Nikos Mourkogiannis is being interviewed By Giorgos S. Koulouvaris for Naftemporiki
The problems are numerous, but financial viability remains the main object and, more strongly than ever before, there is a vision to radically restructure and reorganize the Greek National Opera so that it becomes a paradigm of a state-run cultural company.
What is certain is that the GNO is much like a ship caught in troubles waters, but there is a very capable captain at its helm. Naftemboriki spoke to him about the present and his future goals.
A technocract with a firm hand on the wheel of the GNO, Nikos Mourkogiannis, an internationally acclaimed expert on business strategy and management, has served as chairman of the board of directors for the past seven months.
A law graduate with an advanced degree from Harvard University, the new chairman has spent the past years of his life working between Greece and the United States, while his career boasts 25 years in top administrative posts at leading businesses and organizations. He has now returned to Greece after 35 years of working and living with his family abroad, and the reason was to save the GNO from ruin.
From Day One of undertaking his new duties he has kept the door to his office open, briefing the press first hand on all the initiatives he has taken and plans to take in the future in order to bring some order to the country’s only opera company.
And, when a technocrat who is succinct, realistic and avidly aware of the difficulties he faces and of what he can hope to achieve, tells us that he believes that his vision for the company is still very much alive, there is much room for optimism.
Was it an invitation or a plea that summoned you to the helm of the GNO?
I was made aware of the problems the GNO faced quite by chance, by a Swiss friend who, like me, loves the opera. One evening, he said to me: “Niko, they’re about to close your country’s only opera company. What are you going to do about it?” I got moving immediately and offered by services free of charge to help save the company.
What are the biggest problems the GNO faces?
Its biggest problem is its finances. It has inherited an enormous amount of debt, to the tune of 17 million euros. It is unable to make good on its financial responsibilities – towards suppliers, collaborators and staff – and, moreover, because of the financial crisis, state subsidies have also been slashed significantly.
You have referred to the problem as being “systemic.” Could you elaborate?
A patient cannot have a major heart problem and no other ailments. The problems faced by organizations – and companies as well, of course – are systemic in that they are interconnected. The large-scale squandering of public monies presupposes the prevalence of a certain kind of mentality – cultural, ethical and moral – that affects every employee from the top down.
Is the GNO just another victim of the financial crisis?
I wouldn’t put it quite like that. I don’t like the word “victim,” because the word “victim” suggests that it had not control over its actions. The GNO holds a large part of the responsibility for its situation because it did not tend to its own house properly. The financial crisis the country is experiencing is a coincidence that has revealed the magnitude of mismanagement within state-run organizations.
Have you pinpointed the causes behind the current situation, and, if so, what are they?
These causes can be traced on two separate levels. The first is about listing the more obvious causes, such as poor management of state funds, organizing a program that exceeds the budget, the absence of an organizational plan and the unchecked hiring of staff. Also, we must add that the amount of rent we were paying was impossible to maintain. The second level of interpretation has to do with the ethical and moral crisis, which, as I mentioned before, has not just harmed the GNO, but the entire country as well.
You have said that you want people to know what you are doing as well as the reasons why. How easy is it for people to understand the measures you have had to take when many are already facing problems of survival?
Culture is not something that is beyond human nature and the struggle for survival. Especially now, with life becoming increasingly harder, people need to have a true sense of community and to experience real entertainment. When you are under pressure and looking for a way to let off some steam, you won’t get it from going a shopping spree, as was the case until now. You will get it from a book, from a good show, from an interesting conversation. This is what we offer. And the price, meanwhile, is not prohibitive. Let me just add that you can’t really put a price on art in any case. I think that every time we mention money as an obstacle to people’s contact with art, we are losing something important.
Who is supporting you efforts and how?
First and foremost, I have the support of the GNO staff, without which none of these changes would ever have taken place. I also have the support of the state, via the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, despite the problems they face themselves. Basically, though, the GNO has the support of its audience, which is faithful and passionate, and, which by all indications, is growing in size.
How can people involved in the arts or the art-loving public express their support?
Artists help in any case by serving their art as well as possible and the art-loving public by becoming inspired by them and inspiring others in turn.
How optimistic are you about the GNO’s future prospects?
I can’t give you a quantitative answer. I can’t say I’m a little optimistic or very optimistic. I am, however, thoroughly conviced of the GNO’s future.
What is your strategy for saving the country’s only opera company?
My strategy has already been made clear, ever since the first day I took on my new duties. The aim is to turn the opera company into the most popular entertainment and educational medium of Greek society. We want to rebuild an opera for the people, a popular spectacle, in the Viennese style. This, naturally, will first take a complete overhaul of the company’s finances, as well as a vision that will include new and older productions that will attract every Greek, and especially the country’s young people, into the folds of the opera.
How do you explain the expense of renovating the Olympia Theater amid such financial problems?
I already explained that our main objective is to get our house in order. Do you know a lot of good housekeeper who allow their homes to look untended, especially right now, when the competition has become as fierce as it has?
The chairman of the Greek National Opera board makes it clear that the program is not commercial, but national
At a recent press conference held in the under-renovation foyer of the Olympia Theater of the Greek National Opera (GNO), Nikos Mourkogiannis, the chairman of the board of directors of Greece’s only opera company, who was invited by the culture minister last spring to save the ailing organization, presented the program for this season: “Carmen,” “Tosca,” “The Barber of Seville,” “The Magic Flute” and, for the summer, “Nabucco,” “I Pagliacci” and “Cavalleria Rusticana.” In response to reactions insinuating the program diverged from the GNO’s traditions and was too commercial, Mourkogiannis was clear: “It is not the ideal program, but it is necessary.”
“The truth is that I do believe it is ideal,” he says now, sitting behind his desk at the GNO’s temporary residence on 39 Panepistimiou Street, overlooking the Athens Academy, Library and University, with the sound of Iranian hunger strikers in the background.
When I ask him whether the program was drawn up by Giovanni Pacor, the outgoing artistic director (the post is effectively empty, though the chairman believes a successor will be found easily), he reacts: “I’m get really annoyed at this kind of personal barb in some questions.”
– It’s not a barb, just a question…
No, no, look. It is inconceivable to me that a program is drawn up by one person alone. It is a complicated process. An artistic director alone cannot have an opinion on everything. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism gives me X amount, I have to pay Y amount to my staff, so there is only Z amount left over for the program. This kind of discipline has never been practiced at the GNO before. This is how you end up with 3.5 million euros for this year’s program. The objective is to put together a program that won’t sink you into debt. So don’t ask me to justify what is simply rational.
The resume of the man who now holds the fate of the GNO in his hands describes him as “one of the world’s leading experts in the field of Strategic Leadership.” He tells me about how he met former US President Ronald Reagan (“the smartest man in the world”) and actor Sean Connery, and how he locked horns at Harvard University with Microsoft pioneer Bill Gates over a woman (“that’s why I began smoking”), yet returned to Greece “after 35 years abroad, just for the Greek National Opera. I’m not known for sinking ships: of the 57 businesses I have been called in to rescue, I only failed with two,” he told the earlier press conference.
“The truth is that the proposal for the GNO did not exactly come from the government,” he notes. “Everyone has a mentor. Mine is Dr. Egon Zehnder, a Swiss German businessman. We see each other once month and eat dinner at a bar in Zurich and then go to the opera. One day he said to me: ‘You’re a patriot and you’re allowing Greece’s only opera to close down? I heard that the minister who was about to close it down is a former employee of mine, so I told him not to dare because one of the finest restructuring consultants in the world is a Greek and he can save the company in a week.’ That was when I got a telephone call from Mr. Pavlos Geroulanos. At first I thought I was going to be doing what I usually do, a consulting engagement. I told the minister that my services can be quite expensive. I charge 20,000 dollars a day for three months; that’s the price. The minister laughed because the money simply did not exist. So he said: ‘I’ll name you chairman, but you won’t get paid.’ Now I’m funding myself, but I do have to travel to Canada and the States all the time. I’m constantly jet-lagged.”
– A commercial program, therefore, is ideal in your mind?
This separation between commercial and artistic is an invention of responsible/irresponsible people. But, the program is not commercial; you misjudge it. It is a popular, national, program. Greece has a tradition in opera. “Marathon – Salamis” is the work of a Corfiot composer, Pavlos Carrer. We have Bithikotsis [the rebetiko legend], but we also have Carrer, and he too is part of our tradition. Furthermore, the GNO’s audience has a very clear idea of what it likes. When, at one time, they heard that the GNO was staging a performance that had a homosexual content, they did not go in numbers.
– Now you are the one who is being unfair to the GNO’s recent past. Even at its most experimental it drew the crowds, and a young crowd at that.
I don’t for a moment question the artistic criteria of Stefanos Lazarides. In fact, next year, or the one after that, I plan to reintroduce this artistic formula because even though I am not an artist myself, I know something about it.
– Are you saying that once the GNO gets back on its feet it will be a pioneer?
Absolutely. And I a preparing a big surprise. I’m not one for small gestures. I repeat, my objection is not with the artistic criteria of someone like Lazarides. I may not be an artistic director, but you don’t need a genius to pay 1.5 million dollars to bring an opera from San Francisco just to make a splash. I am against imports in general, because my job is to keep alive the continuity of the Greek nation, even more so when such imports rob taxpayers blind.
– Is this why you said that the press and critics contributed to the demise of the GNO, because we applauded those productions?
– Are you interested in what critics have to say?
I am, because even if some critics write something negative, they are still helping the GNO.
– Are you saying that the audience does the exact opposite of what it reads in the critiques?
Nikos Mourkogiannis is proud of the stage door he was able to get opened off the back of the theater onto Harilaou Trikoupi Street, but also of the renovation of the theater’s foyer. “Do you know why I did it?” he asks, smiling. “The foyer of the GNO will be leased out for social and cultural functions. It may be a book presentation or a wedding. This means more revenue for the company.”
– You talk about fixing the company’s finances, but you have an outstanding 120,000 euro debt to Yiannis Kouroudis’s K2 design firm. This is a well-respected firm that has been awarded internationally and its work has been identified with the GNO’s rebirth. Why did you end your collaboration so abruptly?
I really like Yiannis Kouroudis’s work, but his firm is just too expensive for us. As a board we have to save money wherever we can. If we have to sever ties with a supplier, we invite him to discuss a payment restructuring scheme – let’s not kid ourselves after all, the GNO is in the process of bankruptcy. He asked for 75% of the debt to the repaid. But when I have 39 suppliers who have accepted the deal we offered, why should I make this one exception? He was the one who wasn’t being reasonable, not us.
– Why did the Acropol Theater close?
That decision weighed heavily on my conscience, but it was a burden on the GNO’s finances and if I had let the situation continue I would have betrayed my cause: saving the GNO and, by extension, contributing to the preservation of downtown Athens. In ten years’ time, you won’t see one Greek walking the streets of central Athens. This is why I never want to leave the Olympia Theater. We offer four products, not just opera. We are an opera theater as well. Two of our activities are all about central Athens. Firstly, we are the country’s biggest theater for children. Secondly, we represent Athenian operetta and there is one product that I really miss which I would like to revive and would bring in revenue: the musical. The two halls at the new complex on the Faliro Delta are not enough. You’ll argue that I feel as though we haven’t got enough space yet still closed the Acropol. But, as I said, the rent was just impossible at this time.
– What is happening with the probe into the former management’s handling of the company’s finances? Why the secrecy?
Some have accused me of something I have never been accused of before: populism. Now these same people are asking me to publish the findings, the epitome of populism. The outcome of the investigation is a judicial matter and the committee’s findings are currently with the Ministry of Culture and Tourism under my responsibility. I make the findings known to the authorities; that is as far as I can go.
– Have you read it?
Yes, but it’s confidential. My job was to pass it on to the minister. The investigation reports 39 suspect actions and it is 29 pages long. Bear in mind that it is the product of an excellent inquiry by a committee of university professors.
– Yet, despite all the wrongs under that management, it did make an opening that introduced young people to the GNO?
You are making the same mistake again. Today’s audience does not come from just one age group. And I repeat that this is a strategy that has been applied by default. There will be surprises, however. And the surprises will come as soon as I can get some money. Until then, my lips are sealed. We will walk the same road as the taxpayer.
Nikos Mourkogiannis studied law and economics, and has a lengthy career abroad. “I have had to make several difficult decisions in my lifetime, yet I have not regretted them. I was active against the dictatorship because I was annoyed by Papadopoulos’s syntax and grammar. After receiving my degree from Athens Law School, with top marks, I left the law and went to Harvard to study economics. Ever since I was a boy I was convinced that the Soviet Union was the biggest threat to mankind. I was a Cold War warrior.”
– And an ant-Communist?
Anti-Soviet. Being an anti-Communist would have given credence to Communism.
– In your book “Purpose. The Starting Point of Great Companies,” you write that you were accused as being the person behind the “commercial use” of F-16 fighter jets by the Americans for Greece. You say, with pride, that you are guilty.
Yes, because I feel that I contributed in some small way to strengthening national security and the demise of the Soviet Union.
Dear Friends and Colleagues,
Please use your personal Facebook to tell your friends that the Greek National Opera would love to see them at one of the performances of the operetta “The Love Bacillus” (9, 10 November 2010, 7,9,14,16,28,30 December 2010) in the newly renovated Olympia Theatre! We will soon be announcing even more performance dates.
Those who are interested can call the box office on 210-3662100, 210-3612461, 210-3643725, or visit our expanded website www.nationalopera.gr.
If anybody wants a chance to win free tickets, please visit twitter.com/nationalopera
Weekday performances begin at 19.00 and on the weekend at 20.00.
- The True Purpose of the Board
- Purpose: The Search for Strategic Alignment
- The Return in HR from Purpose
- Purpose-Led Planning & Strategy Execution
- An Interview with Nikos
- Using Purpose to Drive Innovation
- Thinking on Purpose
- Purpose: The Starting Point of Great Leadership
- The Search for Purpose
- Four Routes to Success
- Purposeful Leadership