The Praktiker home-improvement store in Athens looks like a Home Depot from the outside, but this being Greece, it is tailored to peculiarities of the local market.
Instead of towering stacks of lumber, there's a bit of lumber and a lot of motorcycle helmets and snorkelling masks and flippers. Greeks aren't big on home repair items, explains Jannis Selalmazidis, managing director of Praktiker Hellas, a big-box chain with 14 outlets and almost 1,200 employees across the country, making it one of the Greece's biggest retailers.
"The Greek people are not do-it-yourselfers. To be a DIYer, you need to have discipline," said Mr. Selalmazidis, 62.
The slight on the Greek people does not mean Greece's premier home-improvement company is a failure; on the contrary, it never lost money during the recession, thanks to a cost-reduction exercise that included a hefty salary decrease.
The chain's stalwart performance caught the attention of Prem Watsa, founder and chairman of Toronto's Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd. and would-be rescuer of BlackBerry Ltd.
In April, Fairfax bought all of Praktiker Hellas from its troubled German parent, making it the latest addition to a Greek portfolio that includes banking, real estate and industrial production. The apparent rational for the investment is that since Praktiker managed to survive the Greek economic plunge, imagine how well it could perform during an economic revival.
The Praktiker deal reportedly takes Fairfax's Greek bet to more than €1-billion ($1.5-billion), making Mr. Watsa, who declined a request for an interview, one of the country's biggest and most bullish foreign investors.
When Fairfax bought a €30-million stake in Mytileneos, the industrial group whose businesses include power generation and aluminum production, Mr. Watsa said: "We continue supporting Greece and believe that the country has made great progress in dealing with its serious economic issues."
Greece still has serious economic issues, including Europe's highest relative debt (170 per cent of gross domestic product) and highest unemployment rate (nearly 27 per cent). But the recession has bottomed out and growth should return this year. In the first quarter, GDP shrank at a 1.1-per-cent annual rate, a big improvement over the 6-per-cent contraction rate in the same period a year ago.
Last year, Greece reported a small primary surplus (the budget surplus excluding debt payments). This year, the surplus should reach 2.3 per cent of GDP and the treasury is tapping the debt markets for the first time since the country's first bailout in 2010, when Greece and "debt crisis" became synonymous.
If the economic numbers keep improving, Praktiker could be an investment hit for Fairfax. Mr. Selalmazidis has high hopes, but doubts Greece will see explosive retail growth any time soon. While growth is making a tentative comeback, he notes that private consumption in Greece is forecast to shrink 1.8 per cent this year after plummeting by 6 per cent in 2013.
"This year will be the bottom year," Mr. Selalmazidis predicts.
Fairfax has always been attracted to turnaround stories – Waterloo, Ont.-based BlackBerry is its highest-profile bet on Lazarus-like revival – and the euro zone crisis presented a potentially juicy one.
In 2011, when the euro zone was on the verge of breaking apart, Mr. Watsa and a few other fans of distressed assets, among them American billionaire Wilbur Ross, bought 35 per cent of Bank of Ireland. Coming only a few months after Ireland's bailout, it was a risky move but one that ultimately paid off handsomely. Last week, Mr. Ross revealed that he had sold his Bank of Ireland stake in March for a price that was reportedly about triple the original investment. At the same time, Fairfax sold some shares that it bought for €300-million, but retains a 5.8-per-cent stake in the bank.
Next up for Fairfax was Greece. In addition to the Mytilineos deal last year, Fairfax made a $225-million (U.S.) investment in Eurobank Properties, the real estate arm of Greece's Eurobank and manager of one of the biggest commercial properties owners in southeastern Europe. Eurobank Properties owns some of the Praktiker sites, which led to an introduction to Praktiker.
In April, Fairfax signed up for a €400-million chunk of the €1.3-billion refinancing of Eurobank itself. Greece's third-largest bank is controlled by the country's bank bailout fund and required an infusion of fresh funds to help plug a €2.9-billion capital shortfall.
A lot could still go wrong in the Greek economy, and the country's pro-austerity, centre-right government could lose to the increasingly popular, anti-austerity Syriza party in the next election, triggering a political firestorm. But Fairfax is apparently discounting the risks.
Late last month, Mr. Watsa visited the Praktiker offices in Athens and, according to Mr. Selalmazidis, gave the company a vote of confidence by telling employees that the Canadians intend to be "long-term investors."