New Greek TV's featured Greek of the Week is shipping professional Katerina Stathopoulou.
Stathopoulou is a seasoned expert and key player in the industry, due to her unique blend of international finance and operations expertise. The shipping professional's career has spanned over thirty years; she currently serves as the Executive Director at Investments & Finance Ltd.
In our interview below, the native Athenian discloses her career highlights, industry challenges, proudest moments, hopes for Greece, and more.
Maria Athens: Can you offer an overview of your career?
Katerina Stathopoulou: In one phrase – "playing musical chairs around the meeting room table and mentoring the next generation of Professional Women."
My career in shipping began when I answered a job ad in 1985, where Athenian Sea Carriers was recruiting for the position of Assistant CFO. Here I was, a very young lady with another 2 years to finish the University, applying and being called for an interview with the CFO. At this point, one must keep in mind that Greece in the mid-1980's and Greece today, are 2 very different countries in terms of mentality!
The CFO was an ex-Vice President of CITIBANK's shipping department and CITIBANK at that time was the No. 1 Shipping Finance bank in Greece. He was an American trained professional and the interview lasted for an hour. It was the most challenging thing I had ever done up to that moment. I won the position, but the final conversation was very interesting and characteristic of the times –
He said: "Where do you see yourself in 5 years?"
I answered: "In your chair."
He said: "You are hired."
I answered: "That means you are not afraid of your chair."
He said: "No because you are expected to be at home, married with children within these 5 years."
I answered: "Please do not place your bet on this timeframe because you will be disappointed. My plans have a different time horizon."
He laughed, but hired me.
He was not joking. He really believed in what he was saying and expecting to happen. It clearly showed the mentality of Greece at that time. Being a Woman Professional was out of the question. Having a family and being a Professional was unthinkable.
Needless to say, I stayed with Athenian Sea Carriers for more than 5 years. During that period shipping was going through the crisis of the 1980's and I was gaining valuable "hands on" experience. When I left the company I entered the Banking industry, always on the shipping side, but in a different chair around the meeting table. I was now on the Banking side with the CFO and the Shipowner across from me. I began as Relationship Officer and progressed to Head of Shipping and Credit Committee member of 2 Greek private Banks, building their shipping loan portfolios from $0 to $MMs.
In 2000 I switched chairs again and joined Investments & Finance, a shipping finance advisory boutique with investment banking activities in Piraeus. Today, I am Executive Director of Investments & Finance, advising my clients on their shipping projects by capitalizing on all my previous shipping and banking experience. I am now at the meeting room table with the CFO and the Shipowner across from the Bankers.
Over the past 18 years, I have been a member of WISTA Hellas and for the past 3 years I am an Executive Committee Member of WISTA International representing WISTA Hellas. Women's International Shipping and Trading Association (WISTA) is a networking organization for women at management level in the maritime industry. Today WISTA is comprised of 35 member countries with over 2,200 members worldwide. Each WISTA country member has its own local Board of Directors.
The WISTA International Executive Committee oversees the global WISTA country members, promotes WISTA worldwide assisting in the development of further member countries, as well as establishing synergies and connections with the global shipping industry.
Furthermore, I am a Board Member and Mentor of IforU, a non-profit organization for the empowerment and support of women entrepreneurs through Mentoring & Networking.
I am also a Mentor for Open Mind Group (OMG). OMG is a non-profit association of Greek University graduates wanting to create a bond with the Maritime community and business in general. Their goal is to connect the academic community with the business environment. As a Mentor at OMG I guide the young generation in their career path, either in shipping or other industries, as well as help them develop their networking skills.
Finally, I am a Lecturer on Shipping Finance at the Greek Branch of the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers and invited Speaker in Shipping Conferences and various Universities.
Maria Athens: What drew you to the maritime industry?
Katerina Stathopoulou: Destiny, masquerading as a job ad.
Actually, I consider myself being in shipping since I was born. My father is a Ship's Master and I was travelling on the vessel with him and my mother until I was 5, at which time I had to go to kindergarten. Shipping is therefore my life. I have been raised on cargo vessels, worked in a bulker and tanker company and subsequently approved the financing of these assets. Finally, for the past 15 years, I have been advising my clients and assisting them in boosting company value.
Maria Athens: Can you tell us about your background?
Katerina Stathopoulou: I am an only child, born in Athens, Greece but American raised and educated. My grandparents are from the island of Syros and Kalamata in the Peloponnese. My parents, however, grew up in Athens. I, on the other hand, was raised in Chicago and in Athens. It's exciting actually, as I have always been traveling back and forth from a very young age. When I was in Chicago, I used to fly into Greece for the summer, as an unaccompanied minor. At that time, Olympic Airways had a direct flight from Chicago to Athens. Since I was making this trip every summer, I had made friends with the Airplane Crew and spent the better part of the trip in the cockpit!! Every time, to and from Chicago.
At arrival, instead of being handed over to the Ground Crew because I was an unaccompanied minor, I would deplane with the Airplane Crew. They were the ones who passed me through customs and handed me to either my Aunt in Greece or my parents in Chicago, who were waiting for me at Arrivals. In fact, I still remember their first surprised look when they saw me coming through a different door, from where they were waiting at Arrivals. My family was worried about the long plane flight being made by a small child alone and I was the only one really enjoying it!! I think that was the beginning of my networking skills.
I love travelling! But then again, what can you expect from someone who was raised from the age of 2 until kindergarten on a vessel and then making transatlantic flights alone either back to Greece or at various ports to meet my dad. I have so many warm memories of places and people I have visited and met over those years. I was very sociable from very young, so people talked with me, played with me and made me realize that if I wanted something, I should go out and try to get it. That is what I have been doing since then.
In Chicago I attended St. Hilary's Elementary School. I was the first non-Catholic and Greek to attend a private Catholic School. I don't know how my parents managed that miracle, but I thank them for it. In the beginning it was difficult, as my English was practically inexistent. On top of that, I was a non-Catholic foreigner and kids at that age can be really cruel. That was a steep learning curve, but by the end of my first year I had made friends out of most of my "enemies" and at the end of 8th Grade, I even got a scholarship for my academic achievements!
Unfortunately, at the end of 8th Grade we had to return back to Greece for family reasons. I attended High School at the American Community Schools of Athens. The irony of my return to Greece was that my Greek was inexistent! Of course I had the same language challenges when I was travelling back for my summer holidays, but it was for a short period of time. Now it was very different. Needless to say, I adapt very quickly and pick up languages even quicker.
I have a BSc in Business Management and Finance from the University of Maryland. The University had a campus in the US, in Germany and on the American Air Force Base in Greece. I was Valedictorian of my High School graduating class and had received a scholarship to attend NYU, but unfortunately, I could still not leave Greece due to family reasons. So I attended the University on the American Air Force Base campus in Greece. Courses on the Base were offered from 18.00 until 23.00 hrs. This enabled me to also have a full time day job.
I ended up making a family and a life for myself in Athens, where I still live with my 2 daughters, age 18 and 20. However, my American education and upbringing very much influenced my thinking and mentality which made me different from my Peers in Greece all these years. Contrary to the average Greek woman, I was always very independent with clear personal and career goals. As I said, this made me different from the others, but also propelled me forward.
Maria Athens: What have been the highlights of your career?
Katerina Stathopoulou: I feel that my whole career is one highlight!! I cannot really pin point any one particular moment. Every day has brought and continues to bring new challenges which require me to produce results based on my experience and brain energy.
I have faced exciting situations over these years, however, due to confidentiality reasons, I cannot share with you highlights from my banking days or from my current position.
Maria Athens: What personal and professional feats are you most proud of?
Katerina Stathopoulou: On the personal side, I am proud of my 2 very talented daughters. I raised them totally on my own, as a single parent and full time Woman Professional. Balancing those 2 roles and producing positive results on both sides is a big challenge and I am very proud of the end results.
On the professional side, I am proud of my career path and all of my achievements, as they have been earned with hard work and determination. I am also proud of being a Mentor to the young generation, assisting them to reach their goals. The feeling of being a part of this achievement is very fulfilling.
Maria Athens: Was it challenging breaking into the male dominated maritime industry?
Katerina Stathopoulou: Breaking into the male dominated maritime industry was and continues to be challenging.
Today, things are easier than when I started out in the 1980's. Although women today are accepted as being capable of performing in this demanding and very exciting industry, they still have to work harder to prove their decision making capabilities, compared to their male counterparts, in order to achieve advancement.
The challenges that a Woman Professional has are not only in terms of competition with her male counterparts, but also in terms of other responsibilities she has to fulfill that are gender related. Women will always have many roles – Wife, Mother and Professional are all full time jobs. I believe this is where the challenges begin. Please let me not be misunderstood, I am not knocking down the men, here. However, even though societies have come a long way in terms of equality between men and women in their capabilities, differences still exist in their role expectations.
However, I have always believed that being a woman, gave me an edge in the male dominated shipping industry. I have realized that many times my smile allowed me to enter a meeting, but my experience, wit and skills kept me in the game, bringing results and earning respect.
Networking is also a big part of professional achievements. Traditionally, it has been easier for men to network. The professional environments encouraged men more than women in this respect. Women used to be more introvert when it came to their networking skills. Today women are slowly discovering the power of networking. Professional associations such as WISTA and IforU provide women the opportunity to network with other Professionals (male and female) thus improving their networking skills, enhancing their industry knowledge and increasing their career achievements. I am proud to be an active member as well as a Board Member in both of these very powerful Associations.
Maria Athens: Can you tell us about your current position?
Katerina Stathopoulou: As Executive Director of Investments & Finance Ltd., I lead multiple consulting engagements to assist clients in boosting company value. I am responsible for the structuring of public and private bank debt financings as well as restructurings. I also handle financial negotiations and M&A transactions as well as recommend traditional/convertible debt and merger/acquisition strategies.
It is a very demanding job in terms of brain energy and time allocation. However, I thrive on the rewarding feeling from the positive end results which "add value" to my clients.
Maria Athens: What's your advice for someone trying to break into the shipping sector?
Katerina Stathopoulou: Shipping is an exciting, vibrant industry, and one should be willing to put in long hours without complaints. Patience, determination and hard work are the characteristics one should have along with a sound educational background.
Maria Athens: What are your hopes for Greece?
Katerina Stathopoulou: I believe Greece is at a turning point in its history. Numerous mistakes have been made over the past many years by our politicians resulting in wrong perceptions on many issues by the Greek people. The crisis has shed a lot of light on all these skewed perceptions and beliefs. I believe Greece will ultimately work through all of the difficulties and come out of the crisis stronger and wiser. The majority of the younger generation has a different mindset from previous generations and they are the ones that will bring Greece back to prosperity.
Maria Athens: What's next for Katerina Stathopoulou?
Katerina Stathopoulou: I never stop putting new targets in front of me in an effort to always improve myself and acquire new knowledge and skills. In this respect, I am also at a turning point personally and professionally, but am not at liberty to reveal more at this time. One thing is certain, I will never stop looking into the future and reaching for the stars!!