Find­ing ways to niche out a liv­ing, with no help from the gov­ern­ment

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY MICHELE KAMBAS

If ne­ces­sity is the mother of in­ven­tion, eight years of a crip­pling re­ces­sion and dwin­dling work prospects has com­pelled at least some Greeks to re­boot, switch pro­fes­sions and in­no­vate to sur­vive.

From the is­land of Sy­ros, hand­made wooden spec­ta­cle frames are prov­ing a hit with hip­sters in Europe and be­yond. Gold-in­fused or­ganic honey from the rolling hills of Evia in the east is find­ing fa­vor with up­mar­ket clients in the United States, Lon­don, Hong Kong and the United Arab Emi­rates. And in an Athens sub­urb, a carpenter turned to his life­time hobby of craft­ing fish­ing spear­guns af­ter his busi­ness fal­tered. His first client was from Rus­sia.

Dim­itris Hatziro­dos, whose spear­guns re­tail be­tween 450 and 1,500 euros, said the cri­sis is forc­ing Greeks to think out­side the box. “When things get tough... you start think­ing dif­fer­ently. When things are easy no­body ever makes dif­fi­cult choices,” he said, sit­ting in the workshop that he and his brother in­her­ited from their fa­ther.

More than 400,000 Greeks have em­i­grated since the coun­try’s fi­nan­cial cri­sis started in 2009. Those who stayed are lucky to find jobs – a quar­ter of the pop­u­la­tion is un­em­ployed, and earn­ings have fallen on av­er­age 40 percent. Na­tional out­put has de­creased by a quar­ter since 2008.

Perik­lis Ther­rios, 36, briefly mi­grated to Canada. But home beck­oned.

He and his part­ner Eleni Vakon­diou, 37, turned to mak­ing hand­crafted spec­ta­cle frames around 2012, some of them us­ing re­cy­cled ma­te­ri­als. “It was very dif­fi­cult, and there were many times when we thought about giv­ing up, but we be­lieved in our ef­forts, we be­lieved that we would make a prod­uct that could stand on its own in the mar­ket,” said Vakon­diou. “There were mo­ments when our [food] cab­i­nets at home were empty be­cause what­ever in­come we had went to­ward re­search and de­vel­op­ment.”

From a small workshop on Sy­ros the cou­ple started with a pro­duc­tion of 350 pairs a year. They say they are now on track to mak­ing 2,000 this year, re­tail­ing for be­tween 250 and 300 euros.

‘At least we tried’

In Evia, in the heart of the Greek coun­try­side, Yan­nis Kary­pidis and Stevi Theodorou ad­min­is­ter bee­hives left by Theodorou’s grand­fa­ther. Last year they sold 60,000 jars of or­ganic honey. Pro­duc­tion has al­ready ex­ceeded 70,000 jars for the first half of 2016.

For­mer ad­ver­tis­ing ex­ec­u­tive and ac­coun­tant Kary­pidis, 35, said the cou­ple had de­cided to move to the United King­dom, but a last trip to Evia changed their minds. “We said to our­selves, ‘If it works it works, if it doesn’t it doesn’t,’ but at least we would have tried and got it out of our minds and we could then move on to some­thing else,” said Kary­pidis.

Stayia Farm now pro­duces 16 dif­fer­ent types of honey mix­tures, prob­a­bly most noted for one in­fused with gold flakes.

“It’s a prod­uct for re­fined tastes... it’s not some­thing you can find in a su­per­mar­ket,” Kary­pidis said. The prod­uct re­tails at be­tween 35 and 50 euros over­seas.

Ioan­nis Ka­pla­nis, di­rec­tor gen­eral of the gov­ern­ment-af­fil­i­ated Hel­lenic In­dus­trial Prop­erty Or­ga­ni­za­tion, known as OBI, said Greece has the ta­lent but also needs an in­sti­tu­tional frame­work for en­cour­ag­ing patents and fi­nanc­ing star­tups. “There is a crit­i­cal mass of in­ven­tors in the coun­try which must be tapped, trans­formed into a com­mod­ity which will foster growth,” he said, adding: “There needs to be fi­nanc­ing from busi­nesses or from funds. This link does not ex­ist.”

Kary­pidis and other small busi­ness own­ers who have made it agree their suc­cess has been all self-gen­er­ated and speak of gov­ern­ment in­volve­ment as more of a hin­drance than a help.

In typ­i­cal Greek style, Kary­pidis did not re­ceive any fi­nanc­ing and in­stead tapped the know-how of his and his wife’s ex­tended fam­ily. Ther­rios and Vakon­diou used crowd­fund­ing – mostly raised through Greek do­na­tions – to get started. “The dif­fi­culty in Greece right now is to main­tain [a busi­ness],” he said.

Spear­gun-maker Hatziro­dos said he is happy to be “bring­ing even a euro” into Greece, but re­sents what many call a heavy-handed and short­sighted ap­proach to taxes to keep the coun­try fi­nan­cially afloat. “This coun­try is the most blessed coun­try there is, but the peo­ple who run it just don’t de­serve it,” he said.

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