From Goldman Sachs to debt-stricken Greece and from mistakes to success

By Endeavor Greece Mar 18, 2021

The Story of the two Cypriot founders of Hellas Direct.

Two Cypriots having careers in Britain and in the USA left their positions in Goldman Sachs to found their own company in 2011. And for this decisive step they chose Greece at the peak of its debt crisis. It sounds daring, and by no means self-evident. However, Emilios Markou and Alexis Pantazis having no bias towards the country saw a remarkable opportunity. “We spotted a gap in the Greek market and decided to take the next step,” they both explain when talking at the Outliers, Endeavor Greece’s podcast series, whose media partner is MoneyReview. This market gap regarded the insurance industry and the company they founded is Hellas Direct, a leading online insurance company in Greece, which is among the ten top insurance companies in our country, accommodating at the moment 250,000 clients. They are currently aiming to enter the Top 5.  

Let’s start from scratch. The two founders met each other at the Goldman Sachs’ café, became friends, and started sharing their views and future plans. At some point, they realized that they had reached a point in their lives that they wanted to start their own business from scratch. Alexis had absolutely no connection with the insurance sector. However, Emilios persuaded him that it was a “sexy industry.”

Making their dream come true was not an easy task. They were trying to enter a regulated industry having capital requirements from the beginning and they had to persuade investors to support them. Nonetheless, they were fully aware of the difficulties. The greatest challenge was to find serious investors at a time period when the press worldwide constantly lashed out at Greece’s debt crisis. 

In the beginning, they were quite naive, as they themselves confess. In view of their powerful résumés, they were under the impression that they would convince 5 shipowners to provide them with the necessary funds. In the end, they had to send 2,500 emails and have 300 meetings in person in order to come up with 11 investors. Once they had acquired their licence and had built their clientele, it was easier to attract institutional investors. They managed to raise a total of €40m, including funding from the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).  

However, all this was preceded by a very important decision; to launch their products based on their own code, to build their own system by establishing their own tech team. Since neither of them had a technological background, their first reaction was to use something that was already there. They looked into numerous systems, before narrowing their choice down to three; an American, a British and an Israeli one. They soon realized that all systems were significanlty outdated, as they used to serve the needs of companies were founded at the end of the 1990s. They were in need of something new. And they wanted to launch something fresh.  

As many people in Greece could not afford to pay for theic car insurance the whole year, they offered the opportunity of having your car insured for short periods of time.  On top of that, they provided their own auto repair shops. Their objective was to offer a stronger product with the best auto service possible at the best reasonable price. 

Along the way, there have been several mistakes and misjudgements. However, they learnt from theim mistakes and adjusted their strategy accordingly. As they say, “we often fail, but we learn fast.”

The competent manpower played an important role in the development of the company. To date, the company employs 200 people both in Greece and in Cyprus. When recruiting, Hellas Direct looks specifically for three traits:

a. being clever b. being passionate c. being optimistic that if ones tries, they can change the world.

They targeted the British market, as a lot of people have studied at the british universities, and Hellas Direct was one of the first companies that put into practice the brain gain. 

What are their next steps? They would like to expand the range of their activities. They have already acquired a road safety company in Cyprus and they are looking into doing something similar in Greece. They are also looking beyond the borders of Cyprus and Greece. In any case, they are aware that it is no use expanding in markets, such as Germany, Spain or Italy. They might be big, but the competition is fierce. Their plans involve the markets of the Balkans and the Middle East. 

How do they plan to succeed? By untiring perseverance. This is what turns a businessman into an outlier. “To fall and to get back on your feet with a smile.”