong interest in Greece. What attracts you?
“Greece has enormous potential, because it is an investment hub. It has a beautiful landscape, a rich cultural heritage and a strategic location on the Mediterranean Sea. The government’s commitment to reforms and the growth of the economy further enhance its appeal. And Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis with his actions convinced me that he does not stick to his words. He takes difficult decisions and is determined to advance the reforms and create a very friendly environment for businesses – Greek and foreign – and for investments.”
Aren’t high taxation, high contributions, bureaucracy and cumbersome Justice an obstacle?
“All these are obstacles to investment and development. However, the investor evaluates the great steps that have been taken so far. Huge improvements have been made and the current government is determined to make Greece the most attractive investment destination. Therefore, we must also look at the prospects. Of course, tax cuts, red tape and other reforms will help the economy. And I am sure that all this will happen.”
Remain optimistic about Greece. What fuels your optimism?
“The government’s commitment to economic reforms and the revitalization of the economy signal a promising future for Greece as an investment destination.”
How do you decide where and how to invest?
“First of all, I always think and invest in the long term. That’s how I made my first money. A successful investment depends on the quality of the team. A competent and ethical management team can overcome any obstacle. I’m looking for managers who are smart, diligent, hardworking and have a team spirit.”
How did you make your first money?
“I immigrated to Canada from India in 1972, with limited resources and education. I had studied chemical engineering in India. In Canada I first worked for an insurance company. Through hard work and persistence I earned the trust of clients as I built long-term and successful portfolios. I then set up my own investment company, which I called Fairfax.’
Why did you name her Fairfax?
“I decided to refinance a small Canadian insurance company and changed its name. I named it Fairfax Financial, derived from the words “fair” and “friendly acquisitions” which are the golden rules I live by. Treat yourself the way you want to be treated.”
How did you discover Greece as an investment destination?
“Wade Burton, my closest partner and head of the group, visited Greece when Antonis Samaras was prime minister. He was enthusiastic about the country and its prospects and encouraged me to consider the case of Greece. Indeed, I did. The first investment was in Grivalia, which deals with real estate, and then in Eurobank. We expanded into Eurolife Insurance, we have a stake in the Mytileneos Group and we also participate in Ant1 Plus. These companies have smart, hardworking and highly cohesive management teams. They also have a strong track record of success and promising prospects.”
What is the next investment in Greece?
“I do not know. If I see a team that stands out and an interesting investment plan, I will look into it. I have to be convinced by the faces. I believe that the best teams are those where everyone is focused on achieving a common goal and not on their individual egos. Companies with a team approach and an emphasis on collective success tend to be more successful in the long run.”
What are some of the specific sectors that you think are attractive for investment in Greece?
“I think that all sectors are attractive for investment in Greece, but tourism, infrastructure and technology are of particular interest. The government is investing heavily in infrastructure, which creates new opportunities for businesses. And Greece has a young and talented workforce that is well-suited to the technology sector.”
They say that businesses can’t find suitable staff, there is difficulty in finding workers with specific skills. Did you experience this in Greece?
“No! The opposite. All the companies where Fairfax participates have the best minds, the best workers, who are all Greek. Now we built the One and Only, where many specialties were needed and hundreds were hired. All Greeks”.
Nevertheless, the unemployment rate in Greece is high, especially among young people.
“The unemployment rate is just a statistic. He doesn’t say anything. Today the Greek economy is changing. Everything changes. Investments are made. Jobs are coming. Everyone can find a job. Greece has a young and talented workforce that is suitable for the technology sector. There are also a number of Greek start-ups developing innovative products and services. I believe that the Greek technology sector has the potential to grow significantly in the coming years.”
What advice would you give to young people thinking of starting a business in Greece?
“To follow their dreams and not be afraid to start a business. Greece is a great place to start a business because there are many opportunities and the government supports entrepreneurs.”
But is there also the problem of financing for a young person who wants to start his own business?
“Whoever wants to be an entrepreneur finds money. Finds investors. The Greek government is taking measures to address the problem of access to finance. But there are also many investment capital companies that now invest in Greek companies”.
What advice would you give to young people?
“A lesson I learned. It is important to be patient. It takes time for companies to grow and succeed. Investors must be willing to hold their investments for the long term in order to maximize their returns.”
Were there not difficult times for your investments in Greece?
“Of course. The crisis period was a great test. However, smart and strategic moves were made, such as the merger of Grivalia with Eurobank – a move that strengthened the bank’s capital in time and then was the first to drastically reduce non-performing loans. These moves were catalytic as they gave the bank and all the companies in the group an immediate comparative advantage.”
If you are still not sure about your next investment move in Greece, are you thinking about what you could sell?
“Nothing. I’m not selling anything. Don’t overlook the fact that Greece’s GDP and per capita income are still below the level before the crisis of 2008. Despite the great growth and improvement that has taken place. Therefore, there are still large margins and new opportunities, which will bring the Greek economy higher than where it was before the crisis. After all, as I have mentioned many times, I only invest for the long term.”
(from the newspaper “TO VIMA”)