Life is anything but a drag for Nikitas Theophilopoulos, the managing director of Philip Morris International (Australia, New Zealand and Pacific Islands).
More than two decades ago this young Greek mathematician acted on his boyhood dream and began a career in marketing that would take him around the world. Now in Melbourne, Nikitas looks like he’s going native, as he prepares to usher a new technology through Australia’s rocky legislative terrain.
In his first interview in Australia, C&I Week recently spoke with Mr Theophilopoulos to find out more about his personal life, and the company’s vision of a smokeless future…
How did you first get involved with the tobacco industry?
Last week I celebrated my 20th anniversary with Philip Morris International. And I’m very happy, because during these 20 years I’ve had great opportunities to travel around the world and work with people of different nationalities, and grow myself as an individual and also professionally.
So, I started in Greece, 20 years ago. The economy in Greece was very good at the time; there were plenty of opportunities, and Philip Morris was offering an excellent working environment, as our company does in all countries. I got an excellent recommendation from my friends, and this is how I started working in Philip Morris Greece.
In Greece, the tobacco industry is big. There is a long tradition of tobacco farming, and a lot of companies, so it was an excellent career opportunity for me.
Since then I’ve had the opportunity to work in Philip Morris in France, in Bulgaria, Switzerland, and now in Australia.
What was your first job with the company?
I was brand manager for Marlboro in Greece, and since then I’ve been in sales, corporate affairs, business planning… different positions with different affiliates.
Before Philip Morris I spent three years with Energizer batteries, in marketing, and before that I had to do my military service, which is compulsory in Greece. I spent two years in the Greek Air Force. I studied at the University of Athens as a mathematician, and then I did a master’s degree in England in management science.
Mathematicians usually specialise, so I spent my time in the Air Force as a meteorologist. It was a very interesting experience, because we had to prepare the weather forecast every day for the Greek military, and that was a stressful experience because the meteorological plan had to be extremely accurate.
Here in Melbourne, where there are four seasons in one day, it would have been very difficult indeed! [laughs]
Since I was a young boy, my dream was always to work for a big international company, and be able to travel the world and work with people of different nationalities. Soon after the end of my university studies, I realised that as a mathematician I would not have such an opportunity. So I decided to use the strong analytical skills I gained at university studying mathematics, and do a Master’s degree in management science so that afterwards I’d be able to find a job in the direction I wanted to pursue.
And that’s taken you all over the world; it’s certainly a privilege to do that… What is your favourite place to visit, to holiday in the world?
There is a place I discovered in Australia, that I will never forget for the rest of my life, and this is Port Douglas. In particular, the Daintree tropical forest was an amazing place for me, totally different than places I’ve visited in Europe. I liked the landscape, the view from the mountains, the nature… It was really wild and beautiful. And I enjoyed my trip there, during the Easter break. Yes, it was an amazing place! For some this was just Port Douglas, but for me it was the best! I was very happy to see how it was protected by the authorities, really original and pristine.
So you enjoy the great outdoors?
I enjoy it very much. I like to take my dogs out, in the nature, that’s the moment of relaxation for me, and this is one of my favourite hobbies. I like tennis, but here in Australia I discovered the AFL, and I’ve become a big fan of the Richmond Tigers, so often I go to the MCG to watch them play I like the athletic spirit of AFL. I was at the final last year and I enjoyed it a lot the way the players celebrated with their coach. I like the strength in this sport, and now I have a new passion: The AFL.
That means you’ve become a true Melbournian!
Progressively, yes! What about you? What’s your team?
I don’t really follow the AFL, even though I’m from Adelaide, but I did spend a lot of time in Collingwood, so that’s my home ground in Melbourne, I suppose.
Oh, this is the big enemy.
It’s the team everyone loves to hate.
On a different topic, I wanted to talk to you about the opposition to cigarettes. Does anyone ever ask you how you justify working in the tobacco industry? What kind of advice do you have for other people who market and sell tobacco products?
Okay, so look, smoking is addictive and creates serious health problems, so if you have any concerns, you shouldn’t smoke. But you would know that Philip Morris International has made a dramatic decision to build our future based on smoke-free products, that are a much better choice than cigarette smoking. There are millions of men and women who smoke cigarettes, and they are looking for less harmful alternatives. So now our company is ready to offer these alternatives. We have developed smoke-free propositions, and already sell them in more than 20 countries globally, and we already have 1.8 million people using these products. The fundamental thing is that these products don’t burn tobacco, but rather they heat tobacco. And as you may know it is the smoke that contains the harmful compounds that generate diseases. So our scientific studies show that the new portfolio of our products, and the vapour they create, contains much lower levels of these harmful compounds.
With this massive change in direction and strategy for PMI, is this an ethical choice, or a marketing choice to move with the times and keep Philip Morris operating in the future?
Philip Morris has [a really good] corporate culture, from humble beginnings in a small London tobacconist 170 years ago, to the creation of Marlboro, one of the most recognisable brands in the world, Philip Morris has grown into one of the world’s most successful businesses. Agility is a key quality of our company. We’ve decided to take the smoke out of smoking in order to address society’s expectations of us. We have a commitment to our shareholders and our employees, and I believe it is the right thing to do .The time is now, after an investment of 3 bio USD over the last 10 years we have developed a portfolio of smoke free products such as IQOS that have the potential to reduce the risk of harm for smokers
We know that some lobby groups are opposed to the sale of E-cigarettes in Australia: What course of action is Philip Morris taking to change that?
In Australia, there are a lot of regulations, and there is a lot to do before launching, but like in any other country, we need to ensure alignment between so many different parties. So, we are working on bringing these products to Australia, but we will not launch it until we are ready.
Do you have your family here in Australia?
Yes, I have my family, I have two daughters who are ten and thirteen years old. They are a handful, because they want to see all the international singers that visit Melbourne. We didn’t have this opportunity so often back in Europe, so they are extremely happy to be in Melbourne to see all these international acts.
And your wife must enjoy it here too?
Yes, Melbourne is a very friendly place, and I think people are very open. I will never forget our first week in Melbourne: Our neighbours invited us for dinner in order to meet, and help us if we needed anything. It was very polite, welcoming and a great first impression of Australia.
As someone relatively new to Australia, what do you think makes it stand out in the world? You’ve lived in many parts of the world, but what characterises Australia for you?
For me? I will share what I tell to my friends back in Athens, when they ask me about Australia. Australia is about good people, people who are open, very friendly, and willing to help you if needed. That’s my spontaneous feeling about Australia. Of course, it’s a beautiful country with a wild, sometimes rough side, with a very beautiful and different environment. But for me, the stand out is the openness of Australians.