JOHN CHRISTODOULOU IS THE TYPE OF MAN WHO WILL VOLUNTEER TO HAVE THE SUN IN HIS EYES SO YOU DON’T HAVE TO SQUINT OVER A BREAKFAST MEETING AT THE HOTEL DE PARIS.
You could put this down to his Mediterranean nature, he was born in Nicosia, Cyprus, but it’s more his instinctive ability to get a handle on every situation. And the Monaco-based British property developer with 7,000 employees finds himself in many situations.
Ranked No. 77 on the 2022 Sunday Times Rich List with a net worth of £2.35 billion (€2.72 billion), the billionaire is currently the wealthiest Cypriot. “I don’t believe in luck, but I do know people need somewhere to live. Apartment rentals in the U.K. have gone up 20% to 25% so income has gone up dramatically,” says Christodoulou.
As the sole owner of the Yianis Group in the U.K., Yiannakis Theophani “John” Christodoulou’s impressive portfolio reflects a mix of residential, retail, leisure, office and luxury hotel properties, located in Monaco, Cyprus and Greece, but primarily in the U.K., including the Canary Riverside Plaza (formerly Four Seasons Canary Wharf) and the Marriott Canary Wharf. “Each hotel has its own story and the Marriott Canary Wharf is a favorite. When the previous owners heard about the Crossrail service to be installed from Heathrow to Canary Wharf, now Elisabeth Lane, they thought the dock next to the Thames River would be drained which would produce a smell. I did my homework and this wasn’t the case. I got a good deal.”
Christodoulou bought his first studio in Finchley, northwest London, at age 19 and turned it into a “nice little profit within months.” From there he built the Yianis Group (Yianis means John in Greek), which has developed over a million square meters of real
estate—the majority is held as long-term investments. He keeps 95% ownership of every development and would only sell 5% of any of his buildings if the price was right. “It’s all about discipline,” the 57-year-old says. “A property has to be at least double in value when I’m done with it otherwise I won’t touch it. In business you have to take big risks, but if those developments aren’t finished, then where is the income going to come from? You should be able to get out of any situation by staying lowly geared.”
This approach helped keep the Yianis Group’s head above water during the economically-crippling pandemic. “Even with Covid, we were in a pretty good position,” he shares. “Purposefully, we did not close any of our hotels although as it was not as busy we had a smaller team. We worked with the government who rented the ballrooms and facilities for their own reasons.”
He is proud to not have fired anyone during the health crisis. “The toughest part as a human being is that you have to say ‘I have had it good for a lot of years so let’s not panic and cut them all down.’ What British Airways did was not right.”
Before I have a chance to bring up the accusations by a British daily that quoted Christodoulou in October 2021 as saying he “borrowed no money from the government” but received €6 million in furlough support, the property tycoon tells me: “An article left the wrong impression. I said ‘It is the wrong sign to borrow money from the government if you have to give it back.’ It makes no business sense if you have to pay it back after a year, if you even survive. Furlough is fine, and I received funds from the State solely for employees, not for myself.”
Ultimately, he says 95% of his employees have remained loyal but in a post-Covid world, the nature of the service industry worldwide has changed with staff shortages in restaurants and hotels. “We work with Premier League football clubs and have to be there for them, especially when it comes to what they eat before a match. To have the rightly qualified person working for you, you have to pay more to keep them from going elsewhere because right now everyone is stealing everyone else’s employees. It is the same to get new people in.”
For Christodoulou post-Brexit U.K. remains “the best place to invest in Europe because law, decorum and infrastructure I think outperform any other European country.”
The business tycoon left school just shy of age 17 and started working as a diamond mounter after convincing two brothers, despite his lack of experience, to give him a chance in their business. Within three years he sold his own diamond business and after a short hiatus put everything into real estate.
Now the father of four states that teamwork is part of the formula for success, as is having the trust of the bank. “Never let them down no matter what, you need them. If they trust you, they will lend you more and more.”
Each time we meet, an affable Christodoulou says, “I have a lot going on.” He manages to fit in boxing or a workout every other day into his already overbooked schedule. He was the Keynote Speaker at the 2022 Diplomatic Awards of the Year organized by the Cyprus Chamber of Commerce and Industry in July and was preparing to address young startup hopefuls at a Bloomberg London event on September 17 at the Victoria Street headquarters. In his eyes, success comes from being ambitious, that if you love what you do, you will thrive at what you do. Although he admits, “You never shut off, money never sleeps. I always, always, always stay on top of things, whether its reporting systems or budgets. If I am running 30 projects and everyone asks for €100,000 per month, that is a lot of money. That is the hardest part of what I do is that you can’t take your eyes off the contract or agreement details because things can get in the way.”
With property in prime real estate areas, Christodoulou oversees, builds and invests and develops in residential buildings with individual unit prices ranging from £1 million to £2 million (€1.15- €2.3 million) for which there is always a high demand to rent. But his fewer high-end properties, valued somewhere between £30 million and £50 million, prove a bit more challenging to find the right tenant.
“Most Monaco residents would rather rent then buy a €50 million or €100 million apartment because they want to keep their money and don’t know where they will be living. It is a big jump for anyone to buy so you test it out for a year.” He cites the address of One nMonte Carlo, the 60,000-square-meter mega-modern neighborhood, steps from the Casino, which opened in 2019 and where rent runs as high as $250,000 a month. “It is a fantastic new development, bang on Casino Square and hard to replace. Lots of people have lived there and some have moved on to buy property in the Principality.”
Christodoulou speaks from experience. “Sixteen years ago, I rented in Monaco for a year, liked it and bought one property and went on to buy others.” His office is nearby the Hotel Hermitage. “For me, security is number one and then the tax benefits clearly follow. No doubt in Monaco we live in the best place in Europe.” He adds, “Your longtime friends who have known you from A to Z see what you’ve done but there are people out there who treat you in a different way when you are who you are. It is nice but there is a bit of fakeness at the same time.”
For all his famous friends (he and Prince Albert watched “our good friend” Mark Noble play his last West Ham United game on May 15) and luxury toys (he bought a private jet for his 40th birthday and increased the size of his yacht from 50 meters to 74.5 meters when he turned 50), the Monaco resident is humble and away from the cameras when it comes to giving and philanthropy. “After Covid, I donated an outdoor gym for the Princess Grace Hospital Centre terrace. I admire what the staff have done at the hospital in Monaco. Imagine having to go to work when everyone around you has Covid.”
He launched his eponymous Foundation in 2016, which supports and empowers underserved children and their families in the U.K. and abroad in the form of projects, grants, assets and services in areas of need. “It’s actually a lot of pressure. You want it to deliver what it’s supposed to do because your name is on it, so you follow every step, treat it like a business, with a lot of attention to detail. I look at the whole bottom line to see exactly where the money goes. No one working for the Foundation takes a wage,” assures Christodoulou, who at the outset donated £1 million to the Foundation.
The Foundation has collaborated on charitable events with Prince Charles and Prince William, and some of its projects have included the full renovation of a Families & Babies Centre, funding for hearing dogs for deaf children, and the purchasing of specialized sports wheelchairs. In July 2021, he sailed his yacht Zeus to Cyprus where the Foundation raised €365,000 to support disadvantaged children in need there, as well as giving to local schools that were damaged by wildfires.
On June 11 of this year, he received the Monaco Ambassador Club’s Goodwill Ambassador Award. It was presented by Prince Albert with club president Christian Moore in the gardens of the Hotel Hermitage, where Christodoulou participated in the traditional smashing of plates.
The prince spoke of his “great friend and great supporter of Monaco and everything that we do here. Thank you for that and all your philanthropic activities and for your kindness, your outstanding generosity, not only to your friends but to all those in need.”
Christodoulou acknowledges, “It is nice to be ecognized, and that someone genuinely appreciates what you are doing.
He also received the Holy Humanitarian Cross from the head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Cyprus and, in early August, was the recipient of the Medal of Outstanding Contribution at a ceremony organized by the Presidency of the Republic of Cyprus. In his speech, Christodoulou raised the question in the presence of distinguished representatives from the political, business and social spheres why the GDP of Cyprus is only $24 billion when the GDP of Israel is $400 billion. He pointed out that Google has a GDP of $257 billion, Apple’s is $365 billion and Amazon’s is $470 billion. “All of these companies started from home, from their garage...Cypriots are an intelligent nation. We have the key to do anything about our future.”
Christodoulou headed back to Cyprus to look for options to buy land for a massive 1.9-square-kilometer (nearly the size of Monaco) self-sustainable project. “It will involve schools, hospitals, businesses and any startup will be able to come and use the facilities, only having to pay back if they are successful.”
A supporter of Cyprus’ professional football club, Omonia Nicosia, Christodoulou was negotiating a takeover deal with the current stakeholder, New 74 York-based Cypriot Stavros Papastavrou, in October 2021 but it fell through. In the meanwhile, the Yianis Christodoulou Foundation has partnered with 20-year-old British Formula 4 driver, Tommy Foster Racing, who placed first at his inaugural Le Mans European series in Barcelona.
A Beneficiary Member of the private Monaco Whisky and Spirits Club, Christodoulou was appointed president for Monaco and Cyprus of the Jubilee Sailing Trust (JST) in October 2018. The charity, which raised £1 million over one week to secure its future, owns and operates two 3-masted sailing vessels, the STS Lord Nelson and the SV Tenacious, which has allowed some 50,000 people, many with physical or intellectual disabilities, to experience the open sea. “One of the ships was supposed to come to Monaco in June 2020 and we had arranged for Andrea Bocelli to sing. Obviously it was cancelled but we are hoping to host a new event next year with the Princess Grace Foundation and the Yianis Christodoulou Foundation, and are expecting to take the children to the palace. On Prince Albert’s suggestion, we may call it the Ship and Castle.”
The JST was dear to Christodoulou, who flfled to England with his family during the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. He was nine. “I remember clearly a few years after arriving, I was in the playground and the swing that I usually went to wasn’t around. Instead, there was a funfair on the streets celebrating the 1977 Silver Jubilee and it was brilliant. The Queen founded the Jubilee Sail Trust the following year.”
As newly-arrived immigrants to the U.K., his father declined the option of council housing to spare his son from growing up in a very tough area and rented a small apartment for the family in a safer neighborhood, hoping to make ends meet. “I know what it is like to leave your home and have nothing else,” says a heartfelt Christodoulou when talking about why he forewent income from two of his hotels to house 750 Ukranians refugees. (They ended up being sent to Rwanda; the hotels sat partly unoccupied for months.)
Was it that immigrant child in the park with broken English that drove John Christodoulou to achieve? “What made me the man I am today is going through the experience of a war and being insecure. I’m still insecure. I can use it as a positive because it’s never enough, you always need challenges in life.”