by Andy Dabilis, National Herald Editor
When Christos Papoutsy was starting a business four decades ago in southern New Hampshire with his partners, his foresight to buy a patent from a giant engineering firm and use his technical skills and acumen to create a revolutionary soldering machine soon created a company that reached $200 million in sales and 2,000 employees. He did it the Ancient Greek Way, with hard work, drive and a word that has disappeared from the vocabulary of too many businesses in the United States and Greece: ethics. “We never had a loss, no one ever sued us. We never sued anyone. We were running an ethical business. I wanted to be respected by everyone, so I made sure I didn’t do anything crooked,” he said. They are words you won’t hear from many business executives or politicians in Greece, and too modest because Papoutsy’s whole life has been based on being an honest man and passing on those benefits, now with the Christos and Mary Papoutsy Charitable Foundation which does ceaseless work to promote Hellenism and foster decency, including his $1 million endowment a decade ago predating the last decade of scandals for a chair in business ethics at one of his alma maters, the University of Southern New Hampshire, where he studied business at night while building his company. But he didn’t stop there.
He also holds a degree in psychology from Harvard, and now a semi-retired venture capitalist, he also finds time to lecture on ethics and write books, including Ships of Mercy, about a fleet commandeered in 1922 by an American pastor to help rescue 300,000 Greeks from a burning Asia Minor that was being overrun by the Turkish army. He was in Athens last week to promote that, and a humbler man of achievement you won’t find. He should have been speaking to business and political leaders about the rewards of being ethical because the country’s economic downfall has been created by a climate of corruption and greed, the likes of which can’t be seen this side of an African dictatorship, and which Prime Minister George Papandreou has vowed to clean up, although no one of any standing has been charged with anything yet.
Papoutsy is the kind of guy who knows that virtue is its own reward and that an honest loss is preferable to a dishonest gain because one causes pain for the moment, and the other, for all time. He says his Hellenistic heart has been pained by what he’s seen in Greece. “Corruption is a cancer, and it’s not just the doctor or people taking envelopes under the table,” he said. In his own business dealings, he said he relied on the teachings of his parents, his father born in the village of Vatoussa on Lesbos and his mother from Asvestochori on the outskirts of Thessaloniki, and those Ancient Greek ideals. “We were going to call on the teachings of the likes of philosophers like Aristotle. They taught ethics,” he says, so matter-of-factly that the crooked wouldn’t understand it. It was also something he instilled in his own workers so that being ethical was a matter of understanding what it meant and not a matter of not being caught with your hand in the cookie jar. In Greece, too many people in business and politics put their whole face in it and still can’t get enough.
What’s happened in Greece now he says is that people can’t recognize what’s unethical, especially in business, but at all levels of life. “They are not ethical, but they don’t know they’re doing something unethical. They’re taught it’s part of the system,” he said softly during an interview in the lobby of his hotel, where his wife, a classicist writing a book on Hellenic genealogy, later joined the discussion, as charming as he and just as insightful about a life well lived the right way and business the Papoutsy Way. When he ran his company producing soldering machines he said if one didn’t perform right he took it back, no questions asked. “We had a $50,000 machine and if it didn’t work we took it back and gave the customer his money back,” he said. If that happens in Greece, good luck in court in the year 2050, because, while there are many decent, honest, hard-working people in Greece, they’ve let the country be hijacked by those who aren’t by not speaking up. Papoutsy will have none of that.
He lays a lot of the blame at the feet of the last two decades of MBA’s and Masters of the Universe, the highly educated business executives who can’t spell ethics. What drives them, he says, is the bottom line of profit at any cost, just to drive up their stock market value no matter who gets hurt, as long as it isn’t them. He points to the Siemens scandal in Greece, the Germany engineering company charged with passing out bribes like loukoumades to everyone with an open hand to get contracts. “Siemens paid a bribe to get the orders to drive up sales to drive up profits to get their stock value up and that (attitude) goes all the way to the souvlaki guy,” who will find a way to cheat and cut corners, he said. It’s a global problem not limited to Greece but magnified by the country’s economic woes in which corruption and tax evasion and bribery have compounded the dilemma. A survey in Greece conducted by Kostas Plimbis of Prognosis, an established social research organization in Athens found that 92% of people interviewed admitted to having paid bribes or giving kickbacks to get business, Papoutsy pointed out in a commentary he wrote.
The Papoutsy Chair at the University of Southern New Hampshire, not far from where he lives in the seaside town of Rye, will continue trying to teach the next generations of business leaders that there’s a place for ethics in the race for profits and money, the antithesis to the Wall Street brand of greed that almost brought down Greece, with the likes of investment bank Goldman Sachs charged with fraud and linked to a currency swap scam that put Greece in an economic death spiral. Despite his gallant efforts, he’s probably spitting into the prevailing wind, because ethical people live in a vacuum. “Corporations are looking to increase their earnings for one reason only so that their stock prices can go up,” he said, the available antidote that won’t be taken because greed in Greece and worldwide trumps ethics. Still, he insists that is irrational because, “There’s more to be gained by doing it the right way than by doing it wrong because otherwise it catches up with you,” he said, a slogan that should be painted over the door of every business school and political office, especially in Greece, right next to the word ethics. It’s Greek.