Xenia Taliotis 6 Sep 2018 03:53pm

Balancing simple steps and big goals

Dinos Savvides believes that life is a work in progress and learning is the key to The CFO of Petrolina tells Xenia Taliotis why challenges are best met one step at a time happiness

Caption: Photography: Elena Paraskeva

You’re Cypriot, you must know the form,” says Dinos Savvides, CFO of Petrolina (Holdings) Public and winner of 2018’s Cyprus CFO of the Year award. “I was either going to be an accountant or an actuary – that was my parents’ plan for me – and I stuck to it by following my brother into accountancy.”

For such a tiny island, Cyprus has a disproportionately high number of accountants, which makes the fact that he has held one of the country’s top jobs since 2003 all the more impressive. “It’s good to know there is strong competition for my job,” he says. “Competition galvanises me – not because I always want to be the best, but because I want to continue doing my best. Once you’ve been in a job for a long time, it’s easy to think that what you’ve always done is good enough.

Once your thinking reaches that stage it’s time for you to step down.” Born in Nicosia, Savvides won a full scholarship to study accounting and actuarial science at the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, before joining KPMG’s London office to do his training. He valued it so highly he didn’t miss a single day’s work. “I treated each day as if it were my last chance to acquire knowledge. My time with KPMG coincided with the financial recession of the early 1990s, and this was another spur to learn fast. I still use the same keys to success – strict discipline, good planning, an appetite to learn, an effective combination of work and study, and a good sense of humour.”

He would have liked to have stayed longer in the UK, but was obliged to return home under the terms of the Cyprus-American Scholarship Program (CASP) that funded his studies. “CASP has been a means of helping Cyprus by educating its people in world-class universities and then bringing them and their skills back to the country, so I always knew I’d have to return. And really I was glad to. This is where my roots are.”

When he returned to Cyprus he did so with a different philosophy. “The Cypriot attitude to work has historically been to seek a job for life,” he says. “That’s how I was conditioned to think. But then I experienced how the British approached their careers, and realised that the path ahead doesn’t have to be linear. You can jump companies, jump sectors and still be heading up. The important thing is always to be in a competitive environment, surrounded by people who know more than me so that I can push myself. That’s one of my bedrocks, the other being always, always to act with integrity and to adhere to the highest of ethical standards – both in business and in my personal life.”

His first job back home was as assistant chief accountant at a bank. He stayed for eight years, but ultimately found the structure too staid. So he decided to qualify as a licensed stockbroker.
He says he liked the volatility and the always-on-red-alert pace but was ready to leave when Petrolina, which has about one third market share of the island’s petroleum retail industry and owns the largest petrol stations network, asked him to join as CFO two years later.

“I joined just after Petrolina went from being a family-owned and run company to public ownership listed on the Cyprus Stock Exchange, so my first job was to disentangle its various activities. This involved a total change in culture and procedures. The only way to manage the upheaval was to deconstruct it into key components. Simplicity is the route to happiness, to efficiency, to all… Whatever the task or goal, if you break it down into small, attainable parts you will be half way there. This is a skill and an art that many never master.”

Soon after he became CFO, Cyprus joined the EU and the local petroleum market was liberalised. He played a big part in easing the transition to a free market, but even this was a walk in the park compared to the work he had to put in during Cyprus’s financial crash in 2013 when banks closed, freezing all accounts and credit card payments. Savvides managed to get Petrolina through the crisis unscathed, but it was a big challenge. “I had to handle and safeguard all cash payments made at our petrol stations network, and to pay the refineries overseas through closed banks in order to secure the supply of petroleum to the island. It was tactically difficult to do, and again I couldn’t have handled it as a whole.”

Given that he’s been with Petrolina for 15 years, is he likely to look for new pastures any time soon? “Our lives are a work in progress. I’m very fulfilled by my job at present, but the future could hold all sorts of other possibilities. I’ve just done a cookery course at a university in Nicosia, so you might find me running a Cypriot-style tavern in Tuscany or on one of the Greek islands. Right now I spend one day of my weekend with the sculptor, artist, cartoonist and publisher George Mavrogenis. He is 90 now and each week I film my chat with him. I feel I have so much to learn from him. To paraphrase another of my heroes, the poet Konstantinos Kavafis, if my journey is long, full of adventures and knowledge, then I will die a happy man.”

The account

I like being an ACA because... It helps me stay competitive.

I’m happiest… Enjoying small pleasures.

My favourite book is… Edith Hall’s Introducing the Ancient Greeks.

The hardest lesson to learn has been… To have a balanced life. However, once achieved, it is easy to maintain.

I’d like to be remembered as…
A good person with a good sense of humour who treated everyone fairly.

Love of my life is… My wife, who is an artist, and my two children.

My worst habit is… When I keep arguing long after I should stop. Even when I’m talking nonsense, I just keep going.