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Apivita products are displayed at the new multi-storey shop of the company in central Athens, in the Kolonaki area, June 27, 2014. (Alkis Konstantinidis for The Globe and Mail)
Apivita products are displayed at the new multi-storey shop of the company in central Athens, in the Kolonaki area, June 27, 2014. (Alkis Konstantinidis for The Globe and Mail)

How a Greek company searching for 'common good' became a rare success story Add to ...

As young adults, the husband and wife pharmacists Nikos and Niki Koutsianas never much liked flogging industrial, chemical-laden products to their customers. So Nikos, who is obsessed with honey bees, and Niki, a budding aromatherapist, tinkered in their laboratory and produced a black soap made from propolis, the resin collected by bees to seal their hives, and face creams with natural ingredients such as myrtle and jasmine.

The products were a hit with their pharmacy customers and gave the Greek couple an idea: Why not launch a company devoted to all-natural soaps, creams and cosmetics?

They did. In 1979, Apivita was born and the propolis soap, which is thought to have mild antiseptic qualities, was its first product. Today, the Apivita line is available in 14 countries – Canada is coming soon – and reported €33-million ($48-million) in sales last year.

Apivita can claim to be one of the few Greek companies to have emerged from the six-year recession not just intact, but so confident of its future that it invested a small fortune in new production and research centre even when the country seemed on the verge of economic collapse.

But Nikos and Kiki have no intention of getting big for the sake of bigness, or staffing the place with MBAs and marketing gurus, listing on the stock exchange or selling out to a cosmetics giant such as L’Oreal. They are still holistic pharmacists at heart and more interested in what they can learn from plants and bees, and from Hippocrates, known as the father of medicine, than getting rich as Croesus and joining the North Athens yachting crowd.

“My goal is to produce useful products not to produce a product that sells, sells, sells,” Nikos says. “We have to be interested in the common good, not just money.”

Nikos, who is 68, has the gentle air of a grandfather who would rather be tending his garden than running a company that competes for international sales in a highly competitive niche market. In reality, he does both activities and they complement each other, apparently with good results. In 2008, Apivita won an innovation award that was jointly presented to it by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and the Association of Greek Industries.

The care and nurturing of gardens and bees have to be a big part of his job. The new Apivita headquarters and factory, a sleek cement structure located on a former olive tree grove not far from Athens airport, is surrounded by herb gardens and an apiary. Tasos (John) Choukalas, the Canadian University of Calgary biology graduate who is Apivita’s head of sustainability, explains that herbs and bees are what Apivita is all about. The name, means “bee’s life” – apis is Latin for bee and vita means life.

Strolling through the garden on a hot Athens day, Mr. Choukali points to patches of rosemary, St. John’s wort, mandrake (a plant whose root has a human-ish shape that was studied by the students in Harry Potter), and Dittany of Crete, a healing herb of folklore that was mentioned by Aristotle as supposedly having “the property of ejecting arrows in the body.”

Most of the herbs in the garden and many others from farms scattered throughout the country, from almond and myrrh to pomegranate and royal jelly, (the honey bee secretion that is used to feed the queen been and larvae), form the base ingredients of the hundreds of Apivita products. They include lip balms, shampoos, anti-aging creams, moisturizers, oils and teas. “We are largely inspired by Hippocrates teachings,” Mr. Choukalas says, noting that the writings of classical Greek physician mentioned more than 200 plants.

Since Greece is a small market, and the Apivita products are expensive – the cheapest shampoo goes for €10.80 and a small bottle of face serum can cost up to €69.80 – the company always knew it had to find big-spender customers in other countries. France and Italy, where natural cosmetics are popular, was deemed too competitive, so Apivita in 2003 set up shop in Spain, where its products are sold in pharmacies, department stores and Apivita-branded shops. Then came Hong Kong and Japan.

The problem area was the United States, where its distributor found space in Bath & Body Works (part of the U.S. chain that owns Canada’s La Senza). The mix didn’t work. “Customers saw our products as if they were identical to all the others,” Nikos says. “To sell Apivita, we need educated sales people who like the idea of sustainable, effective products.”

The company is looking for a new U.S. distributor and plans to enter Canada next year. Climbing foreign sales removed some of the pain inflicted by the deep Greek recession and convinced Apivita that it needed a clean, efficient, ecofriendly factory. At a cost of €14.5-million, it opened in 2013 and features a live olive tree in its entrance hall. Most of Apivita’s 220 Greek employees work in the factory.

Since Apivita is owned by the Koutsianas family, details of its financial performance are not publicly known. Nikos says export sales are climbing by 20 per cent a year and are driving the business. Last year, overall sales reached €33-million, he says, and should reach €40-million this year. In 2013, earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization came to €3.4-million and are expected to hit €4.6-million this year.

Nikos and Niki, who is 60, show no signs of slowing down even though they are beyond Greece’s normal retirement age. They met in an Athens pharmacy in 1972, got married in the same pharmacy, worked as pharmacists together and created natural products and launched Apivita together. They have a son and a daughter in the business but remain very much in control. Nikos considers his wife very much the boss; he is the guy in charge of botanical gardens, apiaries and the other operations. “She is the soul of the company,” he says.

What next for Apivita? Controlled, sustainable growth, says Nikos. He notes that the natural cosmetics market, worth about $10-billion (U.S.) a year globally, is growing at double digit rates and that Apivita has well less than 1 per cent of that market. “I’m confident about the future; there’s obviously room for growth,” he says.

(See a slideshow of some of Apivita's products by clicking here)

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