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Greek business exodus hits ‘epidemic proportions’

Greece's business owners are desperately looking to move their companies abroad, as capital controls intensify the challenges in the country, expatriates and experts have told CNBC.

Greek-born Philip Ammerman, the co-founder of investment advisory Navigator Consulting Group, moved his company to London from Athens in 2010. He now receives daily requests for advice from friends and clients wanting to do the same, or to move their savings abroad.

"It's reaching epidemic proportions. I've never seen it like this before," Ammerman told CNBC on Monday.

A vendor waits for customers at his shop in Athens, Greece, July 7, 2015.
Jean-Paul Pelissier | Reuters
A vendor waits for customers at his shop in Athens, Greece, July 7, 2015.

The Greek stock market reopened on Monday after a five-week closure, but capital controls remain in place. Domestic investors may withdraw no more than 60 euros ($66) per day from Greek banks, making life extremely tough for companies that need to pay or receive bills. Greek individuals and businesses are also forbidden from moving money to bank accounts abroad.

Prior to the introduction of controls in June, companies and self-employed professionals were already quitting Greece, due to a toxic combination of economic depression, corruption, bureaucracy and the uncertainty created by rapid changes in government—none of which appeared to deliver the promised changes.

Notably, Coca-Cola Hellenic—a subsidiary of the Dow Jones industrial average component—quit Athens as its primary stock market listing in favor of London in 2012.

In the same year, FAGE, a well-known Greek yogurt producer, moved headquarters to Luxembourg. Heavy-industry corporation Viohalco moved to Brussels in 2013.

However, the difficulty wreaked by capital controls has intensified the exodus.

Of 300 Greek businesses surveyed between 13 and 17 July, 23 percent planned to transfer the headquarters abroad—and another 13 percent had already done so, according to Endeavor, a non-profit organization that aids entrepreneurs across the world.

"I am hearing of one company per day, or receiving one request per day, for advice from friends and contacts (that are trying to either move abroad or to access external savings)," said Ammerman.

"There is a dramatic acceleration since before capital controls were implemented…before capital controls I was hearing of roughly one case per week or 10 days."

Scotland-educated Greek Greg Zontanos has lived in Greece for the last 10 years, but turned his back on his home country this year to launch a freight delivery startup in London.

Zontanos said that he would likely have transferred his startup, called Weengs, abroad anyway, but that the move was accelerated because of the instigation of capital controls – which were first used in the euro zone in the rescue of Cyprus in 2013.

"Maybe we would have developed the prototype in Greece, as a lot of startups do, and because we want to access Europe and go worldwide, probably we were going to leave Greece, because it is a very small market. But not leave before even starting the prototype," he told CNBC on Monday.

"The decision was due to the government and probably the fear of capital controls. Those happened before in Cyprus and everyone was afraid. That was why a lot of people have already withdrawn a lot of money."

Ammerman said that he never looked back after moving his business abroad—and that neither would others.

"You just realize everything is easier… You don't have to wait in lines to make payments, you can do them online or through an accountant… Everything is really crystal clear," he told CNBC.

People wait to enter a bank branch as Greek banks reopened on Monday morning after three weeks of closure on July 20, 2015 in Athens, Greece.
Milos Bicanski | Getty Images
People wait to enter a bank branch as Greek banks reopened on Monday morning after three weeks of closure on July 20, 2015 in Athens, Greece.

He added that being domiciled in Greece meant a company was "automatically stigmatized" internationally.

"There is a lot of bad publicity in Germany and other countries about how are Greeks are lazy,"Ammerman said.

"Nothing has been done by successive governments to either promote Greece as a place of business or to cut bureaucracy. They are acting as if there is no problem."

—By CNBC's Katy Barnato. Follow her on Twitter @KatyBarnato.