In 1970 Aristotle Onassis was relaxing in the bar of the London Palladium during a performance. The variety show on stage held no interest for him, he was most likely with Jackie and some friends and he had removed himself from the audience and was now enjoying his customary Johnnie Walker Black Label.
At the Interval the audience started to fill the bar and a man and woman walked in with their 8 year old son. Onassis looked at the boy, who was wearing a suit and a tie, and smiled, walked over to the couple and said in his gruff voice something along the lines of, 'You have the smartest young man I have seen in a long while'. He then patted the boy on the head and gave him a five pound note. Then, with a smile, a slight nod and a wave he walked off to meet his party of guests. People looked at the couple with their son and the man said to his wife, 'You know who that was don't you?'
£5 was a LOT of money in 1970. The evening out for the couple and their son had been something the man had been saving up for for two months. The suit the boy was wearing (a blue two tone single breasted) came from the Peter Pan Outfitters for children in the Commercial Road in East London. The couple were my Mum and Dad. If ONLY I had kept that five pound note Onassis gave me!
Ever since that moment I have been interested in the life of Aristotle Onassis.
Aristotle Onassis was one of the most successful, publicized and examined people in the world during the middle of the 20th century. Today, 37 years after his death, he is principally remembered as an ultra-rich shipping magnate, touring the world on his magnificent yacht and for his romance with the diva soprano Maria Callas and marriage to Jacqueline Kennedy. Before he attained business and social heights, however, he was a very rough, uncultured, non-work of art. His effort to change a dim future is worth a look: and is instructional as a teaching aid that anyone can utilize in pursuit of success.
Onassis was born in Smyrna of Greek parents. At the end of World War I he, along with millions of others, was forced into refugee status and arrived in Argentina as a penniless immigrant. His Spanish was minimal, his education limited and his skills on offer were not highly prized. Nevertheless, he examined his circumstance realistically and with deep analysis. He recognized that out of post-war chaos would come opportunity for the agile and creative entrepreneur. Being broke was just an obstacle, not a closed, door to Onassis.
As Onassis learnt the ways of Argentine society and business he noticed that there were specific clubs, restaurants, hotels and theatres that were almost exclusively frequented by the successful business and political class. Always a keen observer of human nature, he realized that contacts and friendships of value to an ambitious fellow like himself could only be nurtured in this rarefied realm. Onassis was determined to find a way in.
Onassis became addicted to quality in all areas of life. While still poor, he saved every peso until he could afford a Saville Row hand cut suit. He only had one suit, but it was elegant. He also observed that the rich seemed to appear healthier, happier. They seemed to sport suntan skin as a badge of their fortunate lifestyle. Onassis developed a lifetime addiction to pursuit of the perfect suntan. His tan was internationally famous long before the actor George Hamilton gained similar fame. To this day, a suntan is an emblem of the good life for the successful class.
A Saville Row suit, quality personal furnishings and a suntan that reeked of idle leisure and success were only a start. Onassis was still a rough diamond. Nevertheless, he believed in his ultimate destiny. He would have a drink every night at the bar of the Intercontinental Hotel in Buenos Aires, the cities finest. Only one drink, because that was all he could afford. He still worked as a telephone operator, but he kept his parallel lives as a blue-collar worker and social status seeker firmly differentiated.
His nightly visits to the Intercontinental Hotel bar gradually lead to his building a network of business and social contacts. The famous Argentine soprano Claudia Musa frequently visited the hotel. She was an adored opera star and a cultured beauty. Onassis was basically a nobody and a poser. And yet, he pursued the beautiful singer, and with his usual tenacity he won her heart. This drive to win would be displayed in every area of his long and exciting life.
Onassis recognized that Argentine women preferred a type of sweet Turkish tobacco that was not widely available in South America. Utilizing his newly found relationships; he brokered an import deal for an inventory of the tobacco. He assembled the capital necessary to organize a small factory and began to market several brands of Turkish cigarettes. This small, but successful deal was the basis for his later international business prominence.
Onassis recognized that World War II was imminent. The movement of war materiel was going to become crucial to the Allies winning the war. Shipping would be highly profitable, if he could find an inventory of ships to purchase. With customary elan, he found a small fleet of sturdy but well used freighters on the St. Lawrence Waterway and arranged a tight line of credit to purchase the motley flotilla. He was on his way to becoming the most famous shipping magnate in history.
Entrepreneurs, in order to succeed, often must change elements of their personal lifestyle. We have all heard the old adage, “success breeds success”. No one practised this truism more fully and instructively than Aristotle Onassis. He bought one high quality suit. He squired beautiful women. He went to the finest clubs, even though he could not afford much more than one drink. He used his new environment, new contacts and network to benefit his single-minded pursuit of success. Why did Willy Sutton rob banks: because that was where the money was! Onassis also made the elemental decision to hang out where the money was.
One of the most difficult aspects of the entrepreneurial process that must be overcome is the need to adjust lifestyle. Sacrifice today will pay dividends tomorrow. Venture capital usually will not be found in a pool hall. The necessity to improve one’s self-presentation and to network continually is paramount. You must be constantly closing the sale, improving your skills and totally focus on achieving your goal.
Aristotle Onassis worked blue-collar jobs, spoke Spanish as a third language, was a displaced immigrant on a strange continent and had zero personal assets. Nevertheless, he organized a personal plan to overcome his obstacles and lead a life of legendary accomplishment.
I spend a great deal of time training and coaching people and corporations to overcome hurdles. Some easily recognize the need to change habits and to utilize pieces of the Onassis template. They often have the ability to succeed. Many more unfortunately, decide that they know best, markets will adapt to their wants and a shortcut to success can be taken. They always fail. This is an absolute observation.
At the harbour of Nidri is a statue of the man who has inspired me and, through my work, inspires others. You can also see Skorpios from there. There is no way I can visit his grave as he is entombed with his two children on the private island but the statue is the nearest I can get to 'The Great Onassis' again in person.
“To be successful, keep looking tanned, live in an elegant building (even if you're in the cellar), be seen in smart restaurants (even if you only nurse one drink) and if you borrow, borrow big.”
“If women didn't exist, all the money in the world would have no meaning.”
“It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.”
“We must free ourselves of the hope that the sea will ever rest. We must learn to sail in high winds.”
“The secret of business is to know something nobody else knows”
“After a certain point, money is meaningless. It ceases to be the goal. The game is what counts.”
“I have no friends and no enemies -- only competitors.”
“Get a sun lamp to keep you looking as if you have just come back from somewhere expensive”
“Find a priest who understands English and doesn't look like Rasputin.”
“The more you own, the more you know you don't own.”
“Always carry a notebook. Write down ideas and information. Write down everything you know and hear about a person you meet. That way, next time you meet them, you know how much time to give them.”