V. Demetriades, the Limassolian who even exports to China, speaks about his life and work for the first time!

* NOTE: All the tributes of All About Limassol (as the Official Guide of Limassol) aim to ONLY highlight the special advantages of this wonderful city, so that everyone can be aware of the unique Experiences it offers. Under no circumstances do they have any promotional or nominal value, nor do they serve the interests of Companies, Municipalities, Organizations or Individuals.

It’s a Saturday morning, and the man who walks into the meeting is smiling and jolly. In recent years, he has made it a point to keep such mornings for relaxed moments with friends and family. He had to rearrange his schedule, of course, in order to fit an interview into an already demanding routine, which includes trips to the UK, Dubai, and China. Vasos Demetriades’ name has become well-known through the Demetriades Handling Group (which is active in all sectors of industry and commerce, with business that spreads across 70 countries worldwide). One would expect that the man behind such a far-reaching business would be a serious, middle-aged gentleman, one that has been stripped of all joy and liveliness. On the contrary, in the pleasant and unpretentious demeanor of Vasos, one simply sees a teenager, who just happens to be 49 years old.   

The meeting took place at Diamante Blu, the venue he created some years ago at the Limassol Old Port, with a view of the city’s coastline. Upon his arrival, he immediately began a teasing camaraderie with everyone, from the guests to the staff. The ease with which he interacts with people is a gift, and it is one that he apparently enjoys, as evidence by his smiling face each time he speaks with someone. Though today he smiles effortlessly, Vasos Demetriades has not always had much to smile about. In fact, he has endured plenty of hardships in his life and would have had the right to complain for years about all that he was forced to deal with at a young age. Despite this, however, he made sure to courageously harness all the good fortune that was bestowed upon him, so as to become one of the most successful self-made entrepreneurs in Cyprus today.

The fact that Vasos Demetriades, who began his journey at a small, family-run factory that made ice cream cones, now represents Limassol and Cyprus at some of the largest business and industrial exhibitions worldwide was, in fact, the reason for this interview with All About Limassol (the Official Guide of Limassol). Of course, once you start up a conversation with a man who, as a rule, speaks openly without any hang-ups or inhibitions, one story leads to another, and the tale slowly begins to unwind, from the beginning to the present day.

He regularly visits the Old Port, where Diamante Blu is located, and his approachable demeanor inevitably brought him closer to all the people who frequent that area on a daily basis.

Repatriation from London to Limassol

In 1981, the Demetriades family settled permanently in Limassol, officially leaving behind their life in London, where Vasos’ parents had set up a fish & chips shop. Both he and his slightly older brother, Giorgos, were young children at the time, and adapting to their new environment proved to be quite difficult. The fact that during the first years of repatriation, the family had to struggle to survive, made this adjustment even more difficult.

“My parents made the decision to return, because this had always been their desire, but it all ended up going wrong,” says Vasos. “My father and his brother went into business with a company that made luggage, which was exported to Libya. The business did not go well at all, it went bankrupt and my father was left high and dry. He did everything he could so that we wouldn’t bear the consequences – despite his struggle, we continued to attend the Grammar School, where we had been registered to ensure a smooth transition from our school in England.”

For a time, we had to live in a home that was donated to us by a relative, which was still an unfinished construction. It had no interior doors, so we hung curtains instead.

The walls were unpainted, and I remember my brother and myself going around to garages looking for car posters that we would then use to cover our bedroom walls, which were straight concrete.”

During that time, Vasos’ father undertook the task of helping his other brother in an ice cream cone factory, as he was facing health problems and was unable to work. During that time, the family’s only mode of transport was the company van, which his father used at work.

Vasos (left) and his father (right), during an award ceremony.

Upon finishing school, Giorgos and Vasos soon found themselves working alongside their father, helping with the factory. In the meantime, Vasos had begun attending a college in Nicosia. When his brother Giorgos, however, encountered issues with his vision, Vasos was forced to drop his studies and undertake responsibilities at work, as a salesperson, distributor, and accountant. It was a decision he never regretted.

“Alongside our father, we learned the business process: how to estimate costs, seek out growth prospects, and take risks. This was our school,” stresses Vasos.

“From a young age, we were already familiar with hard work, having helped out at our fish & chips shop in London. He never forced us to help out. We knew that we had the moral obligation to do so. Of course, we were just children at the time, and we sometimes helped out rather begrudgingly, but we always stood by our father in order to help the family,” he adds.

“I thus raised my own children to be humble, though this is not a common trait in our time. My son worked in the garage where we keep the hoists from the time he was small. His job was to clean them, and get his own hands dirty from working. And so, he was able to understand everything that goes into this job, and the rest of our colleagues could see that no one was entitled to special treatment, simply because they are the owner’s son.”

The 4 children of Vasos and his wife, Kallia, did not attend a private school, despite the fact that he himself was a graduate of the Grammar School. “If you want to learn and succeed in life, you can do so no matter what school you attend,” he says. He knows that knowledge is power, and he encourages his children to further their studies, but he does not aim to pressure them if they don’t wish to do so. 

Were you a good student at school?
I wasn’t the best student, though I could have been. I never liked reading books – I don’t think I’ve ever read a single book. Even if I need to read the instructions for a new gadget (such as a camera), I assign someone else to read them and then show me how it works.

Even back then, I was particularly fond of just enjoying my life. To this day, despite all the pressure and running around that I have at work, I always make time to see friends on Saturday, to go out for a meal in the morning or at lunch. In the past, I used to assume that I would just be working on Saturday.

What do you most enjoy about the work that you do?
Contact with people, whether it’s out in the market or within the company, is my favorite part of my work, though I now have various responsibilities, and I am also involved with administration, financial management, and marketing. When I took over the post at the cone factory, I would go to Nicosia 3-4 times a day to meet with our customers. I would often wait for a long time while they closed their accounts.

As I sat there, I would listen to their concerns or their complaints, and I would talk with all those people. It was part of my job, because it was up to me to make sure these partnerships were maintained, but it was also something that I always enjoyed.

Were you satisfied with your job at the ice cream cone factory?
Yes, it was a business that kept growing during the early years, we had a good opening in the market, and at one point we were left with just one major competitor, who at the time supplied cones to Papafilipou ice cream. I wanted to expand further, and I suggested to my father that we buy out the competition. His response was abrupt: “What nonsense is this? I should smack you!” He wasn’t able to see that this was a suitable investment for us.

Did you grow up with a strict father, then?
He was strict when he had to be, and he always had the final word at home. He taught us principles, however, and this is why we are all so close. We knew that when he or my mother would enter the house, we would hug and kiss them, and I have developed the same relationship with my own children today.

When the conversation turned to his relationship with his wife Kallia, the emotion was evident on Vasos’ face. The family they created together appears to have kept its bond over the years, and they are looking forward to even more beautiful moments together, as they made sure to have children young, thus allowing them to have more time to devote to each other. 

Did you ask your children to treat you this way, or did they do so themselves?
It’s something they are learning from experience. I have developed a friendly relationship with my children, we are able to speak openly and honestly, but at the same time there is trust and respect. I have had to act harshly on occasion, such as the time I realized that my son had been smoking on a night out, and even lied to me when I asked him about it, though the smell was evident. And though at 17 he was practically a man at the time, I did not hesitate give him a smack.

I was more upset about the lie rather than the fact that he was smoking. He was punished, learned his lesson, and everything went back to normal, because at its core, our relationship is very good, and we have even gone out to clubs together.

Do you speak just as openly with your daughters as you do with your son?
The relationship between father and son is certainly different, and we are able to speak more easily about certain things, especially about issues which arise during adolescence. But I have spoken openly with my daughters, even about relationships. I have passed on my experience and my knowledge, in an effort to inform them and even warn them, so that they can be prepared to handle certain situations.

When asked if he would ever become involved in politics, Vasos responds with laughter and good humor: “Oh, I have no interest in such a position. There is little money in it – legally at least.” 

What is your relationship with politics?
I have a circle of people whom I know and collaborate with, and with whom you could say we have formed a ‘lobby.’ I often open my home to politicians from all countries. Recently, as a result of my personal relationship with Marios Garoyian, I hosted him for a pre-election meeting with some people. I don’t fanatically support any party. I consider it important for a businessperson to remain politically neutral. Beyond that, the fact that I host politicians in my home to speak before an audience that is not necessarily made up of their constituents always creates opportunities for productive discussions, where questions and concerns are raised.

I am a businessperson. This means that I need challenges in order to progress in my work. I believe this is how things work in politics as well: there always need to be something new, something different, to create challenges. Otherwise there is complacency.

Have you benefited from your acquaintance with politicians?
Sometimes. The benefit does not necessarily have to do with them being politicians, but generally, getting to do know people means being able to ask for their help. In the same way, when I meet someone and develop a good relationship with them, I will help them, or do them a favor if they ask.

Do you generally tend to help people?
I offer help when I see that it is needed, whether it is an acquaintance or a friend, or someone I may encounter who is having a hard time. I don’t like to talk about it, I tend to avoid self-promotion. I once had this discussion with my son: if you see a grandmother struggling with a heavy bag, or trying to cross the road, you should help her, not because she asked you to, but because you will feel good about doing so too.

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The people he meets regularly within the environment at Diamante Blu are by now a familiar bunch, with whom he has developed personal relationships. 

Is your family’s hardship as you were growing up the reason that you are quick to offer help?
I don’t think of it like that. The truth is, when we were facing difficulties, we didn’t have any help, despite being in a familiar environment. Of course, my father never asked for help, but I believe that if someone wants to help, they will do so on their own. The point is to learn to share your life with people whose paths may cross yours. We should all do this.

This was the basis of our upbringing, and the solidarity that exists among our family has also determined how we treat the people around us.

Has this relationship among you helped avoid confrontations at work?
We’ve had disagreements. A characteristic example was my father’s strong reaction when I proposed buying out our main competitor, back when we had the ice cream cone factory. There was another such reaction later too. After we had been solo in the market for a while, new competitors began to appear, and I suggested we create a collaboration among us. Both my father and my brother disagreed, but we proceeded with the partnership and it proved to be the right choice. My father likely disagreed because he was of an older school of thought, and my brother had a different position within the company, so he didn’t see what I saw from my daily contact with the market.

The fact that family relationships were at the core of the company, has led to close ties with many important executives, such as Sales Manager Rikkos Symilides (pictured above with Vasos Demetriades) who has been working with the company since the day it was established.

From ice cream cones, to a group that exports worldwide

How did an ice cream cone factory come to be the group as it is today?
After we had partnered with our competitors, the truth was that I had started to lose my interest. There were no more challenges for me in this area to motivate me to seek improvement and development. Then at one point, the need arose for our own forklift to transfer the boxes into which the cones were packaged. When my father announced this to us, I didn’t even know what a forklift was. I ended up all the way in England to import such a machine, and that’s when it all started. When I began working on this aspect of the business, I fell in love with these machines.

Even today, it excites me to see new machinery in exhibitions and to make new purchases. In fact, it makes me a little bit sad when I have to sell them.

So Demetriades Handling was formed because of a forklift?
It was not just one forklift. When I began searching for such a machine, I initially tried to find it in Cyprus, and there were many who discouraged me, warning me that the seller was very expensive. That’s why, when I finally went to England, I also bought one for our partner, who also needed such a machine.

I was completely clueless when I began researching. I didn’t even know that it’s the back wheels of a forklift that turn, and I had been looking for a frontward-driving one.

I then came across the electric forklift, which did not generate any pollution or noise, and I was impressed. Of course, I had no idea how I would transport it, or what sized container I would need for something like this. It was at that point that I announced to my father that I was going to stay a while longer in England, to buy more machines. Of course, he was surprised, but that didn’t change my plans.

“The demand for a fork lift in the Cypriot market was limited, of course, and as I had already set up a network in England, I began operating the business there. It still exists today. It operates abroad, and is run by my younger brother.”

At barely 25 years old, I began asking around and ended up meeting a man called Joe the Nose. He knew how to repair machines, and guided me in my search for electric forklifts. At some point, we found ourselves in a large lot, which looked like a machinery graveyard. There was an old barn there, which did not look particularly conspicuous from the outside, but was filled with forklifts. To cut a long story short, that was where I made my first purchase. I continued visiting various sellers along with Joe, whom I paid to guide and advise me throughout the process.

Speaking to my father at one point, I said to him “Even if this job doesn’t work out, just think of it as you sending your son to university. I learned more in 1 month here than I have all these years.” Of course, his reaction to that was not a calm one (laughs).

It was at that time that my brother’s eyesight problem began prohibiting him from carrying on working with the business. He’d had various surgeries on his eye, but by 2012 approximately, his activities at work had proven to be too much of a burden. Our father had already drawn away from work, so the decision to close the business was final.

“I wasn’t sure that the venture would succeed. It was something new that had just begun, and I wanted to chase it.”

Was the decision to close the ice cream cone factory a difficult one?
It was certainly a difficult period on a personal level. Of course, the various health issues my brother faced, and the many surgeries he underwent, did act as an incentive for the family to seek out the appropriate treatment for his son, who had been facing the same problem. And so today, the boy, at age 26, is in good condition. I can’t describe the joy I felt when he announced to me for the first time that he could see normally.

Companies and money are secondary. Your family’s pain or joy are what determine whether life will be difficult or beautiful.

Did you encounter difficulties in your professional venture? Or was it all smooth sailing?
Nothing is smooth and easy when you are creating something from scratch. For instance, when the company was in its first stages of development, I needed money to cover its needs, but this money was not available, and I had to borrow. That was difficult. So was the fact that I had to import lower quality machinery in order to be able to cover the costs. And the fact that the machines would arrive in pieces that I had to then put together at my expense. This venture lacked experience and resources.

I specifically remember a time when I almost burst into tears. Joe and I had been preparing a shipment, and it was so cold that even my hair was frozen. I was alone throughout this process, and this made things even harder, as I had always been with my father and brother in the cone business.

Of course, I never reached the point where I wanted to quit. I had plenty of mettle thanks to my young age, and this gave me the courage to carry on. I often think that if I had been a bit older, I may have given up.

What was the key to becoming established in the market?
In 1996, a few months after I started the company, I decided to bring in an unknown brand of machinery, Linde, which was more expensive because it was of the best quality. I wanted to sell something that was actually very good.

I was mainly interested in winning customers with the quality of the product. Making money was secondary at the time.

At the time, of course, the name Demetriades was unknown on the market. In fact, not even the company knew who I was, and wouldn’t sell anything to me, so I was forced to go all the way to Germany to meet them, though I barely had enough money for a ticket. When I finally sold my first Linde forklift in Cyprus, one customer led to another.

“To this day, throughout my work and my personal life, I have been aided by this motto: Realization (understanding the problem), Action (doing something about it), and Success (measuring the effectiveness of the solution).”

How did you end up importing and renting electric golf carts?
We had reached the point where we could offer holistic solutions to companies with warehouses and industrial facilities. The experience we gained in the repair and assembly of machinery had allowed us to expand. When the golf course in Tsada came into operation, they requested 27 electric carts. We closed the deal, thanks to the technical support we were able to provide. In fact, I even managed to bring down the cost of the carts even further, by importing them in parts that were then assembled here.

As soon as the container arrived from America, I gathered friends, acquaintances and relatives, whoever knew their way around a tool, and, under the guidance of an engineer, we began assembling the carts.

At the time, we managed to gain a 99% market share. And though the cooperation with the American supplier eventually ended, I decided to create our own cart. In one night, I came up with a new brand, the Duro Car, which we assembled with Chinese and Japanese parts, having acquired the relevant know-how.

Today, Diamante Blu utilizes electric vehicles to facilitate the transport of guests to and from the venue, in cases where they have parked far away. 

What do you consider the company’s biggest achievement to date?
When we expanded into hydraulic systems, we happened to take on ship work, and as a result, we expanded into the shipping industry. There, the need arose for high pressure water pumps, which we were unable to find from any of our suppliers. We discovered a Danish company which sold such machinery, and made the necessary contacts, though they eventually ended up leaving us high and dry right before a major exhibition in Greece.

“We attended the exhibition with only a banner upon which we had Photoshopped the machine,” Vasos recalls of the time when the agreement with the Danish company was still up in the air. Today, the logo and the machinery of Combijet are featured in the largest trade fairs in the world. 

This ended up drawing attention. When we had to make our first offer to a client, 8 years ago, we decided to make our own high-pressure pump, assembling a machine of our own design. This is how Combijet was born. This venture had quite a high risk. Millions had been invested at a time when banking transactions were difficult, due to the deposit haircuts. The blow would have been very heavy if the plan didn’t work out. And though I would never risk losing the group, we would certainly have been forced to downsize. 

I followed my instinct throughout this venture. I saw that there was a need in the market, I saw that our only supplier was not cooperating, and we proceeded to fill the gap.

Today, however, this is the product with the best prospects on the market, as we are the only ones who supply it and we have already exported it to 70 countries, including China, which is a great achievement. High-pressure water is the most efficient and environmentally-friendly way of stripping paint from surfaces, and as such, this machine is suitable for all industries. We compete with worthy companies based in countries that have 200 years of tradition in the shipping industry.

This innovative product by Demetriades Handling, as well as all the other products the company sells, are the reason for the Cyprus flag often appearing in large exhibitions worldwide. “Today, there is Combijet stock in some of the world’s largest ports, such as Antwerp and New York, as well as company representatives in some of the largest financial and industrial powers worldwide,” explains Vasos.  

Did the hospitality attract your interest?
Food, hospitality, and entertainment, in general, are my passion. I enjoy going out with friends and sharing food. I could order the entire menu just so I can see the presentation of the dishes, and the flavor combinations. When I travel abroad, I frequent local joints so I can see peoples’ customs and their cuisine. This passion was the reason for venturing into this area.

I first experimented with the Mini Stop Stores, which were created to ensure a two-way relationship with many of the companies with which we collaborate. And so, many of the companies which are supplied by Demetriades Handling became suppliers of these stores.

Sweets are his greatest weakness, and the super-waffle offered by Diamante Blu came about from his request. Of course, he takes care to maintain a balance by exercising, though the gym is torture for him. This is why interacting with people, good humor, and a jokey demeanor is his way of surviving there, too.

“Before Diamante Blu, I had the Riggato restaurant. In the hospitality business, you have the opportunity to immediately see the customer’s reaction, from the moment the plate is placed in front of them. I don’t expect to make money from these endeavors, because a good period can be followed by a less profitable one.”

“For me, it’s enough to not make a loss from a restaurant, and to be able to have a space which can be utilized for social contacts with a circle of people that I maintain and grow,” he explains.

“The biggest problem this sector faces is human capital. There is a very limited supply in relation to demand, and it is difficult to build a good team for a dining establishment to function correctly.”

Are wages of €700 - €800 enough to keep someone in this business?
This is not a wage. In order for someone to work for that kind of money, they are either just starting out and want to gain experience, or they are not good at what they do and they are forced to get a job under any circumstances.

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In addition to Diamante Blu, a Mini Stop also operates at the Limassol Old Port. This is a type of multi-kiosk, offering good coffee and sandwiches, as well as waffles and ice cream. .

Is the quality level of hospitality satisfactory in Limassol?
It is at a good level, yes. There are plenty of options for international cuisine. We may be lacking in tavern options, in comparison to Greece, which has a similar cuisine and offers a greater variety, but generally speaking, you can find good places to eat. Of course, if there is something that I wish to see, it’s a good Chinese restaurant because at the moment, the only one that exists is the one in the Four Seasons.

Where would you take someone who is visiting the city for a few days?
Generally, the historical center, the little streets around the Castle or Saripolou are areas worth visiting in Limassol. It’s a shame, of course, that the Pantopoleio has been dwindling, as this could have been a great folksy spot, with traditional salespeople, something that tourists enjoy visiting in a foreign country.

I have discovered that there are plans to utilize the space of the Municipal Market, but if the parking issue is not resolved, this effort will once again fail.

What is the biggest problem you have encountered in Limassol?
The traffic problem has never been addressed, and as the population of the city grows, the problem keeps getting worse. It is something that everyone talks about, but no substantial solution has ever been found. The problem is especially noticeable in the Old Port, which attracts many people daily, yet there is no space for them to park their cars.

“There is also a serious gap in the infrastructure for electric cars. There should have already been charging stations set up for such vehicles, as well as specific parking spaces for them.” 

Are Limassolians open to new ideas?
They are open to new trends, to things that become fashionable. Coffee shops, for example, are a recent trend that became very popular in Limassol. So it all depends on what the trend is, and whether Limassolians will embrace it. There may be some resistance, as is the case with the tall buildings at the moment, for example. If you ask me, there’s no reason to fear this. Let us build these towers, and replace those dowdy apartment buildings we see all along the coast today.

We need these buildings in order to accommodate the people and companies that will turn Limassol into a commercial center.

We have a top spot on the worldwide shipping map, and this is worth building upon. My only concern is for us not to end up with ghost buildings, purchased only for the purpose of third-country nations obtaining a passport.

Do you believe Limassolians love their city?
Yes, I believe they do. Of course, this isn’t always reflected in practice. Perhaps we take it for granted and this is why we don’t take care to show our appreciation and our respect. This is why we let it get so dirty.

What would you like to see improved in Limassol?
I want to see better beaches. There are many beautiful coasts, but most of them are not taken care of, they are not clean, and they don’t have the proper, organized facilities. I also enjoy going out and having fun, and I would like to see more venues for this purpose. Beyond the venues of Breeze, there are not that many other options available, and, if there is a musical program at Notes, for instance, the capacity of the space is certainly small.

Vasos Demetriades made the decision to create a new company selling forklifts during a trip. He also came up with the idea for the Mini Stops following a swim in the sea. As for the Combijet pumps, an innovative product that has put Limassol on the global trade map, this was an idea that was born in one night. His professional career appears to have been made up of moments of quick decisions and good judgment, and his ability to make such moments work in his favor are what make him stand out. His restless and passionate spirit have helped make him active and effective at his work. At the same time, his lively and optimistic personality is the true essence of a Limassolian, one who enjoys his days with good humor and cheer.

He carries Limassol with him on all his trips, from one end of the world to the other. Beyond this, he is aware that everything he has accomplished has a lot to do with the strategic position and general atmosphere of his city. So while he may not have had the opportunity to attend university, and though he was never a fan of books, he found a way through each of his activities to retrieve feedback and utilize it tenfold. This journey demonstrates that Vasos is a characteristic example of a hardworking, self-made businessperson, with acumen and skills, who holds dear the values with which he was raised, as do most people who have contributed in their own way to raise Limassol just a little bit higher.