It’s easy as you go for EasyJet’s entrepreneur

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On a drizzly morning this week, Stelios Haji-Ioannou stood at a London bus stop, waiting for an EasyBus to take him to Luton airport.

At £3 the cost of the bus was less than the Starbucks coffee and pain au chocolat that a passenger was clutching.

Exactly 10 years before, when it was also “pissing with rain”, Stelios recalls waiting in a seedy terminal at Luton airport to take the maiden EasyJet flight to Glasgow.

At the time, he advertised the flight as costing as little as “a pair of jeans”. The two women who checked in the passengers that day are still employed by EasyJet with share options that could mean they never have to work again.

At the time, Stelios says his ambition was short term – “survival”. But in the years since, EasyJet – along with rival Ryanair and other low-cost carriers – has transformed air travel in Europe and the lifestyles of many of the Continent’s citizens.

Like 38-year-old Stelios, who flies EasyJet to Nice each Friday on his way home to Monaco, North Europeans who work in the rain can now weekend in the Mediterranean sun.

Passengers can buy tickets online, no longer needing travel agents. Cheap travel has improved familiarity among Europeans, Stelios believes, forging friendships and even marriages.

Yet this son of a Greek- Cypriot shipping tycoon appears to have changed little since, as a preppy 28-year-old, he spent a year in Luton to ensure EasyJet’s successful launch.

On Thursday, he boarded the cramped EasyBus minibus for the 45-minute journey to Luton, fighting with the seatbelt that squeezed against his robust frame.

There were only half a dozen passengers paying £3 each, which would barely have paid for the petrol. But he talked enthusiastically of his plans to franchise the EasyBus brand to coach operators around Europe.

The next day he was due to fly to the Caribbean to launch his EasyCruise, building the Easy brand in the Americas.

His mind was also working overtime on how to make the transatlantic crossing profitable for the orange-
liveried cruise ship. Perhaps he would offer poker on crossings, he said – though he openly wondered whether association with gambling could tarnish his brand.

With a youthful sense of principle, he was even choosy about who would fly him across the Atlantic.

He still prefers not to fly British Airways, with whom he has publicly battled for years – partly, he admits, as an attention-grabbing exercise. Instead, he flew Virgin Atlantic, owned by his role model and friend, Sir Richard Branson.

Stelios, who describes himself on his business card as a “serial entrepreneur”, has an articulate, if restless, way of talking. His business affairs are similarly fast-paced.

In EasyJet’s early years, he paid such close attention to the airline that, when snow grounded its flights at Luton, he would travel there to cheer up passengers. But once it had moved out of survival mode with its flotation in 2000, he focused on bringing brand building and “yield management” – his two specialisations – to the rest of his Easy empire.

With his eye on the potential of the internet, he acquired several thousand internet domain names, even wayward ones such as EasyAtlantic. These, he believes, could be businesses of the future – though he remains dubious about no-frills transatlantic travel.

His career, which began with his father in shipping, has been anything but plain- sailing. Several of his EasyGroup businesses, such as EasyInternetcafé and EasyCar, the car rental company, had teething problems – he admits he rolled out internet cafés far too quickly and has had to bail some ventures out with his own money.

Some are still tiny despite much nurturing, including Milton Keynes-based Easy-Pizza (favourite pizza, “El Stel”) and EasyBus, which he once expected to rival national companies.

But while he says EasyGroup has recently become cash flow positive thanks to licenses and franchises, including EasyJet’s license payment for the use of the brand, he appears to thrive on adversity.

“I get bored when things go well and move on,” Stelios says.

Now is no time for Stelios to be bored. In 2002, he stepped back from EasyJet to focus on EasyCinemas and to bring the internet cafés back from the brink, appointing Sir Colin Chandler as replacement chairman of EasyJet. In 2004, he sold 4m shares in EasyJet at 370p to 380p to fund the cruise ship, a budget hotel and the buses.

But he remained an insider to the airline’s affairs, with a board representative, and was horrified to see the impact on EasyJet shares from two profit warnings in rapid succession.

His insider status frustrated his efforts to buy the ailing shares last year.

Then, in October 2004, he was shocked to find an Icelandic airline company, FL Group, climbing up the EasyJet share register, having bought shares as cheap as 120p.

Led by Hannes Smarason, who has also bought Copenhagen-based Sterling Airways, Europe’s fourth- largest low-cost airline, FL Group’s interest in EasyJet has triggered bid speculation.

Last month, its stake increased to 16.2 per cent, just shy of Stelios’ own 16.6 per cent (though his brother and sister own 12 per cent each). The shares are back above 300p.

For once, Stelios appears to have found in Mr Smarason a businessman as impetuous as he is. It leaves him sounding a bit flat-footed, even if he has already retaken a seat on the board to keep a close eye on affairs. “I have to congratulate them on their timing,” he says of the Icelanders. “But I have not studied the FL Group enough to form a view on whether they would be good custodians of the [EasyJet] name.”

He insists there is no reason to sell out of EasyJet – except that he mentions that the last time he sold shares was at 370p to 380p, which indicates he may have a price. What particularly troubles him is who he would sell the business to, lest the brand becomes debased.

He will not speculate on where he expects to be in 10 years, saying the time horizon is too long.

But over the next five years, he says making a success out of ownership of the Easy brand will be his “main job”. Eventually, this will mean floating it.

There is no hurry, he says. As he clambers down from the EasyBus, he notes that he is still a young man and the only succession planning he would need to do was if he “fell under a bus”.

So at the bus terminal, he looks carefully to right and left, and then greets some of his EasyBus passengers as television cameras roll.

He wishes them a good flight on EasyJet and then finds, to his embarrassment, they are flying Ryanair.

Ever the showman, he laughs uproariously.

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