Interview with George Koukis

Founder and Director of Temenos, Switzerland

On the phone from Geneva where it is close to midnight, George Koukis (DipTech Commerce 1979) makes the air in mid-morning Sydney crackle and sparkle with his enthusiasm and zest for life and learning. The founder of pioneer software company Temenos Group AG, Koukis has lived in Switzerland for twenty years but his affection for Australia and UTS is palpable.

"I am grateful to UTS," he says. "I think of it with absolute fondness. Six months after I arrived in Australia – with no English – I was working by day and going to school by night; not theoretical abstract stuff only but what made me think."

In Koukis's case the theories he applied to work were the ones that steered him into puzzling out what management might be about; how should a board of directors function, how to apply technology to work practices and so on.

"This idea that directors tell management how to do it – rubbish," he says forcefully. "Look at Enron – all theoretical skills, not real skills. Allowing that kind of behaviour, plus short term-minded politicians have mortgaged the future of our children and grandchildren."

The once penniless Greek immigrant then makes an illuminating analogy about his passion for the value of education and the even greater value of ethics: "Education is like a knife, you can use it to cut bread or to kill someone. How do we apply education for the betterment of society?"

George Koukis was born in 1946 in Chalkis, some 75km north of Athens. When he was 25 years old he and his new wife immigrated to Australia and settled in Sydney. It was 1971, Robert Askin was still premier of New South Wales, Australia's very first Macca's opened (at Yagoona) and – of particular significance to the new immigrant and his wife, Qantas took delivery of its first Boeing 747 and Texas Instruments made public its first computer on a microchip, the snappily named TMS1802NC.

Koukis had his first experience of management in a large company when he joined Qantas shortly after arriving in Australia. During his nine years with the national airline he pioneered a number of computer systems, in particular an early and successful profit centre system.

"That was why my work at night at UTS was so important to me," Koukis says. "It is important that you learn theory and then apply it to daily work. The basic components of the system I implemented at QANTAS was the direct result of discussions at UTS!"

In essence it meant that Qantas was able to pre-determine profits across sectors and aircraft type and, therefore, better utilize its fleet and personnel. Koukis also developed statistical modelling that enabled the airline to calculate risk relating to insurance premiums, a method that was then in its infancy and which proved to be a significant tool for the company.

In 1980 Koukis moved even further into the world of computer business solutions when he was appointed managing director of Management Science America (MSA). The 1980s was the decade of Wall Street and Gordon Gekko – and Koukis found himself increasingly at odds with the fashionable culture of "greed is good".

"Unemployment is what is at the heart of greed in business, actually," says Koukis. "It is evil. It's very easy to throw a thousand people out of work to prop up the stock price. But it's expedient, it is short term. It is a wasteful practice for managing human resources, simply because you lose skilled people that you will need in the near future."

"Our society wants double digit quick returns with a month," Koukis says of today's get-rich-quick philosophy. He then puts it another way, "Humans can only take in three litres of liquid a day, but the soft drink industry wants to expand at 20-30 per cent a year. It is unsustainable!"

Koukis is not interested in the short term. In 1993 he purchased Globus, a small, little-known company that designed and built banking software; he renamed it Temenos.

Temenos – from the Greek – has a number of meanings, all of them appropriate to Koukis's vision and ambitions: an early meaning is that of a sacred olive grove set apart from daily life as a sanctuary and place of worship. Olympia is the temenos of Zeus, for instance. In Jungian theory, on the other hand, the temenos is the space or safe spot; the "squared circle", where the unconscious can be safely brought into consciousness – where mental effort might be made concrete.

Today, after two decades steady and sustainable growth, Temenos Group AG is ranked No.4 in the world in core banking systems. It has 57 offices worldwide, employs close to 5000 people and is listed on the Zurich Stock Exchange.

In 2011 Koukis retired as Chairman and CEO but remains on the board and ever-vigilant. He goes on to relate how many times over the years he has been advised by experts to move the company to the Silicon Valley or London or somewhere "more convenient".

"I would rather die I told them and they said, 'we'll cancel' and I said, 'so cancel'. You don't have to be good for these people, you have to look good and that's not right. You have to be good, you must do good things every day, produce good products, honest services; have as a business goal to decrease unemployment. While I'm alive people can trust this company."

Yet Koukis is not thinking of retirement. He serves on the Board at EasyMed Services SA, Rusada Group SA and on the boards of operating companies within Temenos, and is an advisor on others; and if that were not enough, he's also a registered Certified Public Accountant. These days, however he putting more and more time and energy into Future Leaders for the World, a program he began and funds.

"It is for teaching ethical leadership skills," he explains. "We need strong leadership, but it must be ethical. A leader – a student – must ask, 'what does it mean to my neighbour what I do?' So we are taking 50 graduate students from all over the world. We teach integrity – how to make decisions that can mean life or death. What is the point of accepting the Nobel Peace Prize while waging war? Or accepting the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in similar circumstances when anyone can perform chemistry by drinking wine and changing it into urine in the morning?"

Given his penchant for colourful analogies and anecdotes, Koukis's seminars and lectures must surely be great fun for listeners – but he's not convinced. "I say never talk numbers, always about philosophy – how to treat customers. I am talking and talking and I see in my audience there are tears in their eyes. I think – are they inspired – but no! I have been talking far too long and they just need a toilet break!"

Jokes aside, George Koukis is a passionate man who is unafraid to speak his mind. "I get invitations to meet some of these top people and I won't shake hands with them. These people fuel the differences between people, the intolerance. I admired Warren Buffett, but then I found he owns Moody's and he tried to buy into Goldman Sachs. I am critical of all politicians worldwide, most are hypocrites and intellectually corrupt. If a politician talks about democracy, democracy will be raped the next day."

"Future Leaders For the World will learn some interesting things. Such as, says Koukis, "It doesn't matter if a decision goes right or wrong, you must get up, dust yourself off and keep going. You're your life without fear. You must be aware of learning the wrong skills, of the corruptibility of power and money. The GFC was basically a lesson in how to steal money. I don't understand why [Alan] Greenspan is still free. Unfortunately there is a sliding door between the White House and Wall Street and universities are very happy to turn out the next generation of Goldman Sachs people. I don't want any part of that."

Check out the Future Leaders of the World website to learn more about ethical management.