Rebecca Bonnici has always followed her heart. From getting her first tattoo at 18 to dropping out of University after three months, she is determined and unafraid to break with convention – qualities that have served her well in recent years. The tireless owner and CEO of one of Malta’s most respected English Language Schools has weathered the storm of the pandemic and come out even stronger than before.
Rebecca found her calling early on in life. A course in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL), which she pursued to teach English as a summer job, unexpectedly led to a stellar career. “My father had a cardboard manufacturing company, and from the age of 13, I’d go to the factory with him in summer to help with administrative work, but when I started university, I quickly learned that teaching English is what truly stimulated me. At university, I opted to read for a degree in International Relations and French, but despite loving French, Molière was just too much for me!” she jokes. “So, I dropped out after just one semester.”
She turned to the English language school where she had studied how to teach English as a foreign language. “Two days later, I was in a classroom teaching five Libyan men,” she says. “I returned to university a year later and completed a degree in Communications. After that, I continued to specialise in teaching English as a Foreign Language at a Master’s level.”
While at university, Rebecca’s father opened the first BELS school in Gozo, where she originally worked part-time in administration and marketing. These days, she describes her multifaceted role as a mix of PR and HR, requiring her to be both listener and peacekeeper. “Most of all, I am a doer,” she says. “I love getting my hands dirty together with my staff.”
Initially, the school aimed to focus on teaching business English. “Hence the name, which stands for Business English Language School,” Rebecca explains. “At the time, there were probably about 25 language schools in Malta, and we thought we could run a profitable educational establishment on Gozo teaching only business English. Of course, we learnt the hard way that this was unsustainable. So, although we still specialise in teaching business English, our general English courses are our principal revenue source.”
In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic saw the school return to its roots with a host of new courses in business English aimed at professionals. However, before pivoting and finding a way to make the most of the situation, things were hairy at BELS for a few months. “The lowest point of my career was in July 2021 when we were ordered to close the schools for a third time just as we had started regaining momentum. Sadly, ELT students were largely blamed for bringing and spreading the virus in our country, which was devastating for our sector,” Rebecca shares.
“I was exhausted by that point. As it happens, I am also the Chairperson of FELTOM, the Federation of English Language Teaching Organisations Malta, and we had been lobbying for the reopening of English language schools for over a year. Despite considering myself to be apolitical, I had to sit down and negotiate with various Government bodies and the Prime Minister himself, which, for me personally, was not an easy task.”
While the repeated closures meant a huge loss in bookings each time the schools were shut down, Rebecca did not waste any time, and her proactivity paid off. “Within less than three days, we migrated all our in-country students to our online classes. We had already done all the research and costings as it was our intention to roll out a new product in 2020 – an online school – but the sudden lockdown accelerated its implementation,” she explains. “Embracing the online classroom was one of the first things we did. With no new income on our horizon, we invested in hardware, software and training for the teachers, and upped the internet connections in our student residences to meet the requirements of classroom software, which went beyond simple Zoom calls. Today, we have a fully-fledged online school.”
Before the pandemic, BELS had only ever taught students travelling to Malta specifically to learn English, but Rebecca saw an opportunity in the crisis and turned her attention to people who already resided in Malta and Gozo. “There’s a sizeable expat community on the islands, as well as a need among companies to train their staff, even university graduates, in business English,” she explains. “So, our Director of Studies created over 20 MFHEA (Malta Further and Higher Education Authority) accredited courses in English for professionals. Today, that accounts for a very respectable chunk of our revenue. We have local companies with Maltese and foreign employees buying courses in English for engineers, and professionals working in aviation, finance and many other industries.”
The past two years have not only had a lasting impact on the English Language Teaching (ELT) sector, but also on Rebecca herself. She is the first to admit that despite being proud of guiding her schools and many employees through a trying time as an independent business owner, she has changed as a leader. “I got served a big dose of humility, and I think April 2020 marked the first time I cried in front of my staff,” she confesses. “I am very lucky to be surrounded by people who believe in me, both at work and especially at home. My husband and children were amazing during this time. They are my biggest supporters and I know I wouldn’t have got through those 18 months without them.”
Rebecca admits that the pandemic also taught her to strive for a new level of frugality as a business owner. “It is not easy when you consider quality to be an integral part of what you do. And, as we know, that does not come cheap,” she shares. “However, we have managed to continue delivering quality, both consistently and sustainably. Repeat business is important. We greatly acknowledge the importance of client satisfaction and have a return rate of just under 20 per cent. Our ethos and values trickle down into every service that we offer.”
Looking forward, Rebecca is optimistic but cautious as she talks about the exciting projects that BELS has in the pipeline. “We put together our MFHEA courses for professionals at a time when companies didn’t have a lot of disposable income to spend on their employees’ professional development. Now, our biggest project is to take these courses in business English to new heights,” she shares, adding that although the looming increase in the cost of energy is concerning, there is a bigger issue that is beyond her control.
“For me, the greatest challenge at this point is Malta as a destination,” she confides. “We are no longer as attractive as we used to be. The English are setting up schools in Greece and Cyprus that have similar unique selling points when it comes to Mediterranean topography, climate, food, history and culture. We are no longer clean nor organised, and we have no long-term strategic plan for tourism nor education. So, my biggest struggle lies in attracting tourists and language students to come to our shores because they no longer perceive value for money in Malta. While I can ensure my clients get value for money when they buy a BELS product, the minute they step out of my residences or schools, it’s a different story.”
As trying as the past couple of years have been, and as challenging as the future looks, Rebecca remains upbeat and proactive. “I have learnt to multitask less so that I can be more present in what I’m doing. Now that my children are more independent, I’m better able to focus while at work, but once it’s school pick-up time, I’m all theirs,” she shares. “I strive to be more about quality over quantity, both as a mother and at work.”
This article is part of the serialisation of 50 interviews featured in MaltaCEOs 2023 – the sister brand to MaltaCEOs.mt and an annual high-end publication bringing together some of the country’s most influential business leaders
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