Michael Warrington’s varied career started in banking at a very formative time for the industry in Malta. Over the course of 13 years in that sector, he was exposed to interesting challenges within it and, to this day, it remains close to his heart.
“But I have to admit I am the sort of person that gets bored easily,” he smiles. “I have moved around since then and been very fulfilled by where my journey has taken me – four years at Air Malta during a time when the airline was profitable, followed by the setting up of my own firm, before joining the team that opened the Westin Hotel, and then back to banking.”
Michael has actually started up four banks in his career so far, while also restructuring a fifth and helping to take it from losing €8 million a year to making €1 million in profit. “That’s what drives me most in life,” he says. “Working with start-ups or companies that need hardcore reorganisation. And that is what brought me to the AX Group."
Michael has had a close connection to AX for nearly 20 years. He originally came into it through the Capua Hospital, having been asked to provide financial advice at a time when it was still owned by the organisation. Then, on the eve of the millennium, he was offered the role of CFO of the Group, which he took up in February 2000. It is a position he retained until 2016, at which point he took on the role of CEO.
“AX Group has given me some truly wonderful opportunities and insights,” Michael enthuses. “Right from the early days, I developed a very good working relationship with Angelo Xuereb; I think the combination of his qualities and entrepreneurship, and my own administrative and conservative banking approach has been a good balance and has served the Group well. I am proud that, when I joined, our equity was €5 million and that today it is €175 million.”
The CEO puts much of this success down to the team that has been crafted at AX. But it is also doubtlessly down to his own range of experience, including on the boards of companies such as GO, Citadel Insurance and Nissan Insurance. “I have maintained a range of interests and involvements, which is what keeps me motivated and engaged,” he says. “It also gives me certain strengths, as I am able to take ideas from one industry to another, and to adapt them as required. It is progress that excites me: taking a challenge and turning it into a positive outcome.”
Asked about how he sees his role within the Group, Michael believes that the CEO should implement and develop the vision of an organisation. “Regardless of the company, as CEO you need to go in, assess, evaluate, look for strengths and opportunities, and then lead and motivate your team to embrace and deliver that vision. Achieving that involves having not just business acumen but an understanding of people and situations. So, unless you are a good people manager and can really develop an insight into characters and what makes people successful, it isn’t easy to be a successful CEO.”
Looking at AX specifically, he highlights how it has grown from a family business in which Angelo Xuereb was not just the entrepreneur but the CEO, to a company with a second-generation succession plan in place and an external CEO. “In fact, I see the transition into the second generation as one of our biggest challenges. Right now, I think our prime objective is to build clear structures within what is a very complex group of companies, and to instil a culture of how decision-making should be undertaken. It is growing into a more formal and corporate structure than the one that existed in the past.”
Michael says that this transition has been a long time coming. “I look back on many conversations with Angelo about putting a family charter into place; about how the Group would be structured and how that structure would serve us going forward. It was around Christmas 2015 that he said that the time had come to appoint a CEO and asked if I would be interested. At the time, I was CEO of a bank – and I am not the sort of person to jump ship – but he knew my love for the Group and that my respect for him was long-lived. So, he gave me the time to work on doing things properly and, in the meantime, talked to his family about it all. Nine months later I made the move and haven’t looked back – it has been very rewarding and satisfying with strong support from the Xuereb family, as well as the wider team.”
Now, Michael says that the most important thing he is working on for 2019 is the internal mechanics of the Group and the way the management core functions. “It is a journey that we are still working on; like with everything, some people rise to the challenge while others need a bit more help. I admit that I am demanding in what I want to achieve – it is a standard to which I hold both myself and my team – but I know we will get there.
“My hope now is that, even in five years’ time and beyond, I will be able to keep contributing value to the Group. I see my role here as my last CEO position and have no wish to take on other challenges beyond it. Within five years, I hope to have a close understudy and to be managing the transition to a new AX CEO.”
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.