12 Jan Interview with Dimitrios Politis, CEO, Hellenic Republic Asset Development Fund (HRADF)
The Greek economy has been growing at twice the EU average pace in 2023, while the capital market has performed very well too, with the country have raised around €10 billion through the sales of state assets since 2011. Please give us a general overview of the Greek economy, what major factors have led to the impressive performance?
It is only natural that after a turbulent period the economy rebounds. A critical element is the political stability, especially when you see where Greece is located. In this part of the world, Greece is the most stable country in terms of government and political climate. It is even more important considering the geopolitical challenges with the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza.
Many factors have contributed to the positive financial performance of the economy in the past few years. First, the government has introduced reforms in the way the state sector operates and is committed to fiscal discipline. Additionally, it has also set targets for growth and is focused on reducing public debt. More reforms are needed in several sectors that still have a long way to go to achieve the high international standards someone would expect of a European country. Reforms take time and this endeavor is a marathon, not a sprint. In this marathon, we are keeping a steady pace and making good progress.
The decade-long financial crisis made Greek companies stronger and more competitive. They are now better equipped to navigate the international markets and promote their products and services. Tourism has rebounded strongly after the pandemic and this has positively affected real estate, including residential and secondary home development.
What impact do you expect the large amount of inward investment from HRADF’s projects will have on the economy in 2024? Where will this money be allocated?
Almost 80% of the revenue from the development of our assets is earmarked for the reduction of sovereign debt. This is a significant figure considering that one of the main reasons for the consecutive upgrades of the Greek economy by the international rating agencies is the pace and consistency we have shown in bringing down the debt.
The impact from our projects will have a positive spillover effect on the real economy. The development of these assets will generate major investment and create new jobs. A recent example is the sale of the high-pressure gas network together with Helleniq Energy for almost €800 million to Italgas, which intends to invest €500-600 million more to upgrade the gas system. Thus, we should not only focus on the expected revenue of €5.7 billion in 2024, but on the bigger picture, which is the investments generated by these projects.
This is the core of our mission as asset developers. We structure our transactions in such a way that funds go to the repayment of the debt and, at the same time, into the further development of those assets and subsequently into the economy.
HRADF is focused on attracting investment and developing the local economy through its assigned assets. Can you give our readers an overview of HRADF’s mission and responsibilities? What role does it play within Greece’s economic development strategy?
In the last couple of years, the role of HRADF has expanded considerably. Effectively, the fund has three pillars, or business units. The best known and oldest pillar is the Asset Development Program, which involves the development of our assets through direct and indirect partnerships with the private sector. The second, which is extremely important, is the Project Preparation Facility (PPF): the unit was set up in the summer of 2021 and is tasked with maturing projects funded by the Recovery and Resilience Fund (RRF). The state has recognized our expertize and transparency in handling international tenders and has assigned us this important mission of facilitating the absorption of the RRF funds. So far, projects amounting to nearly €3.5 billion have been assigned to the PPF. The unit will prepare and carry out approximately 300 tenders in the next 24 months, as the RRF program has very strict deadlines and all projects must be completed by the end of 2025.
The third pillar is the role of the fund as Port Planning Authority (PPA). Acknowledging the wealth of experience HRADF possesses, the state has assigned the important mission of facilitating the development plans of all the major port infrastructure assets in Greece. Ports are a vital part of the national economy, as the gateway to Greece and, to a large extent, Europe. We work alongside investors who have acquired a stake in the share capital of port authorities, such as Cosco Shipping Group and MSC, which own 67% of the ports of Piraeus and Thessaloniki respectively.
The state, through HRADF, continues to participate in the share capital of port authorities, with stakes ranging from 7% to 33%. For instance, in Piraeus and Thessaloniki we have a stake of 7%, while in the port authorities of Heraklion and Igoumenitsa we own 33% of the shares. In the latter two, we cooperate with Grimaldi Group, one of the largest shipping companies and port operators in Europe, which acquired a majority stake after two tenders held by HRADF.
We are not selling and moving away, but as a shareholder representing the state and as PPA, we play a critical role in the development of the ports. Our mission, which is asset development, does not stop when we introduce private capital. We also contribute to the development of these assets for the benefit of the local and national economy.
Please delve a little bit into the main infrastructure assets and land developments of HRADF. Which ones are primed for investment over the coming years?
One of the most iconic projects in 2024 is the listing of Athens International Airport (AIA). We decided to divest our 30% stake in AIA not through a trade sale, but through a listing on the Athens Stock Exchange. AIA is a company run to the best international standards. One of the reasons why you introduce private capital and private ownership is because the private side can run it better or because you need capital. In this instance, the company was already run by a private investor to the top standards and did not need capital. So, we opted for a stock exchange transaction for a couple of reasons.
The first reason was to bolster the Greek capital market and the second was to offer the opportunity to international and local investors to participate in the success story of tourism. To have a functioning economy, a strong local capital market is necessary. AIA is a very good proxy of the success of Greek tourism.
In terms of other infrastructure assets, we will be looking within 2024 to reach a financial closing of the transactions for the new concession agreements for the Athens Ring Road (Attica Motorway) and Egnatia Odos (Egnatia Motorway). Both are sizeable transactions. This is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, concession tender for 2023 anywhere in the world. If we manage to conclude the transaction in 2024, it will be completed in record time, less than two years since the beginning of the tender.
This represents a major test for Greece because it will be the first time a motorway concession is re-tendered. The concession agreement for Attica Motorway was the first major concession agreement in Greece, so it will be a testing endeavour for the fund, private investors and the state administration, which has a role to play in this transaction.
HRADF has overseen major developments of ports in 2023, including the acquisition of majority stakes in the share capital of Volos Port Authority and Igoumenitsa Port Authority. In May, Alexandroupolis Port received €24 million in funding from the EU for dredging and infrastructure upgrades. Can you give us a description of the recent major developments HRADF has overseen in relation to maritime infrastructure?
We try to develop every asset taking into consideration its location, status and the needs of the markets. We are not approaching port infrastructure with a pre-conceived way of development. With more mature ports in need of infrastructure investments, we might opt for introducing private investment. In cases where ports are not attractive to a buyer or a private shareholder, we opt for sub-concessions of services and facilities. That is what we did in the Port of Kavala where we only opted for a sub-concession of the commercial part of the port and the remaining activities stayed under our control.
In the case of the Corfu Port Authority, which is responsible for the operation of several smaller ports and marinas, we tendered a new marina for mega-yachts, and we will hold tenders for the development of two more marinas within 2024, instead of selling a majority stake.
In other cases, like Alexandroupolis, we are opting to develop the port by ourselves by using funding tools from the state and the EU. We may also secure additional funding tools from the private sector. Depending on each port’s location, its maturity and status in the local market, we opt for a different type of development.
In 2023, Greece improved its score on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index ranking it 51st out of 180 countries. This is the highest ranking achieved by the country since 2012. What progress has been made in terms of good governance, transparency, and rule of law?
ESG corporate governance principles are increasingly accepted by the entire community. Regarding the companies that we supervise, we have very strict rules. We have a strong presence on the boards of directors of our subsidiaries, and we are introducing corporate governance and ESG principles to all our tenders. We are great believers in that. We have an ESG team. We are very much engaged in the social and environmental impact of what we do.
The rise of green investment has opened a lot of opportunities worldwide – particularly for Greece. Along with the EU setting up incentives for companies to make greener choices, a recent report by the IEA strongly urges Greece to refocus its energy policies on renewables to remain profitable. How do you see the rise in green investment in Greece? What does it mean and what potential does it open?
Regarding our mandate specifically, we see a lot of impact on our maritime infrastructure. We have a pilot plan to make a port under our ownership, Port of Lavrio, a model green port with the introduction of ESG criteria with the cooperation of the local municipality and stakeholders.
We intend to create energy communities with the participation of port authorities and local municipalities, which will produce clean energy. We are also developing plans for the electrification of the vehicles of the port authorities, for charging facilities and for cold ironing.
The USA has been a large source of FDI in Greece and a key partner with cooperation spanning across multiple areas. It is the eighth largest source of FDI in Greece, with major players like Google, J.P. Morgan, Microsoft and Pfizer all participating. What key areas would be open to US investors right now? How attractive of a market is Greece for US investors?
Greece has a very highly skilled workforce and this is what makes the country attractive for investment. It is also a nice place to live. If you add political stability and the economic transformation, then you have a positive foundation for foreign investors.
Clearly, Greece is very much an open society, community, and country, so we welcome these types of investments, not just in saying but also in acting. As far as our assets go, we do not see that much US interest to be honest, perhaps because it is basic infrastructure which might require a more solid engagement to become attractive.
I consider the likes of Google, Microsoft and Pfizer pioneers. It is easier to move soft capital and soft skills around the globe than it is to move harder skills and harder assets like infrastructure investments or infrastructure expertize. It is easier to move services and know-how than moving anything infrastructure related. If you are running a port and must invest in infrastructure, it is not for the global community. Some of the assets may not be at the scale that big US companies would go for.
What is your final message to the readers of USA Today?
The mission of HRADF is not limited to selling state owned assets, it is much wider. We are developing assets, utilizing our expertize and knowledge in running transparent tender procedures, and introducing private investment which is crucial for the growth prospects of Greece. Thus, prior to the development of an asset we consider all the parameters, like the capital which will be generated and the needs of the local communities.