Like a Virgin

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This week, Times Square will be inundated with laser projections, mobile billboards on flatbed trucks and skaters on roller blades handing out promotional material, and all capped off by Carly Fiorina, the high-profile chief executive of Hewlett-Packard Co., cutting the ribbon at the opening party of the easyEverything Internet cafe.

In other words, another production by the flamboyant Anglo-Greek tycoon Stelios Haji-Ioannou and his London-based easyGroup. But this time he's taking his ambitions to the U.S. as a prelude to going global.

With his cut-price European airline easyJet, his casual, tie-less style and his love for stunts and publicity, Mr. Haji-Ioannou is often compared to British entrepreneur Richard Branson. Mr. Branson controls London-based airline Virgin Atlantic and has extended his Virgin Group into other areas from entertainment to financial services. He has a genius for publicity and a zest for everything from hot-air ballooning to dressing up in a wedding gown for the opening of the first Virgin Bride store in London.

"Stelios deliberately models his public persona on Richard Branson, playing the underdog, which is a joke because both men are really wealthy guys," said Daniel Solon, a consultant at Avmark International, a London-based commercial aviation consultancy. "It's a pose, just like the lower-case `e' in easyJet."

Not that Stelios, as he prefers to be known in keeping with his company's informal style, isn't serious about business. At 25, he borrowed $30 million from his ship-owning Greek father to start his own tanker company. But he found his true vocation (with easyJet, launched in 1995 with more funding from his dad) as Europe deregulated its tightly-controlled airline industry.

Now 33, he is fiercely competitive. When British Airways launched a rival cut-price airline called Go in 1998, he was furious at what he saw as a BA-subsidized attempt to drive low-cost airlines like his own out of business. Stelios and nine easyJet employees donned boiler suits in the company's trademark bright orange color and boarded Go's inaugural flight, handing out free easyJet tickets to everyone on board.

Even now, easyJet's colorful Web site offers free flights to anyone who can accurately guess Go's annual losses. So far this year, 14,000 people have entered the online competition, bragged James Rothnie, director of corporate affairs at easyGroup. "Guess a number," Mr. Rothnie urged. "Double it."

Perhaps not coincidentally, British Airways has put Go up for sale.

Right now, easyJet, offering fares as low as $50 between London and European destinations like Nice and Barcelona, is easyGroup's main business. EasyJet made a profit of $33 million on sales of $400 million for the financial year ended Sept. 30, and Stelios floated 25% of easyJet on the London Stock Exchange earlier this month, raising $279 million to buy more planes. He started a European car rental business, easyRentacar, in April 2000 and, last month, a European price-comparison Web site called easyValue.com.

But it is the easyEverything Internet cafes, started 18 months ago in Europe, that Stelios foresees going global. EasyGroup's corporate strategy calls for 22 Internet cafes by year-end and 60 by the end of 2001. In September, 1.25 million people in Europe stopped by an easyEverything cyber cafe somewhere in Europe.

In London, packed easyEverything cafes often have long lines as budget-conscious 16-to-35-year-olds drop in to check e-mail, play computer games, seek jobs, or use the chat, entertainment, sports and travel services. Rates start at $1 and vary according to demand. During slow periods, $1 buys an hour of Internet access; at rush hour, about 15 minutes.

The Times Square mega-cafe opening Nov. 28 has 800 computers and will be open 24 hours a day. EasyEverything is scouting for new sites in Manhattan, Miami and San Francisco, Mr. Rothnie said. In 2001, the chain will hit Asia, targeting Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, he said.

It's unclear whether easyEverything cafes, popular in Europe where fewer people have Internet access at home and work and phone charges add up quickly, will be a hit in the already-wired U.S. market.

"The Internet cafes are very, very popular [in Europe]," said Cliff Condon, Amsterdam-based group director for Forrester Research. "Internet access is still expensive in many countries and PCs are very expensive. Will they be the same in the U.S.? The technology is cheaper, and people have access to computers at work. In Europe, you still see offices where there are two PCs for 20 people to use."

Normally voluble and media-hungry, Stelios has been uncharacteristically quiet in the run-up to this week's Times Square launch in an effort to ensure a maximum burst of publicity for the first U.S. cafe and the opening party he will preside over.

Print and billboard ads breaking throughout the month were created in-house. Besides the nontraditional media in Times Square, ads will run for the next three months in tourist-oriented media like Time Out and daily newspapers, said Danielle Bottari, associate planning director at MindShare, New York.

EasyGroup does all its own creative work and uses different media specialists; MindShare won the $30 million global account for the easyEverything cyber cafes earlier this month. Carat-owned BBJ Media Services in London handles easyJet's media buying and Starcom MediaVest, London, just won the account for online comparison shopping venture easyValue.com.

A big part of easyGroup's corporate identity is the color orange, splashed across the Web site and the Internet cafes. At the company's head office, called easyLand, the walls and even the coffee machines are orange. EasyJet's orange-winged planes have been variously painted with the airline's phone number, Web address (easyjet.com) and occasional taunting messages like "Stop BA, stop Go."

Stelios makes hands-on visits around his growing empire and has been known to do the cooking at the company barbecues held every Friday. "He always pops in here," said Christina Grigorea, an easyJet sales agent. "He's not snobby."

But he's no Richard Branson, who is known for his easy popularity. Like Mr. Branson, Stelios works the plane on his frequent flights, often commuting from London, where he lives in a hotel, to his homes in Monaco and Athens.

On a recent trip from London to Nice, Stelios, perhaps unaware that the flight had run out of sandwiches, drinks and even water, asked a passenger how she was enjoying the flight. Lauren Maynard, a London resident, replied that even a discount flight should have water. Irritated, Stelios stormed down the aisle muttering, "You want water, I'll give you water!"

A crew member soon hurried down the aisle with a bottle of Evian, telling Ms. Maynard that Stelios had given orders to surrender the crew member's own bottle of water. Embarrassed, Ms. Maynard declined.

Stelios used his combative stance to portray himself as the underdog when he took on one of the U.K.'s biggest banks, Barclays Bank, earlier this year. Angry that Barclays, which controls the small airport outside London that easyJet and other low-cost carriers operate from, wanted to triple the fees charged to the airlines, Stelios hauled out his infamous orange boiler suit. He marched into the nearest Barclays branch and dramatically cut up his Barclays card in front of all the journalists he had previously alerted.

Aviation consultant Mr. Solon noted that this month's flotation of a minority stake in easyJet "is a neat way" for Stelios to raise capital to buy planes without relinquishing any control. "I don't know if I'd like to be a minority shareholder because you have no influence on what's going on in the company," he said.

But ambitous Stelios has made it clear that within five years he plans to extend the easybrand to at least three other products or services that the company is keeping under wraps for now. But the formula is easy to figure: "We won't go into an industry unless we can reduce the price of goods and services sold, which means we're often targeting fat companies," said Mr. Rothnie.

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