When it comes to a well-loved and recognisable portfolio of products, the Farsons Group delivers. With a history dating back to 1928, its core business remains as brewers and beverage producers, while the entire organisation encompasses subsidiaries in the importation of wines and spirits, water dispense supply, the importation of foodstuffs, and the franchise food business – all within the fast-moving consumer goods category.
CEO Norman Aquilina describes his role as one of leadership and navigation, but adds a nod to the attainment of set corporate goals. “It’s a role fundamentally driven by means of ensuring that our Group’s strategic vision, along with our core values, are well rooted and maintained,” he explains. “On top of that, I also ensure that the right mindset and culture of driving performance – particularly among our management but also across the entire Group – always prevail.”
It’s an approach that has stood Norman in good stead as the first-ever non-family member to head the Farsons Group management team. He admits this did add some pressure in the early days, but actually served to inspire him to take on responsibility from Louis A Farrugia, who had successfully led the Group for many years.
“I have always been conscious of the challenge of filling Louis Farrugia’s shoes, while knowing there were understandable expectations that needed to be satisfied,” he smiles. “When I took over in 2010, I believed it was important to strike the right balance; one that ensured continuity, while also addressing the necessary changes to the sectorial environment as a result of the market liberalisation that took place just two years prior to my appointment.”
From the get-go, Norman put heavy focus on continuity and pursuing the strategic vision that had been set. “My perspective here was fundamentally driven by one key consideration,” he says. “That while we have tremendous heritage behind us, we also have lots of opportunities ahead of us. As for my 10 years in the role, I can sum them up very succinctly: a journey of constant change, numerous challenges, collective achievements, and great personal satisfaction.”
And despite leading Farsons Group as CEO for a decade now, Norman is quick to point out that being a CEO doesn’t automatically make you a leader. “You need to earn it,” he stresses. “You must walk the talk and learn to listen more, and not expect to only be heard. Beyond that, leadership is about setting direction and not relaying a form of dictation; it’s about seeking to influence and not to control; it’s about empowering and energising people, and not about issuing orders.”
And Norman goes one step further – highlighting that leadership challenges are not there to expose your weaknesses but to help you discover your strengths. “It’s my approach to be resilient and determined, and to always retain a ’can do’ attitude in whatever I set out to do. My motto is ‘believe and you will achieve’. After all, it is so much more energising to be surrounded by a team of believers and achievers.”
Norman says he is most enthused by the competitive challenges of his role; it provides the adrenaline kick that drives him. “I am not short of challenges,” he quips. “But as long as we are on top of them, that’s fine and, indeed, motivating. As I like to say, challenges are there to be overcome and not overlooked.”
Of course there are challenges, including the unfortunate reality of sometimes having to operate within an unlevel playing field, where Norman says the Farsons Group is faced with recurring and unfair competitive circumstances. “Here I am predominantly referring to us having to compete against operators who illicitly import and manage to maintain a good part of their business outside the fiscal radar,” he says.
“Somewhat ironically, but also most frustratingly, because of our leading market position within the beverage sector, we are sometimes seen as easy prey by the authorities when considering the introduction of new measures given our compliance track record. We have always championed a competitive environment but have not, and will not, shy away from condoning unfair competition in whatever form. What we should all be aiming for is an environment where fair competition and good governance prevail across the board. This sadly still remains a challenge.”
It goes without saying that 2020 brought its own particular challenges too. However, in spite of all the woes that the pandemic brought about for the Group, it paradoxically also presented some opportunities. “This stems from my firm belief of the need to see opportunity in every scenario,” the CEO continues.
“When experiencing challenging times and accelerated changes in a heavily subdued but nonetheless competitive environment, businesses are forced to brace themselves and endure the pressure, taking corrective measures to mitigate the impact and ensure they stay within, and ideally ahead of, the pack.”
It is within this context that Norman believes this pandemic has brought on an opportunity for businesses to undertake a reality check, along with any required root and branch transformation. “During this year we responded by transforming, wherever possible, our set-up into a more flexible cost structure, to adapt and more efficiently satisfy seasonal and varying market demands.”
And while Norman does see opportunities on the horizon, he admits the island will likely continue to experience some rising unemployment in 2021, as well as a fragile and smaller tourism industry, and a generally weaker economic and commercial climate for some time until a greater sense of normality is restored.
“Clearly, the challenge is not over yet,” he says. “And the coming months will be crucial in determining the long-term implications of the pandemic. I do believe its impact has been significant on most businesses and, going forward, will certainly result in lasting changes in how many businesses are structured and how they operate.”
Now, with his eye firmly on 2021, Norman says his outlook for the Farsons Group is one of cautious optimism, even if he falls short of talking about a rebound or recovery, especially within the first half of the year. “In my point of view, before talking about recovery, we need to deal with the spillover that this pandemic will undoubtedly leave behind.”
Whatever the extent and market reach of that spillover, Norman firmly contends that the Group needs to remain constantly vigilant to always ensure it is ahead of the curve. “We must be best-placed to better exploit arising opportunities, while also being poised to address the challenges of today, but more so, of tomorrow,” he asserts.
“We need to make sure that we remain well positioned to satisfy market demands within all the businesses we operate. We will continue to transform the way we do things, with a view to further strengthen all our competitive advantages and address any shortcomings. We will continue to constantly update and revisit our product portfolio and sales strategy, along with our distribution model. Finally, we will also keep redefining the best go-to market strategy, given the everchanging market scenario, for each of the companies within our Group,” 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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