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Global Voices: An immigrant's uphill push for a greener Greece

June 20, 2013|By Carol J. Williams
  • Van Vlahakis, founder of Venus Laboratories and Earth Friendly Products, at the companies' Garden Grove facilities. The Greek immigrant is battling bureaucracy in his efforts to expand into his European homeland.
Van Vlahakis, founder of Venus Laboratories and Earth Friendly Products,… (Courtesy of Healthy Living…)

Sixty years after leaving destitute Greece to pursue the quintessential immigrant’s dream of striking it rich in America, Eftichios “Van” Vlahakis is back trying to do business in his again-impoverished homeland.

Vlahakis, who at age 18 arrived in Chicago with a student visa and $23, slept in homeless shelters and did odd jobs at bars and restaurants while earning a chemistry degree at Roosevelt University in the 1950s. But he soon abandoned the toxins and caustic substances in use at his first jobs with companies producing aerosols, polishes and solvents, redirecting his knowledge of the Earth’s elements to the creation of environmentally safe cleaning products.

He is the founding force behind Earth Friendly Products, his family-owned enterprise that touts its ECOS detergent as the No. 1-selling green laundry product in the world. Now he wants to expand its place in the European market with a new factory and distribution center in Athens.

Vlahakis' efforts to break into the protective commercial circles of his birthplace have encountered anything but a local-boy-made-good welcome. His plans to inaugurate the Athens facility during a monthlong visit beginning in July remain hostage to bureaucracy, corruption and resistance by industry colleagues who perceive him as a rival.

Greece suffers unemployment of at least 27% as well as tumbling incomes brought on by the demands for “austerity,” the cutbacks ordered by international lenders in exchange for bailouts of the country’s triple-digit billions in debt.

The jobs to be created by Earth Friendly Products at its new European production and distribution center would be small at first, Vlahakis says. But he points out that the company’s practice of working with local suppliers of green ingredients, containers, labels, delivery services and recycling should eventually have an exponential effect on its contribution to the Greek capital’s economy.

Vlahakis, 78, spoke with The Times about the motivation behind his decision to bring his green philosophies to his homeland, where fellow Greeks share his reverence for the environment but not always his foreign-acquired can-do spirit.

Q:  Why is it important to you to take your business to Greece?

Vlahakis:  I was born in Greece, and I want to see Greeks able to get green products that are affordable, so they don’t have to choose between a good price and products that are safe for the environment. Lots of people are unemployed there, and our company will create jobs and support for the local economy. It’s going to take time, but it will happen.

Q:  So why are the authorities dragging their feet in letting your factory get up and running?

Vlahakis:  I think someone is encouraging them to discourage us. If the delays were really about doing everything right, they would have given us a list at the beginning of the application process and said, “This is what we need from you.” Instead, every time we give them answers they give us more questions. This is the way they operate to hold you away from the market. But we’re not going to let them get away with that.

Q:   Do you worry that the business development models you created in the United States may not work in Greece, that you may encounter friction with workers and managers used to doing things their own way?

Vlahakis:  We had many of these same problems here when we first started. We worked it out, and we expect that everything will be worked out in Greece as well. People are always resistant to change at the beginning.

Q:  How many jobs do you envision the Athens facility creating once it is fully operational?

Vlahakis:  We have 300 here in the United States. Maybe one day the European facility will have as many, I don’t know. But for every employee, there are another 10 people affected by that employment. We buy our ingredients and bottles and packaging from local producers. And our employees will be paid more. The minimum wage in Greece has been lowered to 600 euros [about $800] per month because of the austerity measures. Ours will be 1,500 euros [about $2,000] per month because that is what they really need to live decently.

Q:  Is environmental protection as much a priority for the Greek population as it is in the United States?

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