March 19, 2014 / 4:21 PM / 5 years ago

INTERVIEW-Libra Group invests in Greece as economy turns up

* Greece expects to return to low growth this year

* Tourism revenues set to rise in 2014

* Libra investing in renewables, hotels, retail

By Jonathan Saul

LONDON, March 19 (Reuters) - Global conglomerate Libra Group, with its origins in Greek shipping, has invested $500 million in Greece since 2012 and expects other investors to snap up assets as the country emerges from years of turmoil, its chief executive said.

After it nearly went bankrupt and crashed out of the euro zone in 2012, Greece’s fortunes have revived in recent months as a six-year recession shows signs of bottoming out, and investor confidence in its prospects has risen.

Libra, with headquarters in London and New York, has invested in various projects in Greece, including developing hotels and putting around $200 million into renewable energy projects, chairman and CEO George Logothetis told Reuters.

“We definitely see things improving in Greece,” Logothetis said. “We see a lot of international investor appetite for Greek assets ... The country is recovering after a long struggle. There is a little more hope at the end of the tunnel.”

Libra owns the luxury Grace Hotels global brand, which began in Greece, as well as the Aria hotel and villas chain in Greece.

“Advanced bookings on our hotels are way ahead of last year,” Logothetis said.

“The country expects record numbers of tourists, which is driving an uptick in investment into the hospitality infrastructure in the country.”

COCO-MAT DEAL

Libra said last week it had taken a stake in COCO-MAT, a manufacturer and retailer of mattresses and home furnishings that is one of Greece’s top brands.

Libra was the lead investor together with the privately held London-based Cycladic Group in acquiring 50 percent, while COCO-MAT retained the remaining 50 percent.

“There are many Greek companies who are looking for an international partner to unlock their growth and their potential. That is where the COCO-MAT deal validates our positive feelings,” Logothetis said, declining to disclose the price paid for the stake.

“It is a blueprint for future business for us and others.”

COCO-MAT plans to expand its global presence to 220 stores over the next five years from 70 stores currently. Of the 70, half are located in Greece, with others in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and the United States, Logothetis said.

He said investment in COCO-MAT would be “in the order of tens of millions of dollars” over the next five years, which would be in addition to what the two investors had committed already.

In the latest sign of optimism, Piraeus Bank this week became the first Greek lender to regain access to the bond market since 2009, when the country plunged into crisis.

“Indicators of business activity suggest that the Greek business sector is entering expansion territory, which should translate into a pick-up in investment spending in the following quarters,” National Bank of Greece said in a report last week.

Greek manufacturing activity expanded for a second consecutive month in February, boosted by a rise in new orders, a survey showed this month.

The group, privately owned by the Greek Logothetis family, started in 1976 as a shipping business. The conglomerate was created in 2003 and now has 30 operating subsidiaries and five core divisions - hospitality, aviation, shipping, real estate and renewable energy. Its other interests include media, construction, service companies and an equity brokerage.

Since 2008, it has purchased $7 billion to $7.5 billion of assets globally.

Logothetis said Libra had been approached by hedge funds and other investors to partner with them in Greece but preferred for now to focus on its existing projects.

Greece expects to return to very low growth this year, with tourism the biggest cash earner for the economy. It expects more than 18 million arrivals in 2014, an all-time record, with a likely 13 percent rise in tourism revenues to 13 billion euros ($18.1 billion). (Editing by Veronics Brown and Jane Baird)

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