Home Money It’s Stelios versus the easybrand bandits! Budget airline tycoon fighting to protect his legacy

It’s Stelios versus the easybrand bandits! Budget airline tycoon fighting to protect his legacy

by Elijah
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Sitting pretty: Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou

Sitting pretty: Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou

Sitting pretty: Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou

After three decades in a whirlwind of activity, you’d think easyJet founder Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou might want to get up. Without a doubt, the tycoon is in the right place: his house on the French Caribbean island of Saint Barthélemy.

Instead of enjoying fine dining, pristine beaches and luxury boutiques, Haji-Ioannou’s mind is on defending his empire.

It’s waging war on “brand thieves”: companies, individuals, and even boy bands who use the “easy” brand without permission.

easyGroup spends between £3m and £4m a year on legal action against those who infringe its name.

Haji-Ioannou, 57, says it’s “to prevent consumers from getting confused,” adding: “Stealing the brand is profitable and that’s why they do it.”

He has amassed a fortune worth around £865m from the low-cost airline and other companies under his Easy umbrella. They include hotels, car rentals, cruises, driving schools and even pizza delivery.

“Sometimes we make deals with former brand thieves,” Haji-Ioannou admits, insisting that many see “huge benefits” from joining the business empire.

One such group is easyCleaning, a manufacturer and online seller of cleaning products, such as bleach and washing powder, which joined its empire in 2020.

‘Instead of fighting us, they decided it was best to join easyGroup. So we reached an agreement and their income has now increased by 30 to 40 percent,” says Haji-Ioannou.

Another dispute was with travel comparison website easyVoyage, owned by French media company Webedia, which signed a partnership with easyGroup in 2021.

“I think it’s a backhanded compliment to the brand I’ve built over the last 30 years that so many people are trying to take advantage of it,” Haji-Ioannou adds.

For now, its focus is on a dispute with easyfundraising, a UK website, backed by a private equity firm, that aims to raise money for what it says are good causes. When a customer uses the site to shop, its partner brands donate a small percentage of what they spend to a charity of the shopper’s choice.

Haji-Ioannou considers him another brand thief. The company’s boss, James Moir, has accused the tycoon of “bullying” the company by suing him in a bitter fight that has continued for more than two years.

The accusation that Haji-Ioannou is targeting only small businesses that do not have the resources to defend themselves is something he denies.

“It’s false to say we only pick on small businesses,” he says, pointing out that easyGroup is currently fighting German car giant Volkswagen and airline trade association the International Air Transport Association. “Sometimes we face companies that are far larger than our size,” says Haji-Ioannou. ‘I have been suing companies for almost 15 years and until recently everyone, including the media, was indifferent.

‘I don’t think we’re alone in this either. Virgin has a budget for brand protection and so does Apple. And they have also named their companies with common words.’

But sometimes the fight has extended beyond the business sphere. Leicester-based boy band Easy Life have changed their name after Haji-Ioannou threatened legal action over their t-shirt and poster designs.

Haji-Ioannou maintains that the “brand theft” is an attack on the “billions of pounds of investment” dedicated to marketing his empire, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.

Born into privilege as the son of shipping magnate Loucas Haji-Ioannou, he could have led a comfortable life without trying very hard.

The Greek Cypriot businessman, who studied at the London School of Economics and Bayes Business School at City University, London, initially worked for his father’s company, Troodos Shipping Co. But then received a dramatic head start when his father gave him £ 30 million. , which he used to establish Stelmar Shipping.

“The best time to start a business is when I did it, when I was 27, because you know enough to run a company, but not enough to know how much risk you are taking,” he jokes.

“And if you can get someone to fund your dreams, whether it’s a rich dad or a private equity firm, all the better.”

In the mid-1990s he noted that strict regulations on European airlines were being relaxed. He believed – and rightly so, as it turned out – that this was opening the door to low-cost airlines, which were already popular in the United States.

Shortly after this idea, the first orange-liveried easyJet flight took off from Luton to Glasgow.

Almost 30 years have passed and easyJet is a member of the elite FTSE 100 stock market index.

The airline made record profits last summer. Haji-Ioannou and his family remain the company’s largest shareholders with a stake of almost 15.3 percent, although it was previously much larger.

There haven’t always been blue skies. Haji-Ioannou admits he thought easyJet might have “gone bankrupt” during the pandemic.

1710025344 894 Its Stelios versus the easybrand bandits Budget airline tycoon fighting

1710025344 894 Its Stelios versus the easybrand bandits Budget airline tycoon fighting

He praises the company’s management for helping it “recover from that situation.”

It is a change of tone for Haji-Ioannou, who has had a sometimes turbulent relationship with easyJet management.

There was a huge war of words in 2020, sparked by management’s decision to proceed with a large aircraft order despite current travel restrictions.

Haji-Ioannou called the bosses “scoundrels.” The dispute escalated to threats of legal action and he attempted to oust half the board.

It was not the first time that the tycoon clashed with the management of easyJet.

In 2012 he accused the company’s board of directors of holding votes at annual general meetings “like one of Putin’s elections in Russia.”

That broadside came after he tried, unsuccessfully, to overthrow the then president, the city grandee, Sir Mike Rake.

Two years later, he struck out again, criticizing the company’s former chief executive Carolyn McCall over her £6.5m salary.

Tensions appear to have cooled in recent years. Haji-Ioannou now says that, like any company, easyJet “has its ups and downs”.

Despite his new conciliatory stance, he admits that easyJet’s stock market value is much lower than he would like.

Last month he told The Mail on that bosses should consider listing the company’s shares in New York and London to attract more US investors.

“I often look at Ryanair’s value and wonder why it is higher than easyJet,” says Haji-Ioannou. Ryanair, which is listed in Ireland and the United States, has a stock market value of £20bn, compared to easyJet’s £4bn.

However, there is no guarantee that easyJet would see its value soar if it flew to Wall Street.

While he can be fierce in defending his business interests, Haji-Ioannou is also a major charitable donor.

He has signed up for The Giving Pledge, where some of the world’s richest people pledge to donate the majority of their wealth to charity. Among the signatories are former Microsoft boss Bill Gates and investment guru Warren Buffett.

His charitable work, he says, will be the “second sentence of my obituary.”

He adds: “I will always be the founder of easyJet, but now I am working to contribute to society.”

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