Paul V Tabone

While most of us may define a cancer diagnosis and seriously injuring the spine – twice – as enough to bring anyone to a grinding halt, for Paul V Tabone, these major events have been just ‘setbacks’ on his journey through life. That his prostate cancer diagnosis came mere weeks before Malta began its own battle against the global COVID-19 pandemic was, for Paul, simply another challenge to overcome.

This extraordinary approach to life reveals the measure of Paul as a person, who credits his faith for his many achievements. These include the founding of Tabbingtons – the company he grew from scratch into one of the most respected woodworking specialists in the country.

“My philosophy of life is to practise my Christian values and put them to work in all aspects of everything I do,” he explains. “They are there whether I’m dealing with clients, employees, business associates, family or friends, and they can be seen in every piece of furniture I make. I am in the business of creativity. Every piece we create is made individually for that client – not mass-produced – and I thrive on the satisfaction of making something unique and beautiful for each person. That is my passion and it’s one I wish to keep doing, at least for a few more years.”

In fact, the entirety of Paul’s extensive career has been crafted around his passion. Fresh out of school, he kick-started his professional development in a position at Forestals. Here, while overseeing sales and shipping, he also spent a year in the UK learning manufacturing techniques, draughtsmanship, store keeping and sales for catering and industrial cooking equipment through a work-study course with Creda International, Hobart Manufacturing, Foster Refrigeration and Bartlett.

Photo by Bernard Polidano

Paul followed this with roles that not only expanded his manufacturing knowledge, but also sharpened his expertise on business management. Between 1971 and 1980 he worked as Manager at plastic injection and blow moulding factory Model Hobby Ltd; Purchasing and Traffic Manager with Japanese electronics manufacturing company Shin-Shirasuna Malta Ltd; and Manager in the locally formed international TIR road haulage company, Islander Trucking Ltd.

However, Paul’s enduring passion for creativity steered him towards a new career path into his own business, when an unexpected opportunity arose.

“Every role I experienced in those early days helped me to learn and grow, but I still wanted to do more creative work,” he recalls. “As it happened, I had been working with a man who had exported cane furniture to France and had gone bankrupt. I was fascinated by the idea and the adventure, so I left Islander Trucking and took on the company – debts and all. We turned it around and our cane sofas can still be found, decades later, in some hotels.”

When plastic chairs became more popular than cane furniture, Paul changed direction again. “People began to ask us to make other items, such as kitchens, so we switched to woodworking, often working into the night to meet demand.” And so, Tabbingtons Ltd the ‘traditional woodworking company’ was born, with its name coined by Paul as a fun Anglified play on his own surname, in recognition of the company’s growing popularity in the UK as well as in Malta.

Over the near-40 years since, Paul has overseen all the operations of the company, from sales to administration, as well as his team of around 30 employees. Paul’s most careful focus, however, remains on the details of every woodworking project that is manufactured through Tabbingtons. “Every person working with us must acknowledge that each product coming out of our workshop is going to be used by a client in their home, and that they have paid money for it,” he continues.

Photo by Bernard Polidano

“If the contractor or carpenter were paying money to have this item in his home, would he accept it with any defects? I doubt it. So, if it’s good for them, it’s good for the client.”

His insistence on quality and detail also impacts Paul’s leadership style, he admits. “I’m obsessed with quality. There are multiple cameras around the workshops so that I can take notes when I’m not there and regularly follow up with the contractors about the quality of each product. There have been a few times that I have directed my people to start a project again if I’ve believed the quality wasn’t up to scratch.”

This singular technological arrangement has proved essential in another way throughout 2020, following Paul’s diagnosis of advanced prostate cancer that made him particularly vulnerable to the added health risk of the COVID-19 pandemic. “It has been a difficult year, since I’ve had to cope with keeping the workshop going while receiving treatment and contending with the pandemic,” he shares. “I am still directing all the needs of my company – whether technical, quality control, accounts, sales, or prep – but everything is done from my little office on the roof of my home via video calls, emails and messenger. It has been about survival, on every level.”

By contrast, and to balance the many challenges that Paul and his team have overcome throughout 2020, 2021 promises to be a better year for him, for Tabbingtons and for the other goals and opportunities that he still tirelessly pursues. “In 2010, I was in a spinal brace and feeling very low, so I spent that time researching how to convert waste into energy,” he says. “Ten years later, in 2020, besides looking after Tabbingtons, I collaborated in the formation of a company in Sweden that has been set up to build waste-to-energy plants – and it already has a memorandum of understanding to build two such plants in North Africa.”

And with these values of sustainability and quality firmly at heart, Paul is determined to keep building, learning and creating beauty in a world that is increasingly mass-produced.

“There’s so much technology now, with machines replacing humans. And it is nearly impossible to pin down where the materials have been sourced from on mass-produced furniture,” he notes. “We pride ourselves on being the opposite. We always consciously purchase our approved, farmed timber from local markets, never from endangered wood species or from unknown sources. And we also offer our clients veneers and finishes that they may not be able to find in shops anywhere else.”

Client expectations, meanwhile, remain at the forefront of Paul’s mind. “People don’t tend to look at the detail on something that has been mass-produced, but they will often look for the defects in something handmade, so the standard has to be that much higher on our part. But we will always be proud of the exquisite and unique quality of the custom-made products we create. Our clients know that their Tabbingtons item is entirely one-of-a-kind and has been made for them and them alone – so it won’t be found in anyone else’s house in the world,” he concludes.

This interview is part of a serialisation of 50 interviews carried out with Malta’s top CEOs, featured in the bumper edition of MaltaCEOs 2021 publication, which was recently released. Despite the many challenges of 2020, this is the largest edition to date.

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