As one of Malta’s oldest food importation companies and family businesses, for almost a century, Carmelo Abela Group has ensured that local consumers enjoy a vast choice of high-profile brands and products. Led by CEO Maria Magro alongside a highly experienced management team, Camelo Abela is channelling its long-held reputation, values and expertise into further growing Malta’s dynamic food industry while distributing goods globally.

“I’m not the type of person to sit behind a desk day in, day out, crunching numbers,” begins Carmelo Abela CEO Maria Magro. “I like to create anew and help improve the company I work with. At university, my dream was to join a small company and help it grow. In that, Carmelo Abela has given me the opportunity of a lifetime.”

Maria’s entrepreneurial spirit builds upon her decades of experience in finance and accounting as a qualified accountant and accredited auditor. After graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in accountancy from the University of Malta in 1998, Maria gained experience in auditing before joining Megabyte to work on its Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems, for which a background in accountancy and finance proved crucial.

“Carmelo Abela was one of my clients, and I worked with the late Joseph Abela at the time,” she recalls. “He was the second generation of the company, and I held great respect for him. He would often say, ‘one day, you’ll come and work with me’.” Indeed, when the time came for Mr Abela to consider the company’s succession, he reached out to Maria to extend the offer once again. After careful consideration, she accepted – and over the past 11 years, has played a key role in the continued growth of Carmelo Abela Group.

“When I joined, the company employed around 50 people. Today, we’ve expanded to over 100 employees, so we’re on the right track,” highlights Maria, whose own career growth within the organisation exemplifies the core values that have contributed to the company’s extraordinary longevity, establishing it as one of Malta’s top food importation companies.

“At its core, Carmelo Abela is a family business that has endured for generations. Joining to contribute to the management of a family business marked a significant milestone in my career, especially considering I was not a family member. The fact that I, effectively an outsider, have risen to the position of CEO underscores the company’s acceptance and open-mindedness. Even more noteworthy, as a female outsider, I can confidently enter a boardroom dominated by men and garner respect when I voice my opinions or offer a different perspective on the business. I hope this will inspire other women not to relent in their pursuits and to persist in chasing their goals because opportunities exist, and organisations like Carmelo Abela believe in them just as much.”

While Maria may not be a relative of the Abela family, this does not diminish the company’s commitment to extending its family values to the entire team. She points out: “the culture here is incredible. Everyone is treated as part of a single family, whether they are family members or not. We genuinely care about one another, and that sense of care permeates the entire organisation. Empathy is a cornerstone of our culture; if someone cannot be at work for whatever reason, we cover for them and ensure they are OK. Our environment is nurturing, comfortable and friendly, yet maintains a high level of professionalism, fostering individual and collective growth. People are at the heart of a company’s success. At the end of the day: happy team, successful company.”

The company’s close-knit culture also enables Maria to manage her busy schedule as the CEO of such a dynamic organisation. “I oversee the entire company and its operations, but on a practical level, I also serve as the CFO and HR Manager,” she says. “Given our current restructuring efforts to support sustainable and ongoing growth, my days are filled with various responsibilities. However, I find immense satisfaction in having the complete trust of the directors in every aspect of my role.”

In addition to the demands of her multifaceted role at Carmelo Abela, Maria is pursuing a Master of Business Administration degree at the prestigious Henley Business School in the UK. “As a wife, mum, CEO, and now also a student, I have had to learn the art of delegation to get everything done,” she explains. “Carmelo Abela’s continuous diversification demands energy, planning and expertise, and since it has been over 25 years since my undergraduate degree, I felt that now is the right time to advance my academic qualifications and apply these new skills to our upcoming projects.”

Since its establishment in 1932, diversification and commitment have been key to the Carmelo Abela success story. Its origins trace back to founders Carmelo and Giovanna Abela, who initially sold houseware and groceries from a horse and cart. As the business evolved, they played a crucial role in distributing essential food rations in Malta’s war-damaged capital, Valletta.

In 1950, the business invested in food storage facilities and began operations as a direct importer and goods distributor. The second generation, represented by brothers Joseph and John Abela, not only upheld the core values that laid the foundation but also expanded the company’s international reputation as an importer.

Today, in its third generation, the company is led by directors Steve and Pierre Abela, who continue to propel the company forward, with an eye on the technological innovations that are changing the face of the food services industry,

“At Carmelo Abela, each generation has remained steadfast in upholding the principles and standards set by their predecessors, while making their own mark on the company to meet the evolving needs of the food industry,” adds Maria. “This, I believe, has been the secret to the group’s enduring success: a profound respect for our history and the decades of accumulated experience, coupled with a forward-looking approach that embraces change and pioneers the way forward for the food industry in Malta.”

As the business continues to develop and grow, so does its team – necessitating a consolidation of its structure so that both new recruits and company veterans clearly comprehend their roles within Carmelo Abela’s strategy, hierarchy and overarching vision. “The company is preparing to embark on a significant €10 million project, alongside the development of new premises, an exploration of technology’s role in supporting company operations, and diversification into marketing and other areas,” Maria shares. “Anticipating further team expansion, it is vital that we establish a robust company structure. This will ensure that everyone in every department, regardless of their tenure, can work seamlessly and knowledgeably toward a common goal.”

With the business expanding, 2023 marked a year surpassing projections for both the group and the wider food industry, explains Maria. Despite ongoing global challenges, she has steadfastly focused on ensuring Carmelo Abela products consistently reach the shelves on time for local consumers. “We import products from all over the globe and although both the Russia-Ukraine war and the COVID-19 pandemic have profoundly impacted the business landscape, there has been consistent growth in the catering and food services industry throughout the year, a trend I anticipate continuing into 2024. Nevertheless, recruitment remains a challenge,” says Maria.

2024 promises to be another stellar year for the Carmelo Abela Group, driven by a significant investment opportunity on the horizon and a deeper exploration into how technology and innovation can further transform the food landscape, Maria shares. “We look forward to embarking on another new chapter for Carmelo Abela Group, maintaining our unwavering commitment to excellent service and delivering exceptional quality products, as you can expect from one of Malta’s oldest and most successful family businesses.”

This article is part of the serialisation of 50 interviews featured in MaltaCEOs 2024 – 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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