The Moodie Davitt Report brings you the latest instalment in our popular series Ten Easy Pieces*, in which we get up close and personal with leading travel retail personalities via ten snapshot questions.
In this edition we meet Karelia Tobacco Company Public Relations Manager Joanna Kamarinopoulos who takes us on a journey through her US upbringing and her role in keeping the Greek tobacco giant at the forefront of the travel retail industry.
1.Where were you born and raised?
While John Travolta was busy ‘staying alive’ on the streets of Brooklyn, New York, I was fortunate enough to be a kid growing up just a few blocks away in my own slice of that wondrous neighbourhood, the truest and most unique melting pot in the world.
Raised in an incredibly diverse city of first and second generation American families, I became acclimated to a myriad of ethnic customs and cultures. These kinds of unique exposures to different cultures so early in my development paved the way for me to comfortably adapt to different ways of doing business and making friends around the world.
2. What of your early dreams – what were your main interests and pastimes?
As a child, I dreamt of becoming an ambassador to the United Nations. I wanted to solve all the world’s problems and make everything right. Although I didn’t get to do that exactly, I was fortunate enough to do an internship at the UN during my university studies. I was interested in the arts and contemplated becoming a fashion designer or classical opera soprano. Although I never committed myself fully to those demanding professions, I still enjoy singing and drawing non-professionally.
Early on, I developed a love for reading. I was around four years old when my Greek grandmother first took me to the library to borrow a book. I left there with my first Nancy Drew novel, and became an enthusiastic reader.
As a teenager, I was very active in sports, particularly volleyball, serving as my high school team’s captain, and also excelled at playing paddleball, a racket game that is popular in New York City parks. I also participated in a traditional Greek dancing group.
3. You went to university in the USA. What did you study and what did those studies lead to?
Attending university was one of the rudest awakenings of my life! For my first degree, lots of studying was required because the standards were very high, as Rutgers University was an Ivy League rival of Princeton. After that, I pursued my Masters degree at New York University and the Stern School of Business. New York City has an indescribable energy that is very contagious and I enjoyed living in the Soho area which is full of cafes and galleries.
Being energetic and outgoing helped to guide me through college life, to become a campus leader, and to achieve my goals. It was an honour to serve as vice president of a university club, president of a young adult’s organisation, and a founding member of a voter’s league.
During my Masters studies, I was crowned Miss Greek Independence and opened the annual Greek Parade on Fifth Avenue. It was a year packed with visits and appearances, including to the White House, the United States Capitol, and the New York City Mayor’s Office.
4. What prompted the move from the USA to Greece?
Ah, that’s where destiny played its part. I worked for a New Jersey Governor in a key position where I learned all about the inner workings of state government. But, I had always felt that my calling was more international. Around the same time, I was speaking at a conference in the city where my parents come from – Kalamata, Greece – a beautiful and unique paradise situated on the Greek Riviera in the southern Peloponnese. So, the day after the event, there I was sitting on the beach, talking with my father, who was pacing back and forth on the pebbles reading a local newspaper.
“Dad,” I said, “it would be so nice to live here.” His response was quick. “What about Karelia? They are a great company and are searching for a PR manager, look.” And he showed me the job ad in the paper.
The rest was meant to be. I was recruited and have been with Karelia ever since.
5. What were your first impressions and how did your new lifestyle compare to what you had been used to?
It was quite an adjustment but I was enthusiastic to experience a new challenge.
I was used to the fast pace of a big American city and things in Kalamata don’t quite move like that! Except at Karelia; Karelia is what gave me the perfect balance to adjust to life in Greece.
There I was able to incorporate my own pace of doing things, and became passionate about building the company’s communications presence, while travelling the world and meeting lots of great people, many of them from the tobacco and duty free/travel retail industries.
“Karelia is what gave me the perfect balance to adjust to life in Greece”
A new world of opportunity opened up before me. Along with the Board of Directors and other new managers who were hired around that time, we formed a strong and able team that guided the company into the 21st century and helped to grow Karelia’s export markets. Today Karelia is a fully-fledged international tobacco company with large international brands. We successfully expanded our business to cover a total of 65 markets around the world and focused on building brands for the long term; today 87% of our production output is exported and I am very proud to have played a part in this international success story especially in duty free/travel retail.
6. What do you think makes Karelia so special and successful in such a difficult climate?
Karelia is the oldest and largest tobacco manufacturer in Greece, first established in 1888 and coming up on its 130th year of operations next year. After so many years of business with successive generations of the same family at the helm, I honestly believe that they have ingrained in them a natural instinct for the tobacco industry.
Proof of this, in my opinion, are the recent years of the financial crisis in Greece, where Karelia has remained a strong company, determined to build on its successes and innovate in a difficult climate, nationally and internationally, despite the ever- demanding regulations that all businesses in the tobacco industry face. Living through the developments in our industry over the years, I have experienced up close the real talent and experience of the management and it has been inspiring. One thing is for certain; Karelia has not grown into a significant player in our industry by chance.
The creative use of innovation, investment, and an ability to detect future trends in the industry and act on them at the right time, have kept our company on top of developments that have affected our industry. We have responded quickly to the requirements of both retailers and consumers with innovative brands and packaging, and limited editions, all of which are supported by powerful retail displays. That, plus a lot of hard work, and a strong commitment have played a vital role in Karelia’s market position.
Karelia has a long tradition of caring about its people and that’s what sets the company apart; it’s ability to make each employee feel part of its extended family. Karelia is a family company with a genuine global perspective and its employees are without a doubt one of its biggest and brightest assets.
The caring aspect doesn’t stop there though. The company also supports the city of Kalamata through a range of charitable donations on an annual basis to help improve the city’s infrastructure and to support under-privileged families.
7. Let’s consider trade shows. What do you love (and hate) about exhibitions?
There is nothing I hate about trade shows. To me, being at a trade show is like moving inside a microcosm of an industry; only the distances have been drastically reduced to form one large neighbourhood of companies all under one roof.
After having organised my company’s participation in some 70+ shows in various countries with very large and impressive stands, I can confirm that I love every aspect: the build-up, the business that takes place during the show, the breakdown, and all the great people you meet along the way. As I return to a show every year, I observe the growth and development of my company and other companies, the new products and new innovations, up close and directly.
8. You have a young family. How do you manage to balance a heavy workload, two children and your household?
Balance is the secret. My husband Dimitri has always supported me and together we have managed to ensure our athletic children received a positive upbringing and a quality education while enjoying life’s finer pleasures together as a family. Our goal as parents has been to instil in them a true sense of self-confidence, morality and respect, along with a strong work ethic and a spirit of competition. I am extremely proud of their achievements so far.
9. Imagine you have a bucket list of things you would love to do. What are the top three and why?
I would like to work with young people and mentor them on possible career paths. I think it is probably one of the most significant contributions anyone could make. Many, if not most, young people do not have someone in their lives to inspire them and give them effective counselling on their life paths. I would like to give them hope and optimism that they can always build a better tomorrow for themselves if they keep at it. As part of Karelia’s Corporate Social Responsibility programme, we often welcome high school students and it is a pleasure to meet with them and offer guidance on possible career paths.
In the future, perhaps I could also return to working on my voice and eventually sing to an audience.
Last but not least, I would love to bungee jump. Of course that is if I can get up the nerve to do it!
10. Away from the tobacco industry and bustling travel retail, what do you do to relax?
For me, there is nothing more relaxing than my early Sunday morning swim off the Kalamata beach. It’s a ritual really! I enjoy swimming straight out towards the horizon. I want to go as far as the Mediterranean Sea will take me. It’s like magic; the calm sea inviting me to swim deeper into its blue waters until they become a vibrant turquoise green and I can see all the way down to the bottom.
I always stop for a while, about 150 metres from shore, to gaze up at the surrounding majestic Taygetos mountains and to marvel at the sun’s rays, which dance on the water, revealing a rich spectrum of colours. As I float, taking in the incredible beauty around me, I am humbled. Everything in my head and heart becomes clear and makes perfect sense; my thoughts and feelings abound with hope and strength.
I feel great and then swim back!
*PREVIOUSLY FEATURED IN TEN EASY PIECES