Dr Geraldine Spiteri Lucas took on the roles of CEO and Registrar of the Malta Business Registry just two years after being appointed its Chief Legal Officer, needing to quickly navigate a period of instability due to the pandemic and Malta’s FATF greylisting. Geraldine led the organisation and its staff to a position of greater strength.
The Malta Business Registry (MBR) is the Government agency responsible for the registration and regulatory compliance of companies and commercial partnerships, companies and other legal persons such as foundations and associations. It is also responsible for conducting investigations of companies and maintaining Malta’s company and partnership register, among others. Geraldine’s background as a lawyer at a leading law firm prepared her well for the role of CEO at the MBR, which requires endless hours poring over legal documents.
“I believe that being a lawyer is an advantage in some cases. That said, it can also be irritating to those around me who have to put up with my fastidiousness,” she says with a smile. “I’m used to vetting documents thoroughly before signing them, and so I inevitably sometimes find a word that does not have the specific meaning needed. Being precise matters.”
Despite her young age, Geraldine has a lot to be proud of. In fact, one of her proudest achievements was the creation of the Companies Act (Register of Beneficial Owners) Regulations – a law that combats financial crimes like money laundering, fraud and tax evasion. “I worked on it from its very inception and contributed to its creation,” says Geraldine. “When drafting the law, I was met with a lot of opposition because many believed it would kill businesses. However, practitioners are now fully on board, so it makes the result even more rewarding.”
When reflecting on the difficult time Malta experienced over the past few years, the CEO acknowledges that the COVID-19 pandemic was challenging for everyone, including the MBR. Yet, another significant event proved even more challenging for Geraldine and her colleagues. In June 2021, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) greylisted Malta after it concluded that the country was not doing enough to tackle financial crime. Just one year later though, Malta was removed from the grey list, and since the action plan centred around the Law of Beneficial Ownership, the MBR played a pivotal role in Malta’s return to the white list.
“The most rewarding moment of my career was when Moneyval acknowledged that the Law of Beneficial Ownership in Malta was largely compliant, and when Malta was removed from the grey list after the MBR actioned the action plan provided by the FATF,” explains Geraldine. “We worked night and day to remove Malta from the grey list within one year. During that time, seeing a drop in companies redomiciling out of Malta only motivated me to work harder to get Malta off the grey list as quickly as possible.”
Assuming the role of CEO during this critical period allowed Geraldine to spot weaknesses and work to eliminate and mitigate them. “Now is the right time to focus on removing the excessive red tape and make it easier for companies to work in Malta. As things stand, we cannot compete with other jurisdictions, so a steering committee has been set up to find a way to streamline processes across our different authorities,” she says. “Communication between authorities also needs to increase, which is another lesson we learnt during the greylisting period. And as challenging as both the pandemic and the greylisting were, these lessons became even more significant when contending with the effect of the war in Ukraine.”
Although her role as Registrar is a supervisory rather than an operational one, Geraldine wants to make it as easy as possible for companies to submit documents to the MBR. “We are currently working on an online digital system that will make submitting easier for companies,” shares Geraldine. “However, we also need to invest in education. The private sector needs to understand what it is liable for if it does not adhere to its obligations under the Companies Act. Our main role is not to impose or recover penalties, but to provide an efficient portal containing all the information available on all businesses.”
Despite her determination, Geraldine is very aware of the high-stress environment in which her staff works. “The emails never stop and the phone is constantly ringing,” she says. “Getting the job done is important, but so is our employees’ well-being. For this reason, we encourage after-work events and team-building activities, and we also make it a point to give our employees the option to work flexible hours. And I want every member of staff to feel confident when taking advantage of these opportunities.”
Empowering employees is something that Geraldine encourages at every turn. In this regard, the MBR has noted a marked increase in the number of employees who are now willing to go out and give presentations regarding the organisation and its work. “We then upload these presentations on social media, which gives our employees a sense of achievement,” says Geraldine. “The MBR also has the HR equality mark, which is very important to us because it reflects the equality that we promote on a daily basis at work. We also have a lot of family-friendly measures in place, which improve employee performance.”
No matter how full her days are, Geraldine tries to spend the first half an hour of every working day going around the office speaking to employees. Sometimes they talk about ongoing projects; other times they chat about their personal lives. “I believe that if an employee feels close to their leader, they are more motivated to give 100 per cent in their job. They are aware that I have my own struggles, so they know that I can sympathise with theirs,” she says. “My motto is to always work as a team. Alone you cannot do much, but as a team we can work wonders. That’s the only way we can succeed.”
Looking ahead to 2023 and beyond, Geraldine’s focus is on creating and maintaining seamless processes for those doing business in Malta. “Nobody knows what the future holds, but I think financial services, gaming and banking will be in a better position as 2023 progresses. So, if we are going to be competitive as a jurisdiction, it is essential that we have an online system that facilitates submitting for companies,” she insists. “We also need to make all the necessary changes quickly in these months following the greylisting.”
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