Last July, Mark Laferla Snr, the Founder and Chairman of Laferla Group, announced the joint handing over of the lead executive role to his two sons, Mark Jr and Keith. Now, as they look to carry on the family legacy with the same professional ethos their father instilled in the firm for almost 40 years, the brothers reflect on their journey so far, and their plans for the next chapter.
Although Laferla Group was set up by their father in 1984, the brothers are actually the third generation in the Laferla family to work in insurance, with their grandfather also being involved in the sector, before the family business was founded. And while it looks to be a case of insurance being in their blood, the Managing Directors are adamant that the family dynamic extends far beyond that, reaching across to the entire team. “It is certainly a family environment within the firm, but it is really and truly a collection of very professional people who have become like family to us,” they say.
Tracing their career trajectories thus far, Mark Jr and Keith share a similar journey. Whilst reading for their ACII qualification in insurance, they both worked for Middlesea, gaining valuable experience in the industry before joining the family business. “It was really good to start from the ground up and gain work experience outside of the family business structure,” reveals Mark Jr, the older of the two, who joined the family business in 2010, with Keith following suit in 2012.
And once the brothers had joined, they didn’t take their place at the top right away. “We spent several years in different management roles, developing our business acumen. Our father wanted to make sure that we transitioned into the roles well, and we were only promoted to directors once he felt that we were ready,” says Keith, explaining that they each focused their efforts on different sections within the company. They also have a younger brother, Kevin, who has also recently joined the business, carving out his own niche within it and recently assuming the role of Assistant General Manager.
In that time, much has changed in their industry, particularly in terms of technology and products, with regulation also having a significant impact. “In today’s world, those who have not kept up with the times have found it difficult to maintain their position within the market. We have always remained consistent on one thing since 1984, and that is our customer service. Different companies focus on different things, but in our case our primary focus and our strength is our reputation and our service. Our consistent investments in technology and digitalisation have also helped us to stay ahead of the game in this respect,” says Mark Jr.
Commenting on the landscape since the business started out, Mark Jr observes that while the market hasn’t seen many new entrants over the years, there have been a series of mergers and acquisitions that have streamlined the local insurance landscape into one with fewer, well-established brands. In this regard, he points out that Laferla Group continues to be the largest insurance agent on the island, comparable in size to insurance underwriters (as opposed to other agents), as well as one of the few insurance operators locally that have remained fiercely independent, being owned and operated exclusively by the same family.
Now, it is the brothers’ turn to steer the company into the future. Looking back on the transition, Mark Jr smiles, “it involved a lot more than you’d imagine!” Describing the handover as a delicate process, he explains, “we needed to make sure that everything was done correctly, and what has been built will continue to flourish. We’re thinking long term and at scale, and have several plans and ideas in mind that, when they come to fruition over the next few years, will change the dynamics of the company. As we get larger, it’s important that the right foundations are there, so we had to look at all of these elements.”
Highlighting their primary plans for Laferla Group moving forward, Keith explains, “our goals for the mid-term include further digitalisation, which is something we’ve been pushing for a number of years and which we are already market leaders in some respects. We also wish to start expanding outside of Malta – a bold move which we plan to take in the next year or two, yet to do this we need to ensure that our strong foundations locally remain in place.”
Finally, he notes, “another thing we’d like to embark on is a net carbon neutral project going forward. We’re very aware of the situation around us and feel that it’s time that the private sector takes initiative and grabs the bull by the horns. Hopefully, in a few years, we will be in a situation where our whole operation is carbon neutral, and we strongly urge other firms to invest in similar initiatives.”
Another aspect to their plans is diversification, Mark Jr adds. “We have been investing in other sectors over the last few years, and while insurance will continue to be our main sector, we plan to continue to invest in new projects in various sectors which will hopefully pay off in the coming months and years.”
It is this forward-thinking approach that the brothers reveal helped the company retain an even footing throughout COVID-19. “From a business perspective, we didn’t succumb to panic, and didn’t let the pandemic handicap our operations, so while we did take precautions, we never stopped working,” Mark Jr says, affirming that “our strength was assessing the situation at each individual stage and acting according to what made most sense for us. We saw companies in our industry being negatively affected by the pandemic, but we soldiered on and continued to service our clients, and through our decisions we continued to grow.”
Apart from this, they continue, investments into the digitalisation of their business in the years before the pandemic bore fruit once customers increasingly sought services online, putting Laferla Group in a better position when compared to competitors who didn’t offer this service. “Thankfully, our forward-thinking in terms of digitalisation really paid off when the pandemic hit,” Keith maintains.
From a leadership point of view, drawing parallels with his previous sports experience as the captain of his field hockey team, Keith explains that rallying the troops and being there for everyone, listening to their concerns both on and off the field serves him well in the office setting too. “It very much translates into a business leadership sense – you enjoy good times and must also face and overcome difficult situations, with your team. We refer to our staff as our team, our family. Even though the staff complement is growing, we maintain an open-door policy.”
And as the Managing Directors move forward towards their three main pillars – further digitalisation of the current operation; expansion into other territories; and diversification into other sectors – they consider the main challenges to be regulatory-based, yet are confident that with the right mindset and a strong team behind them, they will achieve their goals. Revealing the most important lesson learnt in their journey thus far, Keith says, “you need to be confident in the decisions you take, after due consideration. If you make a mistake, you will learn from it and this experience will make you wiser in future. So, failure should not scare you – you must trust yourself and your decisions.”
Meanwhile, the brothers share a few words of advice for aspiring leaders, with Mark Jr asserting, first and foremost, “don’t let people who think they know better put you down.” Meanwhile, Keith continues, “always strive to be a good person, and show a positive attitude both in the office and outside of it. You have to live with a positive mindset,” as Mark nods in agreement, adding “you have to be ready to give it your 100 per cent, all the time.”
Having said that, they also agree on the importance of finding your own balance between your work, hobbies and home life. This is particularly important within a family business dynamic, they share, adding that while Sunday lunches with the family can sometimes fall prey to work discussions, they also make sure to find time to enjoy each other’s company and foster their relationships as a family.
“If our relationship started and ended at the office, it wouldn’t be healthy – even though we do get along really well at the office,” says Keith, as Mark nods, “we’re lucky to have a very good dynamic. Working with family can be difficult, but the three of us are each other’s best friends too, as well as brothers and colleagues.”
The interview forms part of the 50 Business Leaders 2022 project. The new 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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Photos by Inigo Taylor
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