We profiled Stratis Camatsos (read the full profile piece here), a US-trained lawyer who decided to return to the island of his father’s birth to start producing some of the world’s finest olive oil. Camatsos gave up his life in the United States to return to rural Greece. We caught up with him in between daily duties of running a small business in Greece.
1) Do you regret leaving the United States to return to Greece?
I don’t live with regret in my life. Once you make a choice, you should stick to it and never look back. It just becomes another chapter in your life faced with different challenges. Of course there are certain things that I miss from the US as it is a part of me having been born and raised there, but there are things that Greece offers that the US does not have and it is the perfect place to be as a young entrepreneur in the olive oil business, as there are many opportunities that Greece offers, but which can be best harvested by similar minded business men as myself, who also have an international background and experience.
2) What’s the toughest challenge to starting and operating your business in Greece?
To have enough patience…
I think that the toughest challenge to start a business in Greece is the lengthy time it takes to actually set it up due to the various bureaucratic/public sector/government obstacles placed on the procedure. In addition, the initial start up costs are very high. It’s like wanting to run with bricks tied to your ankles.
As for operating my business, the biggest obstacles are due to the slower pace of life, which affects the pace of business as making decisions take a while, finding the right person to talk to is always a feat on its own, and meetings are drawn out. Generally, lot of patience is required.
3) What kind of partnerships/collaborations are you looking for in the United States, Canada and elsewhere in the world?
I still believe that if a business or person cannot find a way to collaborate with others to achieve their goal, then they will fall short somewhere along their path to realization. Thus, when I set out to export first our organic olive oil and now our other products, I knew that to enter each market as an SME, I would need to be smart and find partners with local know-how and to have a presence on the ground. Therefore, my first step was to find trustworthy people and companies who would represent and sell our olive oil and products to customers effectively and efficiently. The second stage of my collaborations is to now find partners to innovate either newer products and/or ideas either in the food sector or beyond. For example, a small team of mine is looking into the marketing aspect of smaller producers and companies to enhance in-store user experience through the use of augmented reality.
4) How many trees have you planted in Ethiopia so far? Why did you choose deforestation in Ethiopia for your social enterprise?
It is not only in Ethiopia where we plant our trees. Our partner, Eden Reforestation, has been planting sites in Ethiopia, Madagascar and recently started work in Haiti. So far, in 1,5 years, we have planted just a little over 4,000 trees in all planting sites.
Firstly, the reason why I chose to address deforestation is because we wanted our cycle to begin with trees (the olive tree) and end with trees – a complete cycle of life. Deforestation itself is also one of the leading contributors to climate change, soil degradation leading to poverty and migration, and loss of vital ecosystems.
The reason I chose to partner up with Eden is because they not only focus on planting trees, but they go beyond solving all the issues involved in deforestation through a trickle down effect. They employ impoverished locals in the countries where they work, giving them a vital source of income. This in turn allows these workers to provide for their family, not resorting to making their children work or even worse, selling their children into a life of servitude. They have also seen that now, villages are starting to build schools allowing the children to become educated. And finally, these people are becoming their own protectors of the forests allowing soil to become fertile for farming again and rebuilding the ecosystem.
5) Any advice for diaspora Greeks desiring to return to Greece to pursue their dreams, start a business?
There are certain things that the diaspora Greeks need to be prepared for if they choose to come back to Greece to start a business. First, forget everything they are used to in their respective countries about how to set up a business and how to run one. Greece has its own set of rules and bureaucratic obstacles that one would have to learn and adapt to that cannot be compared to what we are used to. Second, although collaboration has become a buzzword lately, you will find that most people don’t want to collaborate with you as they want to get ahead of you no matter what – thus, you will be on your own to try to make it, at least in Greece. Lastly, be as lean as possible in your startup mentality as people In Greece offering fringe services will try to sell you these services at a premium taking a big bite out of your capital funds, no matter how small you are. Set your boundaries early and stick to your strategy.
However, saying all that, due to the economic crisis, there are many opportunities here for one to pursue, but you just have to be very resourceful and smart about how you maneuver your way around things because be sure about it, the mentality here that either I get ahead or no one does still prevails.
6) What’s the best thing about living in Greece?
The best things about living in Greece are the strong sense of family which gives you a solid support foundation, and living closer to nature, which also makes buying fresh produce from small farmers easy.
7) What’s the worst thing about living in Greece?
I think that it is the selfish mentality that is really the most discouraging thing that I face everyday here in Greece. Or to put it another way, the lack of acting for the common good or community. The best way to describe this is that the tragedy of the commons is very prominent here.
8) What’s one thing you miss most from the United States?
I probably miss the most the way things seem to work in a more comfortable and orderly fashion, and how creativity has always been encouraged and nurtured.
9) Why doesn’t Greek olive oil have the appeal and market share it deserves in the United States? It is certainly far superior in quality than other olive oils, isn’t it?
Since I started my business, I have been asked this question many times. Yes, it is a fact that Greece does produce, on average, a higher quality olive oil than the rest of the producing countries due to the fact that percentage wise, most of Greece’s production is focused extracting extra virgin quality (the highest quality grade) and more recently now, even this production, most of it is organic. However, the problems are many as to why Greek olive oil doesn’t have the market share in the US as it deserves.
First, Greek producers bottling superior quality olive oil have entered the game late. For many years, a practice which still continues, albeit on a smaller scale, Greece would sell their olive oil in bulk to the Italians, happy to get the quick sale. Today, Greece is still selling 80% of their olive oil in bulk to various players and only 10% of it is bottled and exported with private labels. So, this is a major problem.
However, we should be able to be selling our bulk olive oil (and consequently our bottled olive oil) higher in price due to its higher quality, due to the lack of organization from the Greek state and major producers, Greek olive oil prices are being hit and are staying low. For example, there is no national certification program to certify our bulk sales to foreigners thereby controlling what is being sold and setting fairer prices based on market demand of the product that is being sold. Tunisia has done this this year and not only have they quadrupled their production, but have now overtaken Greek olive oil prices.
Also, there is a lack of interest from the Greek state to advertise and “export” the qualities of our superior products, such as olive oil. There has to be a concerted effort by all parties, including the State, to advertise Greek products and why they are superior, to create a branding identity. Advertisement is done piecemeal and on an individual level, from the producers themselves to regions. However, to play ambassador to Greece through your product is hard enough when you have to also play ambassador to your brand as well.
However, the light at the end of the tunnel for Greek olive oil is through the smaller producers, who are becoming more knowledgeable about production and harvesting a better quality olive oil to compete in international competitions, winning awards and fighting for a spot on the retailer shelves all in the name for Greece and their brand.
10) How has the economic crisis affected your business, and other businesses in Greece?
The crisis had both positive and negative effects on my business.
First of all, it is partly because of the crisis, due to the lack of opportunities in my professional field (I am a US/UK trained lawyer by trade), that I was extra motivated to go ahead with my dream of start my own socio-economic enterprise.
I do believe that the economic crisis had this positive effect for many, it created an entrepreneurial spirit and a collective creativity of necessity, which made many business think out of the box.
Of course, at the same time it had negative effects as well, which were the most felt by my own business durin gthe past weeks. In particular, especially recently when the capital controls were introduced, interest in ordering and established customers who have ordered, were hesitant in placing any orders as they feared of establishing a business relation or continuing one with a Greek producer/company due to the uncertainty that lied ahead. They didn’t know if I, or other businesses, could comply and fulfill and long term contract.
Also, it is very hard now to have a cash flow to pay customers and suppliers as there are restrictions on this as well, especially if you want to do business abroad.