Before setting up NOUV in January 2008, Mark Aquilina spent nearly a year in Doha, as Financial Controller with a large group of companies in the financial hub of Qatar. Prior to that, his experience in Malta saw him spend nine years in the consultancy division of Arthur Andersen and Ernst & Young, before holding the position of Group Financial Controller of a renowned group of companies.
Having gained a wealth of experience both locally and abroad, Mark and his wife returned to Malta to welcome their new son in 2007, and it was shortly afterwards that Mark founded NOUV. Looking back on this seminal time, the Founder and Chief Visionary Officer describes the move to Qatar and setting up NOUV as two moves that marked his career.
“When I moved back to Malta, I had no clients and a new-born baby to support. I was always on the consultancy side of things, and felt that helping clients is a mission. Particularly at the start, I would work long hours, and the journey was not always easy. I laughed and I cried, but when you persevere, it’s very rewarding. It’s never been about ego for me, but rather about leaving an impact and a legacy,” he maintains, describing his work as a lifestyle, rather than a profession.
Opening up about his role and title, Mark explains that he assumed the role of Chief Visionary Officer (CVO) instead of Managing Partner, as the title reflects the viewpoint from where he wants to be looking at the company he founded and leads. “I did not invent this title, and this executive function is like a CEO or a COO, widely adopted abroad,” he says.
Speaking of his decision to set up NOUV, Mark attests, “I needed a new challenge in my life, one that could positively impact other people and improve their business life. Thus, my journey at NOUV started by initially providing traditional business advisory and support services to micro and small enterprises.”
In fact, the idea behind the company has always been to accompany businesses throughout their journey, and while that hasn’t changed, it has certainly evolved since the outset. “As our clients grew and their needs became more sophisticated and complex, we also evolved and expanded our range of services accordingly. We are constantly plugging in more services to continue assisting our clients more holistically on their business journey,” Mark says.
Consequently, Mark’s role has also evolved, and today, sees him liaising with a growing team of professionals to continue to steer the firm forward.
“I firmly believe that it is only by showing integrity that we can be effective contributors to our clients’ success,” he says, and key to this is plugging the right people in the right positions. He refers to Tonio Farrugia, who focuses mainly on local clients, James Ellul on audit, as well Andrew Naudi, who brings valuable experience from his previous role as CIO within the Malta Gaming Authority – all of whom have enabled the company to continue to grow and add to its service offering. Finally, in 2020, NOUV also acquired business advisory firm Tuning Fork and were joined by Director James Sammut. Together, these key professionals make up NOUV’s five Partners today.
Turning his attention to the local business landscape, Mark affirms that over the past 15 years, things have changed substantially. “We operate in the management and financial services sectors, where trust and peace of mind are two extremely important assets businesses seek. The sector has been a strong pillar in Malta’s economy for many years, and the recent Grey Listing created some ripple effects which forced Malta to focus on remediation rather than being forward-looking and creative. Hence, we were mounted with extra compliance work and uncertainty,” he says.
Then, of course, there was COVID-19. “The world went into shutdown during the pandemic, and local clients needed our assistance more than ever to help them adapt their businesses to the new reality. The aftermath saw many industries change, and led to a shift in the human capital sphere on the island within many companies, including ours,” he reveals, adding, “COVID-19 also expedited a shift in our industry, which saw firms acquiring each other or merging. The gap between and within the different tiers of our industry continued to widen, with the bigger firms becoming bigger.”
In the meantime, Mark continues, the pressure on Malta’s tax system continued. “The international community introduced a global minimum effective corporate tax rate of 15 per cent for large multinational corporations that exceed an annual revenue of €750 million. These situations increased the urgency to update Malta’s tax system and, once again, created further uncertainty within the industry.”
Finally, he refers to the topic of ESG, which has risen to the surface worldwide, making it a necessity for firms like NOUV to get up to scratch with and invest in the subject. “These will also create advisory opportunities for us,” he smiles, undeterred.
Speaking of current and future plans, the CVO highlights a continued focus on steady growth and seeking a quality of service that positively impacts organisations and business owners’ lives. The plan is also to continue to add services and team players who can help the firm achieve that.
Delving further into this, Mark explains that in 2020, NOUV launched and adopted a hybrid brand structure, adding Tuning Fork, 36N Capital and GetGovernanz to the fold. Despite this, he says, “we work in a uniquely collaborative model across the firm, fuelled by the goal of helping our clients thrive, and enabling them to unlock their potential by delivering cutting-edge solutions.”
This strategy is realised via six business pillars, Mark explains, listing Consulting, which “will get your business up and running or reshape it to stand on its own two feet with an adequate strategy, financing, and sustainable processes”; Technology, which “will digitise your business and ensure that your IT systems, both client-facing and back office, maximise the full potential of your business”; a Learning Academy, which “will empower your people with the necessary knowledge and training”; Corporate and Tax, which “will handle your business regulatory and tax related requirements, including legalities”; Private Clients, which “will ensure that the wealth accumulated with your sweat is protected and passed on to future generations safely”; and Audit and Risk Assurance, which “help you sleep better at night by mitigating your business risks and guiding your business through this volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world.”
Going on to share some leadership insights, Mark believes that, “if you, as a company leader, are not willing to accept the pain sometimes incurred when choosing between doing what is right and doing what you want to do, then avoid going through any trouble with formulating values or mission statements.”
“I often ask myself, who do I want to be? And how do I want my company and employees to behave? Whether we know it or not, we answer these questions daily through our actions,” he continues, affirming that the answer is in fact simple: how you show up and treat others is everything. “I have learned that life and business are all about fostering healthy and positive relationships. Hence, ask yourself, ‘do I enjoy lifting people’s spirits, making them feel valued or small? Am I civil in my approach or disrespectful or rude? Am I positive, enthusiastic, and appreciative? Do I care for others, or is it all about me, my success, and my benefit? Am I someone who sucks the energy out of everybody or vice versa? How is my work ethic?’”
Another vital lesson he shares is the value of communication with stakeholders outside the company, as well as and internally, noting that communication between various teams is crucial. Ultimately, however, the most important lesson Mark has learnt is the importance of sticking to your values and to remain humble.
Quoting Simon Sinek he says, “humility, I have learned, must never be confused with meekness; humility is being open to the ideas of others.” Adding his own insight to this, Mark maintains, “humility is key in everything we do and is essential for leaders. It helps us keep ourselves in check, because when you are humble, you are aware of your faults and weaknesses, and as a result, you become more open to learning. Once you admit that you have more to learn, you set yourself on the path to more growth. Seeking growth with humility is also a way to grow more sustainably.”
Setting his sights on the future for NOUV, one of Mark’s biggest aspirations – which he shares with the entire team – “is that we continue to see ourselves as a reliable contributor to an industry which, notwithstanding the volatility of the past couple of years, has a lot to offer. Now that NOUV is nicely gearing up to offer its clients a holistic business consultancy service, we seek new growth opportunities in other areas, especially in the ESG Advisory, Corporate Finance and the Risk Assurance sphere.”
Concluding with one final piece of advice for leaders, Mark says that a business built on values can never be a democracy, and that remaining true to specific values requires conviction and demands guts. “Setting a company’s values has nothing to do with consensus. Consensus is reached when people compromise, but there can never be a compromise with specific values. A set of fundamental, strategically-sound beliefs can be offered to a broad group of people who form the organisation. From then onwards, it is up to them to either accept these values and make them their own by slowly adapting to them or to move on. As American author Simon Sinek points out, ‘values should be how companies operate when they’re at their natural best – rather than trying to be inspirational.’”
The interview forms part of the 50 Business Leaders project. The online serialisation on MaltaCEOs.mt will feature 50 distinguished business leaders, CEOs, and emerging business minds to create debate and encourage business leaders to share their journey with our readers.
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