I am sitting with a man who made a huge fortune after emigrating from his native Greece to 1980s communist Czechoslovakia — a story as implausible as it sounds.
Sotirios Zavaliannis arrived in eastern Europe with empty pockets and ended up the second-largest private hospital operator in the Czech Republic.
So far, he has invested over €115 million ($141 million) into his facilities, a figure similar to his annual turnover. He employs around 1,600 people and his holding, Akeso, is about to build a completely new €40-million mental-health center — all without European assistance.
Zavaliannis, the son of an unskilled laborer a seamstress, came to Czechoslovakia in 1984 to study on a scholarship provided by the Greek state, not even knowing where the country was.
He eventually graduated in economics, specializing in macroeconomics “which deals rather with math, statistics, probability and geometry”, he says.
Five years later, the communist regime disintegrated and Zavaliannis grasped his chance. He did not begin directly in the medical industry – like many Greeks, he started with exports, providing services for shipping suppliers.
As somebody, who was familiar with the surroundings and rhythms of Central Europe, he succeeded in a tender and became a general director of the Hellenic enterprise Star Foods company headquartered in Poland.
However, for the ambitious Zavaliannis that was not enough. He bought the branch office of the company and became his own boss.
It was a time in which private market sector in the region was emerging. Supermarkets demanded a lot of international products unknown at that time to local consumers. Zavaliannis’ fast-moving consumer-goods firm had approximately 14,000 customers.
As this first generation of post-Soviet supply chains matured, it became more and more difficult for a supplier to step into the process with a reasonable margin.
Zavaliannis showed his entrepreneurial skills again: he sold half of the company and became shareholder in a totally different field, purchasing a medical diagnostics center in the Czech Republic.
It was a start of a new era. “Very quickly I realized that I like the surroundings of hospitals”, says Zavaliannis.
His first company — Mediscan — still operates a radiodiagnosis, anesthesiology, resuscitation and intensive care facility in on the outskirts of Prague.
Later he opened the country’s first private oncological center.
In 2007, five years after the Czech Republic joined the EU, his companies took over two hospitals in a nati
onal privatization process. In the beginning there were some concerns that the foreign owner may misuse the facility but that was not the case.
While his partners tended to see the thing rather from the business point of view, Zavaliannis started to consider his entrepreneurship as a mission in life.
Then as the core of the business became running hospitals, he branched out into related activities, starting to produce and distribute medicines and opening pharmacies.
‘Think this out’
His hospitals are known for being equipped with most advanced Western technologies, and even though they are private and visited by patients from all over the world, local people do not have to pay more than in a regular Czech state facility.
He drew attention to himself recently when he announced that he is about to build a large mental-health center near Prague. It will be over 27,500 square meters in size and have 200 beds. He calls the project poetically “a six-star Babylon”.
“If I were ill, I would treat myself in the Czech Republic. Regarding the
international standards, medical care is very high here. A beggar has a similar [standard of] care as the king of England,” he says.
Zavaliannis has become a public figure and is among the leaders of the Czech medical business.
In the end, he is sharing his experience with young Greeks considering leaving their homeland due to the crisis:
“Think this out. Life without friends, relatives, family and ‘parea’ [peers] may not balance the economic wealth. I am not convinced that emigration is the best solution.”