Life lessons, 3: How much does your name cost?
– “For the others, Easter had finished, but for us, the route to Golgotha was just about to start… On Tuesday evening I was back… we gathered in the kitchen for dinner… your grandmother had prepared everyone’s favorite food and a carefully ironed white tablecloth was over the table… we sat down without talking to each other. We started eating, your grandfather was sweating as usual… after each bite; we were raising our heads and looking into the others’ eyes… my mother came back and asked if everything was ok, or if we needed something more… my father did not look at her but replied, with a question: “Yes. Please tell us, how much does our name cost?”
– “You are here for Romania?”
– “Yes, you can see the flag” I pointed with my hand the Romanian flag in our stand.
– “Nice, I am interested to invest in your country”
– “I am a Greek doing business in Romania since 2004. We believe a lot in its potential”
– “I am Greek as well” (we switched to Greek and exchanged business cards…)
– “Your name… Ilias Papageorgiadis… sounds familiar to me… where do you come from?”
– “Katerini, sir. The city close to Olympus mountain, next to Dion, Alexander the Great’s sacred city…”
– “… what is your relation with Ilias Papageorgiadis, the meat trader?”
– “…he was my grandfather”
I was in Cannes for MIPIM, the no.1 Real Estate fair of the world and my company was exhibitor, promoting Romania. My brother, Grigoris, has just left from the stand, he was not there to see the 50 – 55 years old man collapsing and crying… We offered him a seat and took us quite some time to help him relax and regain his power. After a sentimental discussion of about 20 minutes, we agreed that we will collaborate for his investments in Romania. Before he left our stand, I felt him grabbing my arm: “My boy, your name is the most expensive asset you can have. Do your best so as not to lose it”. He had tears in his eyes…
Some months before our father Panayotis died, he managed to resolve a major business problem (which by itself is a different life lesson). A few evenings after all was concluded, we were talking with our father, my 2 brothers and I. We were discussing about various issues, when he insisted about the value of something not material, our name. The discussion quickly changed path and we asked him to tell us more about a decision that changed his life forever. This is why he had to go back in time…
“Nowadays, we are living in cozy, spacious houses and we, the Greeks, enjoy a high level of living. Back in the 50s… it was a different country. Since the devaluation of the drachma, in 1953, the economy had started to recover but, for the majority of the families, the first problem was to find food on daily basis. So many people were living in conditions of extreme poverty. Hundreds of thousands were migrating, others were living on humanitarian aid. Each drachma was precious. In 1958, things got a bit better, you could see the progress. Everyone’s dream was to buy meat, it was important for their health, as doctors said… Less than 10 years back, our country was burned in a civil war that followed a terrible second world war. Things in Athens were “acceptable”. In Katerini, life was decent, but the villages of our county were not having electricity.
I cannot complain. We were working 18 hours a day, but we were among the wealthy. What you see now as a land with ruins, each time you pass by, used to be our house. We were living close to today’s Court, where it was, between 1941 – 1944, the headquarters of the German administration in the city. We had our butcher’s shop in the city’s market. We were also collecting lambs from the county and all Central Macedonia and sold them to Athens’ meat market, wholesale. You see, meat business is not a very profitable one, but it provides cash flow. It is not by coincidence that the majority of Greek Real Estate developers used to be meat traders or butchers.
Things were good for our family, actually I could say that they were blooming. Since 1953, we had years of success and we had reinvested all the profits back into the business. In 1958, we had our first own trucks to transport meat. Your grandfather, Ilias, did not want a car though. He was riding his horse and traveling from one village to the next, securing lambs and meat for us to sell. His word was his contract. At that time, there were no papers: all you had was your word. And your name…”
“My father, your uncle, myself… all of us were anxiously waiting for the Easter of 1958. I was 28 and I was feeling that we were ready to change level. We had invested in trucks with refrigerator so as to deliver meat to Athens, you saw one of them during the 80s, before we gave it for scrap. So we reserved all available quantities of lambs… anything we could find… rented extra trucks as well, from Thessaloniki. The clients were waiting, everything was planned to its last detail.
We sent the cars to Athens on Great Wednesday and Great Thursday. At that time, the national road was not yet built, telephones were a sign of aristocracy… we were waiting for a sign: to hear by our clients that the trucks had arrived, that they offloaded to their warehouses and that everything was ok. But it was not meant to be this way… we had no sign by any of the drivers… nor did they arrive to Athens… On Great Friday, we finally got a call by one of them, who found a telephone in the police station of a village and begged the policeman to allow him a call. We took a car and left to find them… each of the cars had stopped in a different area, all of them with engine problems. Later on, we found out that someone sabotaged us with a substance, probably sugar… We tried to deal with the problem, but it was impossible… I ended up in Athens on Great Saturday evening… almost begging to sell “lamb meat without bones for 11 drachmas / kilo”… lambs bought for 40 drachmas / kilo, with bones. I informed back home… the damage was colossal… thousands of lambs… our clients refused to pay…
For the others, Easter had finished, but for us, the route to Golgotha was just about to start… On Tuesday evening I was back… we gathered in the kitchen for dinner… your grandmother had prepared everyone’s favorite food and a carefully ironed white tablecloth was over the table… we sat down without talking to each other. We started eating, your grandfather was sweating as usual… after each bite; we were raising our heads and looking to the others’ eyes… my mother came back and asked if everything was ok, or if we needed something more… my father did not look at her but replied with a question: “Yes. Please tell us, how much does our name cost?
My mother froze.
– “What do you mean?”
– “My wife, how much does our name cost?” my father repeated the question.
– “You always say that it is priceless”.
Your grandfather did not reply. He continued eating. He went through 2 world wars and a migration from Turkey to Greece, when he lost all his money and came to our mother’s land just with the clothes he was wearing. He was 67 and still too proud to look for excuses…
That was probably the longest dinner I have had in my life. After we finished eating, we took a paper and a pencil and started the calculations. At that time, there were no insurance policies to cover the risks… The lambs were unsold, probably we could recover just a tiny part of their value. On the other hand, more than 150 villagers had trusted us and they were waiting for their money… they knew that they gave their lambs to “Papageorgiadis, who will pay you, no matter what. They never tricked someone”. We did not have the money… we could only hope for a loan… but who would give us such an amount?
The sun had risen and we were still talking. We analyzed every possible option, tried to squeeze our mind and think. In the end, the decision was taken:
“Better to call us stupid than thieves. We will find a way to the pay the people”.
It was not easy to assume such a decision. We used all our money so as to pay some advance payments to the villagers. We explained the situation… not everyone wanted to understand, but this was the reality. Soon, all our county and other areas of the region were discussing that “Papageorgiadis’ family has been sabotaged and now they struggle to pay the money to the people”. 3 – 4 persons got upset with us, behaved ugly. It did not matter. Our father and we had a common approach: We didn’t hide, we replied to everyone, we searched for solutions. We kept our heads up.
Soon, we went to the banks and asked for a loan. In the 50s… to call them “banks” is a compliment. Small institutions with people unable to decide… this was the case in small cities like Katerini. We had to go to Thessaloniki, our request was one of the biggest in the region, while there were no contracts to prove that we owed to the villagers. But even in regional headquarters, the directors were informed about our name…
10 months later, we finally got the approval and received the money of the loan, one of the biggest loans in Central Macedonia that year, placing mortgages on everything we had. The money arrived in a special truck, we had restrictions to withdraw only specific amounts each day. In about a month we had paid everyone, to the last drachma. Less than half of the villagers thanked us for paying them. They forgot that they had lost money from many others and they simply said something like “you are late, but I accept”. But we didn’t care. Very soon everyone knew that “Papageorgiadis’ family risk their existence so as to keep their word”.
1959 – 1988
I think that we have paid this loan about 20 times its nominal value. Even when we were close to finish with the installments, in 1974, the fall of the military regime and the preparations for a war against Turkey blew up the economy and interest rates skyrocketed to 42%. After 1980, I also became careless with the payments, I had too much in my head. Between you and me, it was your mother who entered in our business in 1986, organized my chaos and made sure we were paying on time. 7 years before, in 1988, she went to the bank and paid the last instalment. You know… when she asked me about it and I explained, she never commented, complained or accused me for making this choice”.
– “Father, you took the loan when you were 29 and paid it back at your 58. We invested one generation and gave them 20 times the money…”
– “Yes and I would do it again so as to keep our name unspoiled. This is why we survived in business for decades, this is why you say who you are and you see the smile on people’s faces and you are respected”.
– “So you did it for the others?”
– “We did it for ourselves first, and then for all the rest. We did it for our name and for our self-respect”.
– “Mr. Grigoris, we had someone crying here. Mr. Ilias is very cruel sometimes” our colleague was teasing my brother when he got back from his meeting with an investor.
– “Who was he, Ilia? What did you do to him?”, Grigoris entered in the role game…
I took him aside…
– “Do you remember the loan of 1959?”
– “How could I ever forget it?”
– “Well, this gentleman was born in a village close to Katerini. His family sold lambs to our family, we paid them with that loan and they used the money so as to migrate to Germany. His parents told him about what our family has done and explained to him that their life had changed due to the fact that we paid them then…”
– “… so… 49 years later… this man felt the need to thank me for 1959 and told me a lot about our grandfather and our father”.
People can be rich, people can be poor. Sometimes they can also change status, “life is a wheel” after all. But your name is always a basis so as to build your future. And you don’t need to search for “life changing moments” so as to prove your values. Start with the decisions you take on simple issues. The value of your name and your principles will be visible anyway…