Long before the 2004 Olympics come to town, the entrepreneurial potential in Greece is shining brighter than a gold medal. It's easy to understand why--the cradle of former civilizations is dashing toward the new millennium at a record-setting pace.
Quickening the strides are a number of factors. Among them: Greece has inflation under control, at 3.5 percent, for the first time in two decades; it's lining up to join the European Monetary Union in two years and the Athens Stock Exchange performed as well as others in the world last year. Another catalyst is the Hellenic Center for Investment (ELKE), a European Union and Greek government-funded nonprofit organization designed to help bring in new business to serve the nation's 10.6 million residents and the rest of the Mediterranean and North African regions. Empowered to promote applications for government grants and counsel potential investors, ELKE is winning kudos for greasing its country's entrepreneurial wheels.
"ELKE was very cooperative and played a critical role in [our efforts to] bring a big project to Greece," says Richard Lewis, president and part-owner of Lewis Mechanical & Metalworks Inc. in Pocatello, Idaho.
In his case, that meant obtaining a grant of "quite a few million dollars" to open a $25 million specialty-plastic producing plant in Komotini, Greece, with co-owner Polyform Manufacturing and partner Science International, a Mobile, Alabama, specialty chemicals manufacturer. Construction should be finished by September.
"Greece offered us the most flexibility with the least amount of strings," says Lewis, 45, for whom ELKE helped win the grant from the Ministry of National Economy.
Hot opportunities, though, aren't limited to manufacturing. "Many sectors offer promise for investors," says Raymond Matera, editor of the American-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce's Greek-American Trade. "While many of these areas require huge investments by large corporations, there are always parallel and subsidiary areas where smaller companies can play vital and profitable roles."
According to Matera and ELKE officials, some of these direct and indirect opportunities include:
- Tourism. ELKE reports that Greece ranks in the Top 20 destinations of the global tourism market, with more than 11 million visitors annually.
"The best opportunities for smaller hotels are those that work in a niche market," says Matera. "Greek hotel companies could use American partners in specialty areas such as health spas, conference development, sports tourism and the like."
- Aquaculture. Fish farming is booming, with 19 percent of Greece's total land area providing an abundance of locations for it. Greek seafood, of course, is already well-positioned in European and Mediterranean markets.
- Food processing and packaging equipment. "Greece produces an abundance of fruit and vegetable products," Matera says. "Fast-food restaurants are proliferating. We could also use more ethnic foods."
- Information and telecommunications. This is the fastest-growing industry in the country, leaping 15.3 percent from 1996 to 1997, a figure almost twice the European Union's average.
- Building products and medical supplies. "At a recent delegation of U.S. representatives in Athens," Matera says, "the representatives said most inquiries from Greek visitors were for building materials and medical equipment and supplies."
- Golf courses. Ten million people, four golf courses--you do the math.
And don't forget to figure in the potential for incentives the government offers on many projects: a cash grant of 40 percent of the project's cost, a 40 percent loan interest subsidy and a 40 percent leasing subsidy. You can also choose Curtain No. 2 and take a tax allowance of 100 percent and a loan interest subsidy of 40 percent.
Christopher D. Lancette is an Atlanta-based freelance journalist who covers international business for a variety of local, national and international publications.