Aristotle S. Onassis
Aristotle S. Onassis died on March 15, 1975. At that time, the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation amounted to no more than a few lines in his will and the express instruction that it was to bear the name of Alexander S. Onassis, his son, who had pre-deceased him, wishing to preserve his memory. On October 24, 2000, the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation (USA) celebrated its inauguration and the opening of the Onassis Cultural Center, housed in The Olympic Tower at 645 Fifth Avenue in New York City. In 2005, the Archbishop Iakovos Leadership 100 Endowment Fund, organized in 1984 as the vision of the late Archbishop Iakovos, Primate of North and South America, to support the National Ministries of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and advance Orthodoxy and Hellenism in America, moved its offices to The Olympic Tower, becoming a neighbor of the Onassis Foundation and cooperating with it in promoting Hellenism in the premiere venue of Hellenic culture in the United States.
After the Foundation’s beginning, and almost 35 years after Onassis’s death, a new generation is now at the helm, exemplified by its President and Treasurer, Anthony S. Papadimitriou, who graciously granted the following interview on the occasion of the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation joining the Archbishop Iakovos Leadership 100 Endowment Fund, a linking of two historic legacies with one mission – to preserve, perpetuate and advance Hellenism in all its manifold aspects.
Interview with Anthony S. Papadimitriou, President and Treasurer,
Board of Directors, Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation
What goals have you set for the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation since becoming President and Treasurer of the Board of Directors in 2005 and how has the Foundation evolved in its mission from the original wishes of Aristotle Onassis which put culture, education, environment, health and social achievement as first on the agenda?
As you know, the Onassis Foundation is administered by a 15 member Board of Directors and I have always believed that joint effort is very important. The goal of this Board has always been to continue the successful work that has been collectively done for almost 35 years since the establishment of the Foundation in 1975.
Since 1975, the Foundation has expanded the areas of its activity, both in Greece and abroad. Culture, education, the environment, health, and social solidarity have always come first on the agenda of the Foundation, which carries out Aristotle Onassis’s original wishes, consistently, steadily and conscientiously. Our permanent and long-terms programs have been very successful. Let me add that the Foundation has actively proven its great interest in welfare projects by offering substantial grants and subsidizing organizations, which are active in the above fields. Moreover, the Board of Directors of the Foundation decides on the execution and funding of important projects of significant public benefit, undertaking both the preliminary studies and their implementation. The Foundation concentrates mainly on its own permanent projects rather than funding projects and activities undertaken by others.
What prepared you for your leadership role?
I was born in Alexandria, Egypt in 1955. In my first 5 years we lived in Saudi Arabia. In 1960 we returned to Alexandria where we lived until 1966. We came in Greece at that time and have lived here since then. I always understood myself a Greek from Alexandria, i.e. a Greek of the Diaspora.
In 1977, I graduated from the Law School of Athens University and in 1980 I became a member of the Piraeus Bar. I then earned the Diplome d’Etudes Superieures Specialisees (DESS) in Maritime and Transport Law from the Law School of the University of Aix - en Provence, France, and a B.S. in Economics from the London School of Economics. I am therefore by training both a lawyer and an economist. I am now managing partner of the law firm A. S. Papadimitriou and Partners established in Athens since 1966 by my father. My law firm is independent from the Foundation.
“The greatness of Aristotle Onassis’s spirit was that he selected the right people to whom he entrusted both his business as well as the Foundation.” ________________________________________________________________________________
In 1988 I was elected member of the Board of the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, in 1996 Secretary to the Board, in 2003 Secretary/Treasurer and in 2005 President.
I was promoted to the Board of the Foundation by Christina Onassis when she was still alive. There was an effort to find new people to come in and start from the lowest grade within the organization and work their way up to wherever their capabilities would allow them to go.
So, when I was elected president of the Foundation, I was not actually “new” to the Foundation. I had already been involved with the Foundation for 18 years and I have been working for the group for an even longer period. I have always been a part of the team that was running the Foundation and I have participated in whatever good has been done and my intention is to continue like that.
Today the work of the Foundation is truly breathtaking, ranging from Scholarships to Educational Institutions in Greece and for Hellenes and Foreigners to Grants and Prizes, Onassis International Prizes, Promotion of Hellenic Civilization and Studies Abroad to Science Lecture Series and Fine Arts, covering virtually every field. What weaves all this together?
Our mission is to promote through our programmes Hellenic culture in Greece and abroad. Greece was always at the centre of Aristotle Onassis’s vision. His vision is also the vision of all the Hellenes and in particular of the Hellenes of the Diaspora.
You say in the President’s Message, From Memory to Challenge, that he possessed the unique ability to select goals and choose people. How is this reflected in the work of the Foundation?
The greatness of Aristotle Onassis’s spirit was that he selected the right people to whom he entrusted both his business as well as the Foundation. Most of them were his closest associates. In any organization the most important and most difficult job is to choose the right people at the right places and to arrange for the succession. His vision also included a mechanism to arrange for the next generation which is us. His choice of people is reflected in the fact that the Onassis Foundation is one of the very few businesses that have survived the death of the founder for so many years.
Yet, I notice the Onassis Cardiac Surgery Centre gets most of the funding followed by Scholarships for History, Archaeology and Fine Arts as a group with Economics, Business, Science and Technology next. Why is this?
The Onassis Cardiac Surgery Centre (OCC) has been the first of the big projects envisioned and brought to completion by the Onassis Foundation’s Board of Directors. The cost at that time amounted to more than $75,000,000 (estimated at €150,000,000 in today’s prices). Since then, we have continuously supported the OCC. For example, between 2002 and 2005, the Foundation spent $8,500,000 on replacing all the medical and technical equipment of the OCC and in 2006 the Foundation decided to purchase and install the most up-to-date CT scanning machine at a cost of € 1.600,000. Even though the sums spent for the building and equipping OCC historically represent a large percent of our public benefit projects up to now, it is not a permanent programme like the scholarships, grants, promotion of Hellenic studies etc.
At this point, I should mention our next major project: the Onassis House of Letters and Arts, multi-purpose cultural centre, which is currently being built in Athens and which we plan to inaugurate by the end of the year 2010. The building, with a surface area of 18,000 sq m, is being constructed on a plot of private land measuring 3,000 sq m, and covers an entire block. It consists of a 900 seat amphitheatre, with a stage that can accommodate theatrical performances, a symphony orchestra, opera, dance, cinema, lectures and conferences; a 220 seat hall, suitable for smaller theatrical, musical or dance performances, lectures and special audio-visual shows (multimedia, virtual reality); 700 sq m of exhibition space; an open air theatre; an electronic library; a professional recording studio; a restaurant with an open-air section for artistic events; and an underground parking and storage space.
“What is unique in our case is that, in accordance with Onassis’s will, the Public Benefit Foundation is the sole beneficiary of the Business Foundation and spends about 40% of its net annual profits.”
The goals of the Onassis House of Letters and Arts are multifarious and among them are to encourage the development of Modern Greek culture and its promotion outside of Greece, as well as providing Greek artists with a fully equipped cultural center where they can present their work. It will also give foreign journalists, critics, and cultural managers a chance to become acquainted with the work of Greek artists. At the same time, it will give Greek artists the opportunity to make use of the Foundation's network of valuable contacts abroad, created in the course of its long-term involvement with the world of culture. The Board of Directors has decided that the building will also be used for events organised jointly with foreign organizations, if such events are of interest to the Greek public, especially in the case of works that exhibit Greek elements.
How have the so-called “Business Foundation” and its investment policies allowed you to carry on the work of the “Public Benefit Foundation?”
As you may know, the Business Foundation engages in shipping, real estate and other business. What is unique in our case is that, in accordance with Onassis’s will, the Public Benefit Foundation is the sole beneficiary of the Business Foundation and spends about 40% of its net annual profits. The remainder is re-invested in order to keep the business going and generate more profits. It does not have any other beneficiaries except the Public Benefit Foundation. Both Foundations are independent from legal, financial and administrative point of view from the estate of the late Christina Onassis and her daughter.
The success of the Business Foundation is reflected in the fact that the Onassis Foundation now controls more than five times the original amount that Aristotle Onassis bequeathed to it.
As a lawyer, economist and businessman how do you view the economic downturn and its affect on both political and economic systems around the world? Are you optimistic about economic recovery? In shipping and trade?
Today’s crisis affects all aspects of economic and business activities. I believe that the fundamental cause of this crisis is the fact that the control mechanisms of economic activity were generally inferior to the intelligence and creativity of the new forms of economic activity.
“There has been no example in history of such an important economic crisis that was not followed by a socio-political crisis.”
There are many sub-levels in this crisis: the real estate crisis, the credit crunch, the fall of consumption and the fall in new investments etc. In my opinion, we are now beyond a deep recession. We are in fact already in a depression. Lastly, I believe we have not seen the end of it. Quantitative easing is actually another word for money printing. Therefore, the next sub-level of the crisis is likely to be centered on the funding of the budget deficit, taxation, inflation and unemployment.
Moreover, it is very possible that we are going to experience social upheavals due to this crisis. There has been no example in history of such an important economic crisis that was not followed by a socio-political crisis. I would be surprised if this does not happen in this case given the depth of the recession. I also believe that this socio-political crisis is likely to be triggered by a chance event.
“The crisis in shipping will lead to a clearing out of the strongest over the weaker. In the Onassis Group we did not proceed to ordering new vessels because we thought that wouldn’t have been wise.”
The crisis in shipping, however, does not only depend on the recovery of demand for transport services which will happen sooner or later. It also depends on the oversupply of vessels which will become worse within the next 2 years even if there are substantial order cancellations. The crisis in shipping will lead to a clearing out of the strongest over the weaker. In the Onassis Group we did not proceed to ordering new vessels because we thought that wouldn’t have been wise. When we see that the prices of the vessels and the conditions of the market justify the investment, we will proceed. Until then we remain patient since, even under these conditions, we have a positive cash flow.
How has the establishment in 1998 of the Alexander Onassis Public Benefit Foundation (USA), of which you are also President, affected the mission and outreach of the parent Foundation? Has it enhanced the role of advancing Hellenic Civilization and Studies and given this priority?
The purpose of the affiliated Foundation is to promote Greek culture in the USA and the Americas in general. By establishing the affiliated Foundation, the parent Foundation drew attention to the significant contribution of the Greek spirit to contemporary civilizationbearing in mind the present cultural environment of international interaction and globalisation. The affiliated Foundation’s activities are two-fold, the promotion of Modern Greek culture through a series of lectures and the promotion and display of Greek culture through the ages by means of exhibitions and other cultural events.
“Leadership 100 is one of the top Greek American organisations which includes some of the best men and women of Hellenism. We consider it our duty and an honour to symbolically participate in this organisation.”
In pursuance of its first aim, the University Seminars Program invites top-ranking scholars and professors who conduct a series of seminars and lectures in universities and major centres of culture in North and South America and Canada each semester. The lecturers who are invited to teach –at the Foundation’s expense– come from top universities in Greece, Europe and America. In order to support the classes and seminars, the Foundation provides all the books and manuals suggested by the teachers so that students can prepare for the courses. After the end of the course the books and manuals are donated to the relevant university libraries.
The second of the affiliated Foundation’s aims is served by organising exhibitions and educational events based on Classical, Byzantine and contemporary Greek culture. The Onassis Cultural Center has organised exhibitions of archaeology, contemporary art and sculpture, lectures, concerts and dramatic readings, for the citizens of New York. The exhibitions are accompanied by educational events such as lectures and one-day seminars. Guided tours are provided for American and Greek-American schools, universities, senior employees of museums and educational or cultural foundations in the US, diplomatic and consular representatives, and of course for the general public. Entry to the exhibitions and educational events is free.
Finally, in relation to the Onassis House of Letters and Arts now being built in Athens, the affiliate Foundation is in a perfect position, to be used as a conduit whereby we can get Greeks from Greece out into the United States and vice-versa -- to bring, also, Greeks from the Diaspora, Greek Americans back into Greece. We can use the connections with Universities, with the chairs of Modern Greek culture studies, etc., as a conduit for Greek artists, writers, performers, etc., to come into the American art scene.
Why did the Foundation decide to join Leadership 100 and how does the Foundation relate to the mission of Leadership 100 to support the National Ministries of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and its mission to advance Orthodoxy and Hellenism in America?
The Foundation honours Leadership 100 bearing in mind the very important role of this organisation in supporting the Greek American Community and the Greek Orthodox Church. We acknowledge the importance of its mission which aims at promoting Hellenism and Greek Orthodox faith in America. Leadership 100 is one of the top Greek American organisations which includes some of the best men and women of Hellenism. We consider it our duty and an honour to symbolically participate in this organisation. Based on the up to date achievements of Leadership 100, I express my optimism for the future of the organisation and of Hellenism in general in the USA.