As CEO of Business First, Marika Tonna was instrumental in positioning the organisation as Malta’s one-stop shop for business in 2017. Since then, her drive to expand on the services it offers to benefit the local business landscape has not wavered – rather, her sights are set ever higher.

“I see myself as the captain of a ship. We have people in different roles, and my job is to see the big picture when it comes to strategy and to steer the ship in the right direction,” says Marika Tonna, CEO at Business First, describing her position as unique in accordance with the uniqueness of the organisation itself.

“As a joint venture between Malta Enterprise and the Chamber of SMEs, Business First (B1st) also forms part of, so there are several sets of rules and regulations we must adhere to,” she maintains, noting that not all the people that offer their services from B1st fall under her mandate. “We bring together officers that form part of Malta Enterprise, officers that we subcontract from the private sector, and several others from different entities, including the Malta Tourism Authority, the VAT Department and the tax authorities. My initial challenge upon starting out was getting all these people from different backgrounds and cultures to work together.”

Tracing the career journey that has led her to this point, Marika recalls how she started out working at a bank during her student years before joining MDC (the precursor of Malta Enterprise) while attending university. “At MDC, I worked in several different departments and became its youngest female manager. I’m also very proud to have represented Malta in London,” she says with a smile.

This experience was followed by a period of private consultancy, during which Marika had the opportunity to travel to Vietnam to work with the United Nations. Upon her return, she joined the Management Efficiency Unit (MEU) as a Senior Consultant.

“The way I work today is very much a result of what I learnt at MDC and MEU. The company culture in the two organisations was completely different – while we strived for excellence in both and were always driven by results, the MDC was more efficiencyfocused, while, at the MEU, we gave importance to the minutest detail,” she explains, adding that, upon re-joining Malta Enterprise as COO, she had mastered both methodologies – with their advantages and disadvantages – and could apply the best of both.

Then, an unexpected turning point in her career occurred about seven years ago when Marika was forced to stop working to care for her son, who had been involved in a tragic car accident. “I didn’t think I could restart my career at the time, and I will always be thankful for my colleagues who really stepped in to help when I needed to leave,” she attests, with a grateful smile.

Upon her return, and while discussing her future with the Malta Enterprise CEO, the opportunity at Business First came up. “B1st had already been around for some time, but in a different structure. I wanted to give it a new lease of life. We joined forces with the Chamber of SMEs, started introducing other entities and grew it from there,” Marika says.

Speaking about its aim at the outset and how it has expanded its role since then, the CEO explains, “we began by assisting startups on the basics of how to register as self-employed. Our mission has always been – and continues to be – to help microenterprises and to challenge the status quo.”

As their role is to represent business, the team steps in if they encounter stumbling blocks or bureaucracy, taking the issue up with the relevant department with the aim of improving and streamlining the process. And Marika explains that team members are often approached by people who have got stuck or are unsure which Government department they need to contact. “We guide our clients accordingly,” she smiles – and the results of the service speak for themselves.

“Starting from an entity that would receive an average of two to three clients per day, we have now grown to serve over 70 clients a day, between emails and walk-ins. We also have a very strict charter, whereby we answer enquiries within 24 hours, and waiting times are kept very short.”

Testament to this is a recent recognition that Marika is particularly proud of. Last year, the B1st team received the Quality Award at the Is-Servizz Pubbliku Awards. Offering some context, the CEO explains, “a few years ago, the Government introduced the Quality Mark, and we were one of the first three entities to receive it. Having this mark means that you are audited regularly by the department at the Office of the Prime Minister. Last year, the Government awarded us the Best of the Best among the Quality Mark holders, as the entity that gives the best service within the public sector. It was a lovely surprise, and now, the pressure is on to keep it up!”

Turning her attention to the work the entity does, the CEO shares insight in relation to the business community, against the backdrop of persistent global challenges. Encouragingly, she says, local business has not only proven resilient, but also continues to grow and diversify. “More and more entrepreneurs are choosing to set up businesses here,” she says. “We haven’t slowed down after COVID-19 but, rather, are seeing different types of business move to the island – more tech startups, for example, as well as foreigners who were previously employed in Malta and who have now decided to set up a business here.”

Speaking of opportunities for the Maltese business community, Marika continues, “a good entrepreneur will always turn a challenge into an opportunity – and at B1st we see all sorts of businesses, not just the traditional, runof-the-mill ones. While I’m not an entrepreneur myself, I have great admiration for entrepreneurship, particularly first-generation businesses.”

Looking to the future for B1st, the CEO’s plans centre on further expanding the entity and introducing more services, as well as launching a business portal, whereby clients can set up a business and run it in a holistic manner.

“This year, we will be launching our portal, and we will constantly update and add to its features. Malta ranks very highly in eGovernment services within the EU, but technological advancement varies among different Government departments. So, bringing these departments together has been a challenge but a worthwhile one,” she maintains, noting that establishing a greater presence on the sister island, Gozo, will also be a focus. “Malta Enterprise has an office in Gozo, but I’d also like B1st to have one, so we can give the holistic service we offer here.”

Finally, her priority will always be on the team that makes up B1st, and which enables the entity to provide the level of quality service that the CEO – and their clients – have come to expect. “In any knowledge-based entity, people are key. We are our staff – B1st is about keeping them motivated, trained and happy.”

This article is part of the serialisation of 50 interviews featured in MaltaCEOs 2024 – the sister brand to and an annual high-end publication bringing together some of the country’s most influential business leaders

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