Amy Reeve 4 Apr 2018 04:02pm

Making waves in Cyprus’s shipping industry

Cyprus’s newly appointed deputy minister of shipping Natasa Pilides tells Amy Reeve why she’s not scared of making waves on behalf of her island nation

Caption: Photography: Elena Paraskeva
When we first speak, at the beginning of February, Greek Cypriots have just re-elected Nicos Anastasiades for a second five-year term as their president and Natasa Pilides, director general of the not-for-profit national body Cyprus Investment Promotion Agency (CIPA), is relieved the uncertainty is over. “A lot of what we do depends on government involvement,” she explains. A week later we learn Pilides will be joining that very government, in the newly created role of deputy minister of shipping.

President Anastasiades added seven new faces to his cabinet, including three women, and Pilides says via email that the new position is “a significant development” for the maritime cluster, which she describes as one of the main pillars of the Cyprus economy. “It’s a great honour to have been selected for this role,” she adds, which she was due to start in March.

It was the Irish novelist Roddy Doyle who said: “When you grow up on an island what matters is how you stand to the sea.” Pilides, who was born on the island of Cyprus, studied modern languages and literature at the University of Oxford and worked in London and Milan for PwC before returning to Nicosia with Baker Tilly in South East Europe, passes Doyle’s acid test if what he means is trying to be outward-looking, broad-minded and open rather than insular. “Life is about pursuing opportunities, I’ve always tried to do that. I’ve done different things in life and I’m not scared of change,” she says.

She threw herself in at the deep end in 2003 when she decided to take the ACA qualification with PwC after graduating with a first-class honours degree. Although her father is a chartered accountant, and she was familiar with the profession through work experience placements at PwC in the 1990s, she’s a languages buff and had immersed herself in existential questions as a student, not economics.

“I hadn’t touched a calculator in years,” she admits. She got some ribbing from her friends for choosing accountancy as a career but hasn’t looked back since she qualified. “It was a good choice, it opened so many doors,” she reflects. “Chartered accountancy gives you strong foundations if you haven’t studied economics or business, because you get a holistic picture of how businesses work. It’s a great tool, I’m thankful I did it.”

In fact, it didn’t take her long at all to adapt to her new setting. “It was only a month or so of feeling like a stranger. In terms of the actual work I can’t say it was particularly difficult because you get all the training.” Plus, everyone is in the same boat. What differentiates the new ACAs is how they steer it. Pilides took advantage of her position as a financial services auditor (and later tax consultant) to broaden her horizons and travel, auditing some of the big Italian banks, and Barclays, in Milan.

She’s now fluent in Italian, French and English. As well as language, Pilides adapts well to new surroundings. How different were the work cultures, though? Apart from scale – there were a lot more people in UK firms compared to Cyprus, she says – Pilides found it was fairly similar in terms of the way things get done. “Because all the work we do here in Cyprus is in English, and it follows the English system – we’ve got Common Law – there are a lot of similarities in structure and the culture and mentality of the people,” she explains. Italy was a different kettle of fish: a bit more formal, a bit more hierarchical. “On a personal level it was about how many people I knew, how many friends I had. Changing groups and teams is always a challenge – it depends largely on who you are working with.”

So when she left PwC in 2012 to join professional education provider BPP training students in the areas of audit, tax, corporate law, financial accounting and reporting, it was quite a leap. She says she wanted to experience something that wasn’t so “corporate” but maintain a connection with the profession. She had also realised she was a natural at presenting. “Engaging with an audience is one of the favourite parts of my job,” she explains. “I’d been a trainer at PwC and done a lot of courses, both internal and external for clients, and roundtable discussions. I wanted to experience more of it. And I suppose teaching is the only way you can do that full time.”

She enjoyed academia, despite the responsibility she felt for the students – “it’s different from training professionals, they’ve got an exam at the end” – but missed the solidarity of the office environment so returned to accountancy (and her country of birth) in 2015 as regional chief operating officer at Baker Tilly in South East Europe (which operates in Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria and Moldova). A board position at a mid-tier firm was another leap but again, she didn’t think of it as a challenge.

“A lot of the chief operating officer role is actually similar to what an accountant does and is taught to do in the broadest sense, because it’s related to the internal accounting and finance of the group,” explains Pilides. What was unique to this particular role was setting up a single framework for the marketing, HR, operations and IT functions that would work equally well for Baker Tilly across five very different markets. “The role came out of the need rather than the other way around,” she says. “Because the firm had experienced rapid growth it had moved beyond the previous working structure. It was a new era where it had to start working like a multinational as opposed to a local firm. It was a great experience because I got to draft the framework, in collaboration with the CEO, of how things were going to be done. I worked on the five-year strategy and how we were going to implement it.”

It was a time of growth both for the firm she was working in as well as some of the countries she was responsible for (Romania is one of eastern Europe’s top performers, Greece’s recovery has been gaining traction, Bulgaria is increasingly confident and of course growth in her native Cyprus has outstripped the euro-area average). Pilides agrees there were lots of prospects and opportunities, but expansion into those markets was not without its obstacles. “It was a huge opportunity for Baker Tilly to grow market share and get more clients. There was a large gap in the mid-tier range so having a reliable, reputable firm to turn to was of growing importance, especially because of various regulatory challenges. They were fast-growing but developing and complex markets.”

That role was good preparation for her next, as director general of CIPA. It was an onerous selection process, but it gave Pilides enough time to reflect on whether she really wanted it. “It was a very long process of exams, essays and other written tests, and then interviews and mock presentations. I felt there were a lot of prospects to develop the organisation further because it was taking on new responsibilities and I thought the only way it can move is into growth. I wanted to take the risk.” She was also attracted to the slightly more altruistic direction of the agency – its mandate is to enhance the nation’s investment appeal abroad or, as Pilides sees it, “work for the benefit of Cyprus, for the benefit of economic and sustainable growth. It’s a very motivating thing to be doing.”

The government has pushed through a series of successful reforms since the financial crisis in 2013 and according to the European Commission Cyprus has been experiencing “a very strong recovery”. Quarterly GDP growth in the third quarter of last year was just as solid as in the first half of the year, it says, and the data points to healthy growth in the fourth quarter as well. “Overall, in 2017 growth is expected to have reached 3.8%, making Cyprus one of the fastest growing economies in the euro area.”

It makes CIPA’s proposition easier, although the legacy of the crisis remains to some extent in the banking sector, where there are still non-performing loans (weak asset quality remains a risk to recovery according to Fitch Ratings). “The 2013 crisis was a big blow to the economy and has been a huge hurdle,” says Pilides. “But the amazing recovery goes a long way in proving to investors that the economy is resilient. Yes it has affected the banks but all sectors, even banking, are doing well and growing. There’s not a single one that’s in recession.”

She’s particularly optimistic about education, energy, tourism and, naturally, shipping, but the game plan is to not put all the eggs in one basket. In education, for example, she points to collaboration as a way of emphasising the island’s potential: “We’ve attracted Horizon 2020 funds [the EU Research and Innovation programme with nearly €80bn of funding until 2020] for research centres in collaboration with universities like UCL and Imperial [in London], so those will help commercialise the research results produced by local universities and institutions,” explains Pilides.

In the energy sector, there’s a lot of chatter around an oil import and distribution platform in Vassiliko, an industrial area on the south side of the island that Pilides says the Dutch company VTTI has invested around €300m in. And in tourism, Cyprus continues to promote itself as not just sunny but safe: “If you look at the safety and security rankings we’re top five in the world,” she says. Hong Kong-based Melco Resorts and Entertainment likes what it sees: it has invested €600m to build Europe’s largest integrated casino resort in Limassol, which Pilides hopes will lure even more tourists than the 3.7 million who came in 2017.

And of course Cyprus is a member (since 2004) of the EU and is using its status to attract IT companies from Israel and the Middle East – “Cyprus is a good testing market within the EU” – but there’s a bigger picture. It’s about the sort of future you want to build: diverse businesses attract diverse people and a more multicultural society.

“We want to attract investments of substance, that bring growth and increase productivity; we’re not interested in rubber-stamping shell companies. Cyprus is one of the toughest AML environments – it’s better to be over-cautious than to take risks”

And balance is crucial. Like any country, the government must seek inward investment to grow its economy but not at the expense of good governance. There has been criticism about the transparency of the government’s citizenship by investment scheme, for example. I wonder how involved CIPA is with ensuring the type of money coming into Cyprus is beneficial to everyone and not a few wealthy individuals. “We do think about it, we’re not responsible for it in that we don’t have executive power,” explains Pilides. “One of the pillars in our mandate is to advocate reform and ensure there is the right business environment in Cyprus. We want to attract investments of substance, that bring growth and increase productivity; we’re not interested in rubber-stamping shell companies. I think Cyprus is one of the toughest AML environments in the EU but it’s better to be over-cautious than to take risks.”

When I spoke to the University of Cyprus rector Constantinos Christofides in 2016 I was ready to pack my bags and fly straight there; he painted such a hopeful picture of the island. Pilides is as passionate about her country as her compatriot. Of course it was her job to sell the destination, but her love for the place is genuine. “We’re not just sun and sea,” she says. “The quality of life is a major attraction. The schools, the value for money, the architecture and culture, those are some of the reasons I came back. There are a lot of intangibles that you wouldn’t know about.” We do now.