What started as a gap year job turned into the business passion of a lifetime for Belair’s CEO Ian Casolani – who never really planned on joining the travel agency his father had started in the 1960s.
“I was just finishing university and wasn’t yet sure what I wanted to do, so I decided to look into the family business for a while,” Ian recalls. “My friend Jean – who is still my business partner – and I started to experiment with some ideas we thought might be fun, but which actually turned into something a little more serious. 25 years later, we’ve developed Belair into one of Malta’s leading property companies.”
For the majority of that time, the business ran as a small family set-up. In fact, it was only when Ian took over the helm around 15 years ago that he decided to restructure and take things to the next level. That was about the same time that he became CEO.
“There wasn’t an official ‘appointment’,” Ian remembers. “I think it was more like I woke up one morning and realised that I had been playing the role of CEO for a few years, and that it was time to formalise it. To me, being CEO is all about being a good leader. Rather than telling people what to do, it is about nurturing your team and getting the most out of them. Yes there is a vision and a structure that you have for the company, but I believe in making our team proud to be part of that. I strive to give them a purpose and sense of belonging, and to exploit their full potential.”
Ian also stresses that the title of CEO doesn’t really mean anything to him – he is far more driven by the buzz of helping the Belair family realise its dreams. “Nurturing relationships – whether within the company or with our clients – is the Belair USP,” he says. “I think we have managed to achieve something special over the years, largely because it’s not just about money for us, but because we love what we do. As a team, many of us working in the company have been friends since childhood, so we’re very like-minded and that has led to a cohesive approach. We know what we are doing, and we guide our clients with complete honesty and confidence in everything that we do.”
However, Ian does cite one of the challenges faced by the company as maintaining high levels of integrity and professionalism within the sector. “As an industry in Malta, property is all about closing the deal at all costs, so maintaining seriousness within that can be difficult. It is also a challenge to keep the market sustainable, as there is a risk of extreme development making the island less attractive. We have to remember what makes Malta appealing and keep that at the centre of our decisions. It’s now about realising where we have messed up and to avoid making the same mistakes again in the future.”
With that in mind, Ian says Belair is looking forward to launching a number of high-quality developments in the years to come. “We have been given exclusivity on a number of projects, and have worked hand-in-hand with the developers to ensure they are a win-win – both for them, and the clients. We hope these projects will prove that things can be done differently, and done well.”
Finally, when looking to the future for both himself and the company, Ian says he would like to achieve a better balance. “The last 20 years have been pretty flat out! Although I love that and am very proud of what we have accomplished, it has been very intense, as I always give my all or nothing.”
That said – and contrary to the experience of many CEOs – Ian admits time management and stress management are not his fortes. “I have never really mastered them,” he smiles. “But I do manage to get it all done. Nowadays I have learnt to prioritise my tasks, delegate better and be more selective when it comes to focusing my strengths and energy. To me, everything is possible thanks to the structure we have in place, my dependable partners and the fantastic people I have managed to surround myself with. So my tip to other CEOs would definitely be to invest in people you can trust and depend on – and to appreciate them accordingly.”
And Ian certainly needs that strong team when it comes to Belair’s development in 2019 and the years to come, in line with the ongoing development of Malta’s property market. “The property industry has been evolving continually,” he says. “And industries like iGaming, financial services and, more recently, blockchain and ICOs, have changed its dynamics. It is true that, at present, demand outweighs supply, especially in the rental market, but this will change significantly over the next three-to-five years, due to the number of large projects and units to eventually hit the market.
“So, unless agents, developers and other service providers really invest in quality, service standards, and infrastructure, the good times won’t be sustainable in the long-term. In fact, it is imperative that, as a country, we work hard to remain attractive to both local and foreign investment, whether it is through fiscal advantages, improved infrastructure, quality lifestyle, being competitive, or our skilled labour force. Beyond that, it is equally important that we keep investing in the standard of service we offer overall. If greed and short-sightedness take over, we will not have a sustainable future.”
And it is with all that in mind that Ian looks at the future of Belair and stresses that, as a company, they are not looking to have dozens of offices or hundreds of team members. “We’re pretty much where we want to be and will now continue to tweak our procedures to keep them efficient and effective,” he says.
“I would like Belair to start depending on me a little less, and that process has started: we have spent the last three-to-five years investing in our structure and management even more, and that is starting to bear fruit. As for me, as the years go by I would like to be doing less management, growing more relationships…and enjoying every aspect of my life!”
MaltaChamber.org.mt is proud to be serialising MaltaCEOs 2019, a high-profile publication consisting of 50 in-depth interviews with leading CEOs in Malta. Celebrating the most influential business minds in the country, two different interviews will be featured on this business news portal week by week. MaltaCEOs was created by Content House Group in collaboration with the Malta Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise & Industry.