Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Philip Morris 300 Million-Euro Greek Bet Brings Revival Optimism

  • The cigarette maker’s investment is among biggest since crisis
  • Company wants to make smokeless cigarette products in Greece

When Philip Morris International Inc. announced in March that it would invest 300 million euros ($328 million) in its Greek unit, the cigarette maker was betting on an economy that had cratered as the country was struggling to strike a deal with its creditors.

The New York-based company and its wholly owned subsidiary, Papastratos, didn’t want to wait. Now, with review talks completed between the government and creditors, Christos Harpantidis, Papastratos’s chief executive officer, says the company feels vindicated. 

“Our example will be followed by many others,” Harpantidis, who took charge in August, 2015, said in an interview with Bloomberg in Athens.

The investment from the manufacturer of Marlboro and Chesterfield cigarettes is among the biggest such inflows for Greece since the debt crisis in 2009, and is a much-needed boost for a country that has seen its economy shrink by more than a quarter. Europe’s most-indebted nation needs investments that can rekindle its economy as it works on putting structural changes in place to comply with the terms of its bailout.

Greece resolved the latest impasse over the terms of its bailout program with international creditors in the early hours of May 2, unlocking the way for debt-relief talks and the disbursement of the next tranche of emergency loans. A euro-working group is due to take place on May 15, while Greek lawmakers are due to vote on the agreed measures by May 18.

Philip Morris joins the ranks of other large projects in the crisis-stricken country that include a 700 million-euro 2016 investment by Deutsche Telekom AG unit Hellenic Telecommunications Organization SA, Dolphin Capital Investors Ltd’s 345 million-euro tourism industry bet in 2013 and Vodafone Group Plc’s plan to plough 500 million euros into its Greek unit between 2016 and 2020, according to Enterprise Greece, the state agency for promoting investments and exports.

Philip Morris

Philip Morris and Papastratos have begun transforming the unit’s factory in Aspropyrgos, a suburb of Athens, into a producer of tobacco sticks to be used in its state-of-the-art smoke-free systems called IQOS. The plan is to use Greece as one of the company’s bases to produce sticks for exports to more than 30 countries by the end of 2017.

Papastratos’s factory currently produces about 12 billion cigarettes per year. When the transformation of the factory is complete, the plant will be producing 20 billion IQOS, Harpantidis estimates. IQOS products are electronic devices that heat specially prepared and blended tobacco. The system heats the tobacco just enough to release nicotine-containing vapor without burning the tobacco.

IQOS is a growing market, according to Harpantidis, because these heat-not-burn gadgets are drawing smokers who don’t want to quit but want to limit the harmful effects of smoking. IQOS have more than 1.8 million users and that market is expanding.

Philip Morris, which began acquiring stakes in Papastratos in 2003 and now owns 100 percent of the Greek unit, is investing in Greece in spite of difficult conditions. The government has raised the tax on smokes to boost public receipts, taking it to 90 percent of the price of a packet of cigarettes from 73 percent in 2009. 

Adding Jobs

At the same time, cigarette smuggling in Greece is booming, accounting for 20 percent of all sales in 2015 from 3 percent in 2009. To top that, Greece slid three notches in the World Bank’s ranking for 2017 of the best countries to do business in, and is at the bottom of the list in Europe. 

Philip Morris chose Greece as a new hub to produce what it believes will be the future of the industry because it wanted to take advantage of its geographical position and its good quality tobacco, the executive said. Greece produces about 30,000 metric tons of tobacco a year, grown mainly in East Macedonia, Thrace and Katerini -- all in the northern part of the country.

“Development shouldn’t come just through shrinking costs, but through identifying your comparative advantages and building on them, like the IQOS,” Harpantidis said. “We have already hired 250 employees for the new factory and when the investment is over we will have 400 more.” 

Papastratos, the largest manufacturer and distributor of cigarettes in Greece, currently employs 1,050 people. It had revenue in 2015 of 1.3 billion euros with a 40 percent share of the domestic market.

Key Role

The new jobs at Papastratos will help spur economic activity in Greece, which has seen its unemployment rate surge during the crisis years, taking it to more than 23 percent, according to Harpantidis.

Papastratos expects it will be able to produce the new products from January 2018. For Harpantidis, what’s key is that the investment gives Greece an important piece of the emerging trend in the world’s smoking industry.

“We changed our focus because we believe that the future belongs to smoke-free products and in this context Greece will have a key role,” he said.

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