It is never easy to walk into a beloved family business and help steer it in a new direction. But that is exactly what Express Group’s Franco Azzopardi did five years ago when he was invited to become the company’s Chairman and CEO. After all, Express Trailers is over 50 years old, with an incredible history and an emotional past.
“I guess it was my job to cut through all that to neutralise the vast range of sentiments connected to running a second-generation business with eight brothers keen to retain their father’s legacy,” Franco explains. “They knew they wanted the company to move forward and to evolve with the times, but that is no easy feat for people who are so connected to it. That’s where I came in – to aid them in taking the quantum leap from a pure family-centric venture to one with a clear structure and vision. It is a challenge that I feel privileged to have been given, and one that I relish.”
Going back a little further, Franco was first asked to join the company Board as non-Executive Chairman seven years ago. Then, after two years of restructuring and orchestrating a merger of many subsidiaries, the company needed a Group CEO. “Up until that point, the different companies had been led by managers,” Franco continues. “By then, though, I had learnt the language of the organisation and the family, and felt ready to help implement what had been decided upon by the Board.
“To move a business like that forward you need to gear up; you can’t keep living in the past with a management style that may have worked decades ago. It became vital to find our core principles and to stick with them, while the rest of the company changed around them.”
Meanwhile, from Franco’s personal perspective, Express Group’s quantum leap came at a time that suited his career. He had begun his professional life in accountancy. “I hated school,” Franco recalls, “but my dad thought accountancy would still be a good fit. So that’s what I pursued – and I spent 27 years in the profession working for the ‘big four’ for 10 years and then running my own practice with a colleague. It did well, and we grew from two people to 25, before also venturing into IT solutions. Whether we were helping to automate the audit process or creating tools for financial statement production, we were groundbreakers on the island. But, after 27 years, I decided to call it quits in 2007 and sold out, having signed a non-competition clause with my partners.”
Franco looks back on that time and admits he had no idea what would come next. “I spent about three months meditating. Eventually, I started to inform my network that I was on the market, while also opting to give something back to the profession by volunteering to join the Council of the Malta Institute of Accountants. I also decided to educate myself further, and read for a Master’s in Finance, which helped to inform me on the most forward-looking side of accounting. As a dreamer I have always wanted to be at the forefront of the business battlefield and I found it all fascinating. With that new knowledge I was able to bridge the gap between my accounting background and what I hoped would be a business future. I also believed that that combination would help me be of value to other businesses.”
And it was. After his Master’s, Franco focused on becoming a professional director – covering everything from the legalities of business to the different styles that the corporate world offers. In the years that followed he gradually built up a portfolio of directorships among a number of top companies such as RS2 Software plc, APS Bank and Atlas Insurance. Also around the same time, he was approached and shortlisted to chair the Board of the Vella Brothers – the holding company behind Express Group, and which ultimately led him to his position today.
Now, Franco heads a workforce of over 260 people – and he cites understanding them as one of the most important parts of his role. “Knowing them and their emotions is critical,” he says. “As well as knowing and understanding our wider audience: our customers, legislators, policymakers and stakeholders. You have to conduct your orchestra based on what its audience wants. If they don’t want Mozart, then you don’t give it to them – that is unless you educate them to want Mozart, which can also be a good route to take.”
That approach may sound unusual to some, but Franco says his methods are very much shaped by the Japanese martial arts training that he has practiced for over 40 years. “It is all about balance,” he says. “And it developed in me a huge sense of pedagogy – the craft of transmitting knowledge. So, with my audience – whether that is in the boardroom or with our employees – I believe in connecting and absorbing the energy of the individuals I am working with. I need to understand their needs to conduct their orchestra.”
And using that approach, Franco is now looking towards the future of Express Group and, specifically, diversifying the dependency risk that the company has on the local market. “We’re currently hitting around €30 million in turnover a year – but it is all locally driven, based on local demand and local supply. But there are also opportunities beyond our shores. Moving forward, I wouldn’t like our company to be totally dependent on our local drivers, so we are now internationalising our force. In fact, we have just invested in an Italian company that owns a depot about 3km away from the Port of Genoa – a significant port linking the continent with Northern Africa, Malta and mainland Europe. I see it very much as part of a continued international effort for the Group, and something we will be talking more about into 2019.”
And the next five years? Franco has them mapped out too, with a clear vision for himself and the company. “Me? I will be the CEO of an international organisation,” he says. “Express Group? It will be an international organisation.”
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.