■ By Takis Mihas
MEDELLIN, COLOMBIA.- The thriving city of 4 million inhabitants in northern Colombia, has undoubtedly changed dramatically over recent years. Once the headquarters of the so-called “Medellin Cartel” (of drugs) and of the infamous Pablo Escobar, the city was plagued every day by violence, bombs and kidnappings. But those things belong to the past, hopefully for good. Today, most of the city is safe for walking, and because of its climate and educated workforce, it is becoming a magnet for foreign investment and for American expats seeking a better quality of life and creative opportunities.
But for me, as a Greek, Medellin hid another surprise: Finding the shelves of the local supermarkets well-stocked with a par excellence Greek product: kourabie! And, moreover, this product is not only found here during the Christmas celebrations—as is the case in Greece—but throughout the whole year. Here, however, this product is known mostly as “galletas con almendras” (“almond cookies”).
“Yes, the Colombians have a problem pronouncing the K sound; that is why we market them as galletas,” Spiros Gongas tells us. Mr. Gongas is one of the owners of Greco S.A., the company that produces and markets the kourabie in Colombia. Today his company is producing 60 tons of kourabie monthly, most of it for domestic consumption. A part is also exported to neighboring countries like Panama and Ecuador. ”We hope to expand our exports,“ he tells us, “and also reach the U.S. market.” Today, Greco S.A. is distinguished as the most important company in the fine-cookies segment. It is part of a group of companies with economic activities in textiles, abrasives, food and distribution. The group has direct activities in Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and México.
In the last 6 years, Greco has amplified its portfolio with new complementary lines of confectionery products; candies, gums, chocolate and cookies, most of them imported. But its flagship product remains the kourabie.
The company’s sales structure covers all main cities and towns of the Colombian market. Colombia has 34 departments, and Greco covers 25 of them with 95% of the consumption.
The main distribution channels are chains of supermarkets, retail stores, wholesalers, local distributors, pharmacies and convenience stores.
Mr. Gongas, who studied biology at the University of Athens, tried his first steps as an entrepreneur importing items related to the food and beverage industry in his native Corfu. He arrived in Medellin 20 years ago. “At some point I felt that Corfu was too small for me and that I had to try my luck in the wider world,” he says. He had some family here, so Medellin was an obvious choice. He bought a used factory with some old machines and set about becoming rich. “My first attempts failed tragically. Then I hit upon the idea of producing kourabie, bought some new machinery … and the rest is history,” he tells us.
Why did he choose to produce kourabie? It is by no means an obvious choice, and as our interlocutor informs us, despite appearances, the humble kourabie is a very sensitive product: “It breaks easily, it may rot quickly if one is not careful. When we started, we had to change the packaging many times.”
“When I first came here, ”Mr. Gongas continues, “the cookies market was dominated by two or three big companies that were following the principles of mass marketing. I decided to opt for a product that appealed to the meraclides. I followed a strategy that came later to be called ‘niche marketing.’ In other words, I followed some Greek cultural insights and ended up adopting—unknowingly—a very modern marketing strategy.”
And how did he hit upon a recipe for meraclides? ”Well, that wasn’t so hard. I put the recipes of my mother, of my yiayia, of my pethera, of my neighbor on the computer, started adding a bit of this and a bit of that, started deducting a bit of this and a bit of that, until I finally hit upon something I liked and I thought the locals would like too. And it worked!”
Mr Gongas’ efforts testify to the advantages and disadvantages a foreigner has in trying to break into a foreign market. The disadvantages are obvious: lack of the knowledge of local conditions, culture and customs. The advantages: bringing new ways of thinking that disrupt traditional patterns and rules—what for many analysts constitutes the essence of entrepreneurialism.
In his factory he employs around 150 people, all of them locals. We asked him what he thought about their performance. Instead of hearing a litany of complaints, as is often the case with western entrepreneurs operating in developing countries, we heard nothing but praise:
“Our workers are family men and women. They operate in the context of a value system that stresses hard work and discipline. Generally I think the local community has been very supportive of our efforts.”
We asked him what he thought of the future prospects of Colombia and how this country compares to, for example, his home country of Greece. ”I find the Colombian people extremely entrepreneurial. I also think that the current atmosphere in the city of Medellin promotes innovation and entrepreneurialism. In that sense Colombia is a far cry from Europe and especially from Greece, where everybody’s ideal is to become a civil servant. Here people don’t want to become civil servants, they want to become businessmen—civil servants don’t enjoy the privileges they have in Greece, like, for example, tenure. The parents’ dream is that their offspring work for a private enterprise, not for the state. It also helps that the taxation policy here is relatively stable, whereas in Greece it changes every other day. Colombia’s backbone and motor of development are its small and medium-sized enterprises. Taxation policy takes that into account.”
Another great advantage of Colombia over Greece is that Colombia has its own currency, which means that its value adjusts automatically to the productivity of the country, thereby rendering Colombian products and services competitive.“The introduction of euro,” he adds, “has been a disaster for the Greek economy. It made Greek products uncompetitive and led to the closure of many business ”
We asked him finally how is it to operate as an entrepreneur in a developing country.
“Here you have to be always extremely alert. Every day you have to deal with new factors you never dreamed about, and you have to face new situations you never thought could occur. It is a country that is developing quickly. That carries lots of opportunities but also lots of risks. It’s like hell and paradise united in one: One day you are rich, and the next you have nothing.”
Married to Maria Victoria Mesa, a business administrator, Mr. Gongas is today the proud and happy father of three children: Carolina, Sofia and Nikolas.