Being a third-generation innovator that is piloting family businesses into the future might seem like a daunting task to some, but Edward Zammit Tabona takes it all in his stride. After successfully navigating several setbacks in the past couple of years, he now has big plans to make 2022 yet another positive year for the businesses.
Edward Zammit Tabona was born into the family business – but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have to work hard to get to where he is today. “When I returned from studying in the UK, I started at the bottom, rolling up my sleeves and doing odd jobs. I was even assigned a job peeling potatoes in a hotel kitchen to see if I would survive. That and the long hours never disheartened me,” he recalls.
Hungry to learn and passionate about the business, Edward worked his way up through the different departments within the Group. “I watched and studied how everything worked, but also spotted the areas that needed improvement. Now, as CEO, I’m acutely aware that the experience I gained through this journey was key to the way I operate and communicate with the team today.”
That journey has led him through some landmark career moments. “From a business perspective, the highlight of my career has to be the Fortina Redevelopment Project,” he says, referring to the €100-million investment in a mixed-use development in the heart of Sliema that boasts luxury apartments, a high-end five-star hotel and a state-of-the-art office building.
Other notable milestones in Edward’s career include the launch of the Gozo Fast Ferry – an operation that was successfully delivered in a short period of time despite numerous setbacks – and his diversification of family investments into other sectors, including insurance, care homes and entertainment, among others. “Sitting in the driver’s seat of this varied family investment portfolio has been rewarding,” he smiles.
Still, none of these achievements can top one particular milestone in his personal life. “The most important moment in my life was becoming a father to my three children. They give me the energy to keep going,” he laughs. “My family remains one of my biggest passions. Few things come close to that comforting feeling of going home and seeing my wife and kids after a long day.”
Those long days start quite early, it seems. Edward is usually up at 5am to reply to emails before helping with the children. He also manages to fit in a game of padel with friends before the workday begins. “I realised that engaging in physical activities in the morning leads to a more fruitful day,” he reveals.
A busy morning doesn’t keep him away from the office for long, however. “I normally get there early before the mad rush of the day takes over. My team is very important to me, and I like to set aside the first couple of hours to discuss any updates or feedback they may have,” he maintains. “The hectic days are what drive me. I like to view the challenges we face as opportunities that will help to grow and steer our businesses in the right direction.”
The company that Edward leads today was originally established in the 50s by his grandfather and great- uncle. The pair shared a vision to invest in tourism in the Maltese Islands, and built the Fortina Hotel on Tigne seafront. “My father and his two brothers then continued to develop the hotel business from the original 50-room Fortina Hotel to one of over 300 rooms,” Edward explains. The three brothers also started the Captain Morgan Cruising services, offering tours around the Maltese Islands. Together with other partners, they also invested in Marsamxetto Steam Ferry services to improve sea transportation between the harbours.
Nowadays, the third generation continues to build on these solid foundations in an industry that is unrecognisable. Edward cites the introduction of low- cost airlines as the biggest change to the hospitality landscape over the years, as this encouraged businesses to invest heavily and up their game.
When asked about the next game-changers in the industry, the CEO predicts that businesses will need to embrace technology and climate change, weaving them into their strategies if they hope to succeed.
Aside from the ongoing Fortina Redevelopment Project, which aims to start welcoming guests in the second quarter of 2022, Edward recalls one other key milestone in the firm’s recent history: the €20-million investment that turned Captain Morgan cruises into a sleek operation that has been rebranded as iSeeMalta. The concept offers an environmentally sustainable solution to inter-island travel.
“To survive in this cut-throat industry, you have to constantly feel the pulse of what tourists want and be agile enough to adapt,” he asserts. “In the case of Captain Morgan, we established that tourists no longer sought to buy a one-day ticket to the islands and wanted flexibility instead. So, we developed the iSeeMalta concept, an innovative one-stop-shop pass that allows tourists to visit the major attractions and travel seamlessly on land and sea, on board our new eco-friendly vessels or the hop-on, hop-off buses,” Edward explains.
That said, the launch of iSeeMalta didn’t quite go according to plan. “We launched the concept in 2019 with the aim of starting operations in 2020, but the pandemic had other plans. Despite the challenges, we managed to start in the summer of 2021, although the numbers were not what we had initially projected. I am sure that we will get back on track once the pandemic eases,” he resolves.
Other areas of the business were also affected by the pandemic. Family investments in the entertainment industry took a hit due to the cancellation of organised events, but it was the Fortina Redevelopment Project that suffered the greatest blow.
“Our contractors are mostly foreign and couldn’t travel because of the restrictions. But a shortage of human resources wasn’t the only obstacle we faced – we also struggled to source the materials required on site. We had to play a delicate balancing act that involved last-minute decisions, cancellations and rescheduling; all while taking the necessary precautions to provide a safe environment for all,” he states.
Meanwhile, it goes without saying that the role of a CEO in the hospitality industry is quite different during a global pandemic. When asked about his priorities during this important time, Edward lists the safety of his team first and foremost.
“The well-being, livelihood and lifestyle of all our employees were important to us,” he maintains. “I wanted to make sure our team was able to mentally adapt, while reassuring them their jobs were secure. Thankfully, everyone was on board and we managed to retain our workforce. Now we look forward to growing stronger together post- pandemic,” he smiles.
With short-term adaptations under control, Edward turns his attention to long-term changes in the sector at large. “The pandemic forced us all to diversify. We started to explore the opportunity of investing in new markets overseas to grow on an international stage. The sector has to now adapt to new prices as global costs soar, and the industry has to analyse the way the pandemic has changed people’s approach to travelling,” he contends.
Now, 2021 may be behind us, but Edward believes that the situation is still volatile as we start a new year. Regardless, he remains positive. “Malta is a little gem. If we safeguard our assets, I believe tourists will start to revisit and we will bounce back,” he claims.
With steadfast plans for the year underway, Edward is optimistic about 2022. The completion of the Fortina Redevelopment Project is his primary focus at the moment, however he also plans to have iSeeMalta and Gozo Fast Ferries in full operation before long. He also looks forward to seeing the latest investment in Ponte Ferries up and running. The catamaran service between Malta and Sicily will land in Augusta and will operate daily.
“We have to maintain the positive ripple effects that these projects are having across the businesses,” Edward declares. “I firmly believe that if the team and I continue to work at the same pace we are operating at currently, we will keep reaching our targets as one whole family – both locally and internationally,” he adds.
This article is part of the serialisation of 50 interviews featured in MaltaCEOs 2022 – an annual high-end publication bringing together some of the country’s most influential business leaders.
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