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Greek tragedy and the family business revival

As the interminable death throes of Greeceā€™s euro membership continue, discussion has centred on the uneasy relationship that the Greeks appear to have with truth and probity (And how this contrasts with the upright, scrupulously honest Germans).

As the interminable death throes of Greece’s euro membership continue, discussion has centred on the uneasy relationship that the Greeks appear to have with truth and probity (And how this contrasts with the upright, scrupulously honest Germans).

Whether it be the Goldman Sachs-assisted cooking of the books to enable single currency entry in the first place or the widely discussed urban myth that there are more Ferraris than higher rate tax payers in Greater Athens, all the chat is that a Greek wouldn’t know the truth if it came up and pushed his nose into the moussaka. What would Socrates have said? He’d have been shifting around uneasily in those sandals.

During the late 1990s - when all the euro lead-up was taking place - I was sent to Athens to cover the unlikely alliance struck up by British Airways and the Greek national airline, Olympic. Although founded by Ari Onassis as a slick, high-class family business back in 1957, by the fag end of the decade the nationalised Olympic was the basket case of the European skies. Truly Olympic was an organisation collectively so witless that it called its in-flight magazine Motion and its frequent flier programme Icarus. The more miles you earned, perhaps, the greater the chance of being plunged into the sea just south of Samos.

The whole winged outfit with the hoops on its tails was a grim reminder of just how bad things can get when they wither in the public sector, protected from competition. Olympic was a by-word for appalling customer service, broken-down aircraft and criminal time-keeping. It had made no profits for 20 years and had been probed and prodded by more management consultants than its stewardesses had served hot towels.

A restructuring plan was put in place in 1994 but it soon ran into trouble. After Olympic proudly announced a profit of six billion drachmas (£18.3 million) for 1997, an audit conducted by PWC came up with a slightly different figure - a loss of 38 billion drachmas. Clearly someone in Olympic's accounts department made a slip of the abacus. If they return to the drachma any time soon let’s hope their arithmetic improves. I doubt it.

The European Union blocked further state aid until the conditions of the plan were complied with. They were not. (Doubtless they were too busy helping to cook the currency books). The final ouzo in the last chance saloon for the airline's managers and the 18 unions that represent the workforce came when Brussels insisted that the management of Olympic be handed over to outside consultants in an effort to get a clearer view through the murk. So it came to pass that Speedwing, BA’s crack consultancy arm, took over. The BA team consisted of a magnificent seven-style, ageing bunch of gun-slingers – an ex-Concorde pilot among them – who flew out to Athens to knock some sense into the Greek fliers.

Needless to say the whole thing ended in tears. It was a tripartheid disaster of dire mistrust – the BA guys, the suspicious and demoralised Olympic staff and the interfering Greek government. When the chief-BA gunslinger Rod Lynch was sworn in as Olympic chief executive by the Greek parliament in early July 1999 after a hostile grilling from deputies and lawyers, outside the parliament there was an anti-British riot complete with flying bricks and petrol bombs. One protester tried to burn the Union Jack but it was so old and grimy – not unlike Olympic’s aircraft - it wouldn't light.

In his outstanding and entertaining book Boomerang about the crash in Europe, Michael Lewis outlines what he sees as a central problem with Greek society when it comes to the truth and fairness. In the chapter headed “And they invented math” he writes: “No success of any kind is treated without suspicion. Everyone is pretty sure everyone is cheating on his taxes, or bribing politicians, or taking bribes, or lying about the value of his real estate. And this total absence of faith in one another is self-reinforcing. The epidemic of lying and cheating and stealing makes any sort of civic life impossible…lacking faith in one another, they fall back on themselves and their families.” (my italics)

A reminder that the family is the last bastion of trust in an environment that lacks it. When Greece rebuilds itself from these ruins – which it surely will – it’s likely to be families and the businesses they either already have or will create that will lead the way. And a few sessions with Aristotle’s volume of Ethics wouldn’t go amiss, either.

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