Interview

‘It’s for the judge to decide’: Stelios Haji-Ioannou’s battle to defend his Easy brand

The tycoon behind the low-cost franchise is ever vigilant for companies he suspects of infringing his intellectual property

Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou practically makes a living from arguing. So the fact that our meeting, minutes in, has descended into a polite tussle is perhaps no surprise. The contentious issue at hand: the ­colour orange.

The easyJet founder and perpetual defender of the “easy …” brand prefix is preparing for his latest court showdown – this time with easyfundraising, a platform with a logo recently rebranded a cheery yellow.

Or orange, the billionaire contests. “I think it’s pale orange. I’ve spent a lot of money developing the logo behind me,” says Haji-Ioannou, referring to the cascade of “easys” on his video call background as he speaks from Ireland, where his partner has family.

Technically, the easyJet orange is Pantone 021C – or, as we decide, pumpkin orange. “It’s for the judge to decide if [easyfundraising]’s logo is too close. I’ve seen enough judgments now to know it could go either way.”

The legal tussle, due to reach court in June, is the latest fight by Haji-Ioannou against what he calls “brand thieves”. The entrepreneur spends roughly a third of his time on his easyGroup portfolio of companies, another third on his epony­mous philanthropic foundation and the remainder on his investments, sitting glued to a Bloomberg terminal. He stepped down from easyJet’s board in 2010, but his family remains a 15% shareholder in the low-cost carrier.

As founder of easyGroup, he licenses out and receives royalties from the “easy” brand, with the £4bn orange airline his standout income generator. More than 100 similarly branded ventures, from hotels to car rentals, are in the long tail of much smaller businesses behind it. He remains on the hunt for “asset-light” sectors to launch the brand into, noting a recent foray into e-sims for phones, designed to cut data roaming costs.

To some, Haji-Ioannou’s vociferous defence against the commercial use of “easy” – an everyday word dating back centuries in usage – appears unedifying. The tycoon, 57, lives in the tax haven of Monaco, and has homes in Greece and the Caribbean island of St Barts. A suitably budget-looking new video to mark 30 years since he devised the low-cost brand charts his career: upending European aviation, predicting the explosion in internet bookings and adding new ventures (of varying success) to his empire.

So is publicly scrapping with other companies over intellectual property how a knighted tycoon should spend his time?

We have an army of lawyers: that’s what they’re paid to do. A percentage of the royalties we receive goes to lawyers to stop people using the name without permission,” he says, adding that just a “ninth” of his time is spent on the intellectual property fights.

“We have a duty to protect the consumer against confusion. I’m not the only one who has made an ordinary word a trademark,” he says, citing Virgin and Apple.

Recent disputes range from taking on Premier Inn’s owner, Whitbread, for its use of the slogan “Rest Easy” to challenging the airline association Iata over its EasyPay payment system (a similar battle with the car dealership Arnold Clark was lost). Taking issue with this marketing is vital in a business environment dominated by search engines, he argues.

Haji-Ioannou has faced criticism from those who claim he is punching down, and has been labelled a “corporate bully” – an upstart aviation outsider turned antagonistic incumbent. Last year, the British pop group Easy Life were forced to change their name, saying they did not have the funds to fight easyGroup in court. His approach was described as “aggressive” against a soft target (albeit one signed to a label with the clout of music giant Universal, he argues).

In the case of easyfundraising, Haji-Ioannou accuses it of being “disingenuous”, and not as cuddly as its communications suggest. The business has not changed its name since its launch in 2005 as a service allowing shoppers to donate part of what they spend on a cause. In 2020, the Manchester private equity firm Palatine took a stake in the company, and the new logo followed in 2022.

The for-profit platform describes itself as “the UK’s biggest charity shopping site”, raising money for causes via online retailers paying cashback. Causes range from big charities such as the Alzheimer’s Society to primary schools and even a university canoe-polo team. Advertising and promotions also generate revenue.

Haji-Ioannou says his team found less than 10% of the listings were from registered charities, after taking a random sample of more than 2,000 causes. He claims no checks are carried out to verify that causes are registered charities. The company says the website-wide proportion is “much higher” and that it has “never professed” to only support charities.

Haji-Ioannou says the pay of its parent company’s highest-paid director (likely to be chief executive James Moir), at £196,512 for 2022, far outstrips the £56,000 average for charity chief executives.

“This is a business that makes money out of two lies – pretending to be a charity when they’re not to get people to use their services, and pretending to be something to do with easyJet so people trust them with their money,” says Haji-Ioannou. “Its business model is based on this dual confusion.”

Moir says: “At no point has easyfundraising ever claimed to be a charity. We are a technology-for-good company that is striving to bring innovation to the sector to help good causes to raise critical funds, for free.”

He says its rebrand was designed with the “utmost care to avoid any comparison or confusion with easyGroup” and it plans to “rigorously defend these baseless accusations” of trademark infringement in court.

In some cases, easyGroup has snapped up companies it has challenged over their branding. However, Haji-Ioannou says there is no prospect of that in this instance, adding that he would hand any damages to charity and run the domain at a loss to raise money for charities if awarded it in court.

Haji-Ioannou shows no signs of slowing down, admitting he’d be “very bored” without his business interests. Born in Athens, he holds dual UK and Cypriot citizenship – his parents were born in Cyprus when the island was a British colony. He spends his winters in St Barts, and also lives in Monaco, where he met his partner, Orla, during a Formula One grand prix.

It’s a little early to decide whether his five-year-old daughter will want to take on his empire, he says, adding that he is grateful to his father, a successful shipping magnate, for the £30m handed to him to start a shipping business. A mission to prove he was not simply a “daddy’s boy” and succeed in another industry drove him to set up easyJet.

As for the airline with which he will for ever be associated, relations have thawed significantly. He had proved a thorn in the side of successive chief executives since stepping down. This culminated in a failed boardroom coup during the pandemic. “In April 2020, the company had zero revenues and every plane was grounded. I thought we were going to run out of money and be bankrupt – that I’d lose not only my shareholding but my income stream from the royalties,” he recalls.

His holding was cut in a £1.2bn cash call on other investors in 2021. But the company bounced back: “To go from zero to £9.5bn in revenues in four years is an incredible achievement.” Now, he speaks regularly to easyJet’s chairman, Stephen Hester, and the ex-RBS chief visits Monaco once a year for a meeting of all the “easy” business bosses. In the long term, he hopes easyJet will keep ramping up its dividend to reinstate its policy of paying out 50% of its profits. Time for easyDividends, perhaps?

CV

Age 57
Family Partner, Orla Murphy, and a daughter, Aria, aged five.
Education School in Athens, degree in economics from London School of Economics, master’s degree in shipping from City University business school.
Pay Does not take a salary. Refuses to disclose his exact wealth. Family wealth estimated at £1.74bn in 2023 Sunday Times Rich List.
Best advice he’s been given “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, or, in more business-school speak, always be diversified in your investments.”
Biggest career mistake “Do not sign long property leases. Many years ago I signed a 25-year lease on an internet cafe by Victoria station. If I owned the real estate, I could have changed the use of the shop and made money with it. Now I only buy and own freehold real estate.”
Phrase he overuses “Let’s get on with it!”
How he relaxes Spending time with family; sailing his yachts. “Unashamedly, I’m a fair-weather sailor – I only go out if the weather is good.”

.theguardian.