We asked Paul Nicolaou to tell us the first word that pops to mind when we say ‘future’, and he said ‘legacy’.
The ancient Greeks called it kleos – noble acts to leave behind immortal fame – and, judging by the way he chooses to live, kleos is just as important to Mr Nicolaou, the new Executive Director of Business Sydney.
For the Greek Australian businessman, a lifestyle geared towards kleos is more about soul than bricks and mortar, and – for this reason – he is involved in a range of charitable activities and initiatives offered pro bono which seem to just pop up as ideas in his head the one minute, and come to fruition the next.
“I love helping many community organisations,” Mr Nicolaou admitted.
“I’ve always been involved in unpaid charitable work in all my life. A lot of it stemmed from the work I used to do at school in a whole range of charitable causes when the school asked us to participate, and then, I went to university and got involved with the Hellenic society, I got involved with the university union, I got involved with the Greek community activities,” and from there he rattles off a whole list of organisations he is actively involved in.
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Building bridges with Greece
Over the past year, his Open Dialogue series have facilitated video calls between Greek government, business and cultural stakeholders and the Greek Australian diaspora.
“Last year, most Greek Australians were heading off to Greece, and then COVID came along and stopped that from happening,” he told Neos Kosmos, “and one day, I was thinking, ‘how can we keep in contact with our motherland?’ and I sort of thought and thought about it and I thought, ‘you know what, with zoom and the technology we have, I can do that. I can get in contact with any of the politicians and senior business people in Greece and see if they’d be interested in doing an hour on Zoom with Greek Australians’, and it was fantastic.”
He reached out to Greek Consul General Christos Karras and, since then, Greek Australians have had the opportunity to meet with and ask questions to the likes of Australia’s US Ambassador Arthur Sinodinos, CEO of the Athens Stock Exchange Socrates Lazarides, Athens Mayor Kostas Bakoyannis, Finance Minister Christos Staikouras, Benaki CEO Haris Siampanis, former Diaspora minister Konstantinos Vlasis and more in the works such as a meeting with former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis on 25 October. Hundreds of Greeks from around Australia have attended these candid meetings which number around 15 events of Greek interest and dozens – sometimes two a week – involving non-Greeks.
People are able to use the chat function to share reactions publicly, network privately amongst themselves, and of course ask questions directly to Mr Nicolaou’s guests. And in the case of Greeks, sometimes these can be awkward questions, but that’s the way it is with open, uncensored dialogue. As chair, Mr Nicolaou is there to organise, facilitate, and make sure everyone gets to speak.
“I do it for the love of our motherland,” he said of these events carried out pro bono, “as its a great way of connecting with Greek Australians around the country and see what is happening to Greece.”
Ahead of the diaspora vote becoming a reality sparking debate as to whether Greeks abroad really understand the harsh reality for Greeks within the country, Mr Nicolaou is ensuring a direct and very authentic connection.
“A lot of people want to go back to Greece, everyone wants to head over to Greece when they can,” he said. “Everyone wants to know how Greece has coped economically prior to COVID, during COVID, and it is interesting to hear business and political actions happening in Greece because we don’t often get information as freely as possible or get insights as to what is happening,” he said.
At a time when the Bicentenary celebrations for Greece’s Independence) were dampened by a global pandemic, Mr Nicolaou has managed to shine the light on Philhellenism – arguably, one of the most important ingredients of Greece’s Liberation of 1821.
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Creating a Greek lobby
By joining together Greek Australians he brings hope for Greece’s future – a legacy for future generations and kleos for himself.
He speaks of a strong Greek lobby, and efforts being made to wield such power.
“It is important that we have a body that does engage with the Federal government, as you’ve seen with many other communities, especially the Jewish community,” he said, pointing to the success of the Australian Jewish community in pushing its agenda.
“They’ve got a very successful lobby group and they engage with politicians and heads of the Department and regulators constantly.”
Mr Nicolaou said “we need to have one too in Australia” and points to the seeds planted by Costa Vertzayias and a range of other people who set up the Hellenic Council, which still exists but is not as proactive as it once was. “I turned up at a meeting just recently where they are trying to invigorate it,” he said, adding that his involvement will be to use his contacts to help advocate on behalf of the Greek Australian community.
Connections are plentiful after seven years at the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, where he grew the Business Leaders Council membership from 35 to 147. Last month, he moved to Business Sydney, one of the most respected, experienced and influential member-based business advocacy organisations, where he looks forward to the challenge of seeing what he can do “as a connector, a networker to help reactivate the city of Sydney” at a time of pandemic.
“One of the first tasks is to work with the state government, the federal government and local council to reactivate Sydney,” he said of his vision. “I think just last week foot traffic was about two per cent. That is now going to climb as we get out of COVID restrictions and people start coming back to the city,” he said.
“It is important that we work with many stakeholders because it is not just one silver bullet that we need, we need many.”
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Mr Nicolaou loves Sydney, his city, but the roots of who he is today were planted in a country he has never visited – Egypt.
His mother, Coula, was from Cairo and father, Costas, was from Alexandria. They met at the Egyptian club in NSW and never went back to Egypt, where they were born and lived a charmed and cultured life, both attending prestigious French, Catholic schools and speaking five languages: French, Greek, Italian, English and Arabic.
It was former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nassar’s regime which put an abrupt end to the upward social mobility of the Greek community of Egypt, sparking a mass exodus, and his parents came to Australia with just their suitcases.
“Both my parents have passed away. Both mum and dad were very philanthropic and caring people, as with most people,” he said.
“I saw at an early age that if we all contribute in some shape or form in helping the society, whether it is from a charity or whether it is a community or whether it is a sporting club or a society of some sort, trying to look after the wants and needs of the community. I just thought it was important for me to do it.”
Though Egyptian Greeks did not typically fit into the profile of the average hungry battler who came from the Greek village during Australia’s post-war migration boom they joined the working class, with his mum getting a job as a seamstress in Rockdale and father joining the assembly line at General Motors. And Mr Nicolaou saw no difference between him and his second-generation Greek cohort.
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“They were interesting times back then. I went to a Catholic school,” he said, adding there weren’t many Greek Australians there.
“I mixed in with the Italians, the Lebanese and the Jewish kids because we were seen funny in some shape or form because we were non-Anglo…
“Was I called a ‘wog’? Yes. Was I called a ‘dago’? Yes. But again, that was part of the course of growing up in Sydney at the time, as our parents did. When our parents came here they were called different names but over time they assimilated and contributed a lot to Australia’s growth and Australia’s wealth. If you look at the people of non-English backgrounds that came when they were helping build the snowy mountain scheme or provide all the infrastructure we see around the country. If there wasn’t that level of immigration, Australia wouldn’t be where it is today.”
Despite his parents’ working class background upon their immigration to Australia, despite benefitting from a free tertiary education thanks to Gough Whitlam, and despite his intrinsic values regarding welfare for all, it was the Liberal party he felt drawn to.
“The Liberal party tends to be a little bit more business-orientated, and I saw from my parents that if you wanted to achieve success you needed to go out there and work, and I took the view that the Liberal party was a little bit more proactive in supporting business,” he said.
“They had more of a policy of freedom of choice of opportunity. And I thought it was me and I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to join the party’.”His career went to the wayward after unsuccessfully contesting the state seat of Ryde for the Liberal Party, losing by 400 votes, but then decided never to run again but to put his time and effort into the business world.
“There’s a lot of work in politics, and it’s a difficult life,” Mr Nicolaou said. “Politics is not an easy game to be in. You’re here today. You’re gone tomorrow.
“I think I’m a lot more influential on the outside than the inside. I can talk to both sides of the political fence which is very important because one term you’ve got a liberal government and next term you’ve got a Labor party. So from a business perspective we’ve got to work from the Liberal party, the Labor party the Callithumpians, the Greens, whoever, in order to implement and develop policies that are going to help businesses.”
For Mr Nicolaou, that is where the kleos lies and he’s pushing the envelope with lots of clout.
Favorite place: Santorini
Memories of Greek School: St George at Rosebay, playing Hercules and practicing with dad at the park, slashing the Lyrnaea Hydra
Freedom: Freedom of Speech
Success: Personal satisfaction