INTERVIEW-Conglomerate Libra sees investors returning to Greece

Thu Mar 7, 2013 9:00am GMT

* Libra eyes more investments in Greece

* Group looking to expand in shipping

By Jonathan Saul

LONDON, March 7 (Reuters) - Investor interest and confidence is returning to Greece as the threat of a euro zone exit fades, says international conglomerate Libra Group, which has its origins in Greek shipping and is expanding its business in the country.

Greece's coalition government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, which took power in June, has been eager to show it will implement reforms promised to the European Union and International Monetary Fund, which have bailed Athens out twice with over 200 billion euros.

London- and New York-headquartered Libra, which has purchased around $5 billion of assets globally since financial turmoil in 2008, is stepping up investments in Greece, especially in the hotel and renewable energy sectors, its chairman and chief executive George Logothetis told Reuters.

"The most important subject the Samaras government has confronted is (that) they have reduced the uncertainty of Greece leaving the euro," he said in an interview this week."You don't hear about that anymore. That needed to always predicate investment coming into the country."

"We do see movement in Greece today ... money is coming back," New-York based Logothetis said on a visit to London.

Greece's economy has shrunk by about 20 percent since the recession began in 2008, with its downturn exacerbated by fiscal austerity demanded by its international lenders to shore up public finances and attain a primary budget surplus in 2013.

"There is a lot of pent-up ambition from Greeks to fight for a better life," Logothetis said.

"Greek laziness and incompetence is a fallacy," he said.

Logothetis said investment funds and private equity companies were starting to look at Greek firms and banks were starting to look at lending again.

Libra, which is privately owned by the Greek Logothetis family, owns the luxury Grace Hotels global brand, which began in Greece.

"One of the most important lead indicators in our businesses globally is advanced bookings on hotels. From what I understand, it is shaping up to be a much better (Greek) tourist season this year," Logothetis said.

Logothetis said Libra aimed to expand its energy business in Greece after making acquisitions in wind parks and the solar energy sector. They were also looking at investments in the retail market and developing their real estate business there.

DIVERSITY SEEN KEY

Libra Group, which was created in 2003 and has 30 operating subsidiaries and 25 offices, has five core divisions comprising hospitality, aviation, shipping, real estate and renewable energy with other interests including media, construction and services companies and an equity brokerage.

The group grew from a shipping business started in 1976 by Michael Logothetis. His son George, 38, took over the running of the shipping business in 1993 and between 2004 and 2007 they sold their fleet of 70 ships at the height of a shipping market boom before a sector slump in 2008.

Logothetis said they made "a substantial amount of money" from the sale. He declined to say how much, but a single, five-year old supertanker was valued at $120 million at the time, Baltic Exchange data showed, while vessel earnings during the boom years added to the company's wealth.

"The idea behind Libra was to diversify away from shipping to create a global group, using the top lieutenants we had worked with in the preceding years," he said.

"We feel safe that whatever comes, we confront it. We have a growing group and we bought a lot of cheap assets in the last five years. During this depression, recession, call it what you want, not all markets move in tandem," he said.

Libra has proved adept at buying and selling assets. In aviation a subsidiary bought 25 planes between 2004 and 2007 and sold them in 2007 before the global downturn. They resumed making aviation investments in 2009, including a move into the helicopter leasing sector after signing a $400 million order to buy aircraft from AgustaWestland.

Logothetis said the company, through its subsidiary Lomar, planned to expand into shipping after returning in 2009 with the acquisition of Australia's Allocean group and its fleet.

"We have 40 ships on the water right now. We have bought a few in the last month and we have up to 18 ships on order," he said.

Logothetis said the shipping market would recover. "Quite when is the magic word - it's a cycle. No crisis lasts forever, no boom lasts forever and ships are in our blood." (Editing by Roger Atwood)

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