- - Monday, January 5, 2015

ATHENS, Greece — In these disastrous economic times, opening a store on tony Voukourestiou Street next to global luxury brands such as Dior and Prada is a goal many Greek fashion designers can only dream about.

But despite the crippling financial crisis that has been plaguing Greece for the past six years, 35-year-old Penny Vomva opened a storefront for her designer clothing and accessories company, RIEN, on the boutique-lined thoroughfare last month.

Ms. Vomva is delighted, but she also is concerned about the shifting fortunes of the Greek economy.

“My line of handmade leather bags costs 180 euros to 450 euros” — roughly $215 to $530, she said. “That’s a high price for a Greek woman nowadays. I would certainly be earning more if commerce hadn’t been hit by the crisis.”

The state of commerce on Voukourestiou Street is taking on a larger importance as Greek voters prepare to go to the polls Jan. 25 to elect a new government. The front-running left-center Syriza party could seek to upend the austerity measures that have balanced the state’s budget but shrunk gross domestic product by a quarter since 2008 and driven the unemployment rate to around 25 percent.

Ms. Vomva is among a wave of Greek entrepreneurs pushing against the odds that the next government — any government — will lead the country out of a seemingly endless depression.

Ms. Vomva designed her first clothing line as the eurozone crisis erupted in 2008, showcasing her wares to friends in a hotel suite. Today, she has two stores — in Athens and the tourist island of Mykonos. Like many other new Greek business owners, she is focusing on exports to mainly Switzerland and Saudi Arabia, selling through an online shopping site and keeping costs low. She has two employees, so she covers most of the work herself. Sales are up, however, so she is optimistic.

“It is really difficult to work in this crisis,” she said. “If I hadn’t studied business administration before getting in the fashion industry, I wouldn’t have made it.”

The carnage in Greek’s commercial sector has been devastating. According to the Hellenic Confederation of Commerce and Entrepreneurship, more than 575,000 small and medium-sized companies have shut down from 2008 to 2013, while only 265,000 businesses have opened.

Hurdles facing new businesses are high, and Miltiadis Gkouzouris, a mentor at the Athens startup incubator Orange Grove, said entrepreneurship in Greece is not for the fainthearted. Red tape, high taxes, fast-changing regulations and constrained capital markets make starting a business in Greece difficult.

Conditions for bank loan approvals are stricter than ever,” said Mr. Gkouzouris. “The majority of entrepreneurs struggle daily with the unstable political scene. Predicting future developments is a key to success and, so far, making predictions about the Greek market is impossible, especially in the short term.”

This is why some are not limiting themselves to the Greek market.

Before he started Tuvunu, New York-born Demetri Chriss worked a variety of jobs, including driving a limo, managing a car dealership and editing a PricewaterhouseCoopers publication in Prague.

With the help of chemists and food technologists over the course of a year, Mr. Chriss perfected his canned Greek mountain tea made out of tea extract, lemon juice and raw brown sugar.

He had spent two years with partner Dimitris Politopoulos, owner of Greece’s first microbrewery, where they planned to produce their mountain tea. They successfully fought to repeal a law dating from the early 1900s that forbade breweries from producing anything other than beer.

Today, Tuvunu exports canned tea to Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. For Mr. Chriss, his success is a national victory, not just a personal success.

“I dreamed of an international brand name that would be identified with Greece,” he said.

Mr. Gkouzouris said the key to success for entrepreneurs is the ability to adapt to the chaos, and that this is now happening.

“The crisis has sparked the inventiveness of entrepreneurs and has a positive influence in the quality of the offered services and products,” he said.

After visiting an exhibition on 3-D printers in Germany, Stathis Panitsidis, along with his brother, Konstantinos, decided to set up a 3-D printing business that would have among the biggest high-tech printing operations in the country.

“The idea that I would get a small factory thrilled me,” Mr. Panitsidis said.

The two brothers studied civil engineering, but they never worked as builders because the construction industry collapsed from the economic crisis. After their launch two years ago, a dental surgeon gave them their big break. They printed a patient’s lower jaw in three dimensions using medical scans and printed 3-D guides that helped the doctor set dental implants more precisely and faster than usual.

These days, they are getting orders from other industries for their 3-D prototypes.

The year 2013 “wasn’t the most ideal time to start a business from scratch in Greece,” Konstantinos Panitsidis acknowledged. “Now, after a year of almost experimental operation, it seems like we’re on the threshold of being sustainable.”

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide