Supplying over 3,100 retail and food service clients in the food and beverage industry, family-owned and -run Nectar has gone from strength to strength over the past 31 years, almost spanning CEO Roderick Abela’s entire career. Having emerged from a period of internal consolidation against a backdrop of global economic challenges, this leading importation and distribution company is now ready to greet 2023 head-on.

Roderick Abela has come a long way since his first days at Nectar nearly three decades ago, when he would help his father for a few hours a day while furthering his studies. His real involvement began soon after in 1997, when his father – the late Charles Abela – bought out his partners’ share and the business became fully family-owned. Roderick, his brother Mario and, subsequently, their sister Daniela joined their father full-time, together managing a relatively small team of 20.

“Back then, I was mostly responsible for establishing systems and software solutions as solid foundations on which the business could grow,” Roderick shares. “As we scaled, I focused more on sales strategy while overseeing the company’s finances and IT, but have since been involved in most aspects of the business over the years.”

He recalls the tragic loss of their father – then only 57 – in 2010. This came as a great shock to the family but, from then on, it was all-hands-on-deck as Roderick’s younger sibling, Carlos, joined the organisation too. Employing a workforce of 80 back then, the food and beverage distribution company had already grown significantly by that time and, a few years later, with more experience behind them, the siblings decided to divide executive responsibilities and define their official roles. Having worked so closely with their father for 13 years, Roderick naturally headed the company as CEO.

“My father was a great mentor to me and passed on the strong business and personal values that I still live by today. He showed me that key to any business are strong foundations of integrity and sound family values. Similarly, our mother, who sits in the shadows and is not directly involved in the business, has been instrumental in the success of our story. She is a bastion of courage and hope, and remains the one we can bounce ideas and concerns off in the face of challenges and difficult decisions – whether business or otherwise.”

Indeed, honesty in business is very much a part of Nectar’s character and has allowed the company to retain good client relationships, in line with the genuinely client-centric approach that Roderick feels sets it apart. “We constantly strive to uphold a win-win approach in every deal. This, surprisingly, often runs counter to our clients’ and other business associates’ previous experiences, where they had fallen victim to raw deals before bringing their business to Nectar,” Roderick explains.

For their part, the team at Nectar do things differently. Roderick elaborates: “we thoroughly support our clients with a consistent service, fair margins and trade agreements, steady supplies and full after-sales support. We never take for granted the hard-earned good relations we have with clients who trust us as one of their main suppliers and make room for our brands to be well represented.”

It is little wonder that Nectar has amassed such a number of key milestones over the years, from takeovers of businesses like Sweetsource and Calleja Fisheries, and the sales and distribution of brands like Nestlé Ice Cream, Antica Gelateria Del Corso, Mayor and Three Hills, to setting up the Wrigley Impulse Division and launching the NectarActive Market Navigator sales ordering system.

The company has consistently invested over the years, including in a central warehouse and logistics centre, which Roderick claims has been one of the team’s best business decisions to date. It is now undergoing its third major premises enlargement. “Nectar is a forward[1]thinking champion of change that is always innovating and never shies away from new adventures,” he shares proudly.

Apart from acquiring new businesses, building strong brands and developing excellent client relationships, Roderick also believes that growing a strong team and investing in people is just as crucial to a business’ success. “I strongly stand behind our decision to retain our entire workforce of 195 employees – even when we had 40 people employed to service our HoReCa business model, which was shut down for a large part of these two years. We kept full teams and supported everyone financially in the best way we could.”

Looking back on the past two years, Roderick reflects on the challenges Nectar has faced. “We have always been quick to react and take timely decisions, but such agility has become essential in times of crisis. The good thing about such intense periods is that they push you to mature and learn at a much faster rate than you would in a normal year.”

Indeed, a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor and Roderick goes on to muse that, “until the going gets tough, any business can be a winner. But it is in times of turmoil that one is in for the real test. We are proud to say that, through our toughest times, Nectar was sound enough to ensure sufficient capacities across finances, storage and staff. This equipped us to mitigate unstable supplies and rising costs, and to make our strongest advances as we continued to service and remain close to our clients.”

Roderick notes that massive inflationary developments began long before the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, when Nectar was already receiving notices of rising prices from suppliers. “Following the pandemic, producers were having a hard time sourcing raw materials, and those that had scaled down their workforce due to the lower economic activity had trouble scaling back to former levels,” Roderick remarks.

The situation would, of course, only get worse with the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, which hit the food industry the hardest because of its impact on two critical ingredients: oil and wheat, sparking a ripple effect throughout the supply chain. “Usually inflation brings increased demand while supply remains steady,” Roderick explains. “In this case, with serious supply interruptions, we had both factors working against each other, with restrained supply and increased demand taking place all at once – resulting in the biggest ever super inflation of our lifetime.”

Roderick adds that the energy crisis that hit Europe next had some European producers facing energy bill increases of 1,000 per cent. “The massive extent of this meant that some producers are today paying more in energy than they pay for the raw material itself,” Roderick remarks incredulously. In Malta, this has also meant heightened freight costs due to the island’s position on the periphery of Europe.

Roderick goes on to state that, as long as demand remains higher than supply, the issue will not be resolved, making the looming recession practically inevitable. Nevertheless, he remains cautiously optimistic about the year ahead and likens it to a process of natural selection. “I believe that some of the greatest opportunities emerge from a crisis. The challenges will come for everyone and lead to the survival of the fittest. Crises also tend to be a time of gaining renewed trust from partners who seek out established distributors they can rely on in uncertain times.”

Contemplating what lies in store for the industry in 2023, Roderick remarks, “the food and beverage market is a relatively sizeable market and grows by around €50 million per year on average. The fight for a bigger share of it is ongoing, especially with the entry of new international players from time to time. Nevertheless, despite their fiscal advantages as foreign investors, our role in the market remains highly relevant as a key distributor of food in the ever[1]growing Maltese food market.”

Ending on a positive note, Roderick concludes, “I strongly believe that Malta will be able to make it and come through the other end, and I look forward to the next phase in Nectar’s journey, which promises to be an exciting one.”

This article is part of the serialisation of 50 interviews featured in MaltaCEOs 2023 – 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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