Hugo Chetcuti's Son Speaks – "The Buck Stops With Me Now"

Marie-Claire Grima - 27th September 2018

"Immersing myself in the business helps me take my mind off the fact that I have just lost my father in a very cruel and untimely fashion,” says Luke Chetcuti.

The murder of one of Malta’s most renowned entrepreneurs, Hugo Chetcuti, last July, shocked the entire nation. It wasn’t just because the attack was so cold-blooded and vicious, but also because Hugo himself was so visible – his name emblazoned across numerous Paceville properties owned by the company, his visage surveying the customers placing orders at Hugo’s Burger Bar. What will become of Hugo’s Group without Hugo, many wondered. But Luke Chetcuti, Hugo’s only son and heir, appears to have inherited not just the entertainment empire, but also his father’s dedication to the business and relentless work ethic. Despite – or perhaps because of – the devastating event that led to his succession, he’s raring to go.

“Emotionally, it’s been very, very difficult. But when it all happened, the company was and is, thankfully, in the midst of a very successful and eventful period,” he said, in his first ever interview as the new head of Hugo’s Group. “The fact that we were so busy forced me to immediately focus my undivided attention to our operations and the numerous projects which we’re currently engaged in. Immersing myself in the business helps me take my mind off the fact that I have just lost my father in a very cruel and untimely fashion.”

Although Luke is still only 26, he has been groomed for succession from a very young age. “I grew up with the company – even though I was very young at the time, I can still remember when Hugo purchased his first property, where Havana now stands. My first summer job was actually working in a warehouse for one of our beverage suppliers in my mid-teens, where I spent most of my time carrying boxes. In fact – unknown to me at the time – I later found out that my father had actually been supplementing my wage as compensation to them for my lack of experience! He wanted me to learn the value of money and to understand how hard one has to work in order to make ends meet. I first started working with Dad the following year at Hugo’s Lounge, where I started out as a barman. I was always by my father’s side, so a lot of his knowledge was passed down to me just by being with him. It helped me to mould an understanding of the business, how it operates and how it works.”

But while he was his father’s right-hand man, consulted on important decisions and asked for his opinion wherever it mattered, the final call was always Hugo’s. “The buck stops with me now. The final decision is mine. That’s the responsibility I have.”

But while he was his father’s right-hand man, consulted on important decisions and asked for his opinion wherever it mattered, the final call was alwa

For Luke, consolidating the company is now his utmost priority. “I want to restructure and make sure that we safeguard our foundations. Like most local self-made entrepreneurs, Hugo micromanaged everything. Everything went through him. Being completely hands-on and involved in everything, he found it very difficult to leave most decisions to others. He began to change his strategy and operate in a more structured manner, but it is imperative that we fortify what he started. Once we’ve made sure that the foundations are solid, we can move forward and continue to build on them.”

Luke forecasts the consolidation phase taking up to two years, after which he plans to turn his attention to Hugo’s Burger Bar. “There were plans to go international when my father was with us – in fact, we spent most of last year preparing ourselves to franchise this extremely popular and thriving brand. That’s next in line, burger bars. The model is great, it’s easy to multiply, and it’s been a huge success –people love it.”

Hugo’s Group operates around 12 outlets under its founder’s name, all located in the Paceville and St George’s Bay area. The Group’s two latest ventures are HSixty6, an upscale, fine-dining restaurant, and a 167-room ultra-luxury hotel that’s due to open this month. And if it seems that the entertainment hub has slowly become dominated by Hugo’s branded establishments, it’s not by chance – Hugo had a one-man masterplan in mind for the party city. “When he started out, he wanted to upgrade the whole area, bring in more people, attract more visitors,” said Luke. “He did so by always developing new concepts – in fact, our portfolio is very diverse. Hugo’s Lounge, which offers an array of Asian cuisine and sushi, was the first venue and eatery to open under the Hugo’s Group brand. This was followed by numerous other restaurants, bars, night clubs and now, hotels.” Consequently, Hugo’s Group is one of the biggest private-sector employers in Malta. “More than 500 people work with us and with the opening of our new hotel, the numbers will increase by much more,” said Luke. He added that his father was often imitated, and this fuelled the growth of the local entertainment industry. “The entertainment business in Malta grew because others kept trying to follow Hugo’s lead. He was planting the seeds of growth for others too.”

Hugo’s contributions to the Maltese business landscape have just been recognised officially – he was awarded Best Male Entrepreneur of the Year, as well as Malta’s Best Entrepreneur for Good, at Malta’s Best Entrepreneur of the Year Awards. Luke says he never truly realised how big he was, and never sought out accolades for this work. “He was so humble. He would speak to everyone and treat them all the same way, from a celebrity to a road sweeper. There was no ‘I’m the boss’ attitude with him. He was incredibly approachable. It’s one of the reasons why people loved him so much.”

Luke also spoke about his father’s kindness. “He was a philanthropist. The media seems to have become aware of this only in the past few years, but from the very beginning, people would simply contact him directly with their struggles and he’d just give freely. When he saw people struggling, whether it was a financial issue or a medical one, he always wanted to help. As an employer, he would give people countless chances. In Maltese, we say kellu qalbu zghira. He was very tender-hearted. He would become deeply emotional at the drop of a hat. And he was a fantastic grandfather. For instance, because my children are still young, he’d never let me get on a plane with him , even if we were going to the same destination, as he’d always worry about them being deprived of us both should anything happen. He wanted one of us to always be there for them.”

Besides genuine passion for the company, family is a motivating force for Luke to carry on with the work which Hugo initially masterminded. “What my father left for me, I want to leave for my kids. He worked very hard for 35 years and left me this empire, so now I need to soldier on and continue where he left off. I have the full backing of the company and even though it was a massive tragedy for everyone, the enthusiasm to go forward is there. I’ll continue working hard to keep his name out there and keep the brand going strong.” Are any future establishments going to emerge under Luke’s name, instead of Hugo’s? He shakes his head in disbelief at the very suggestion. “I wouldn’t even go there.”

This interview originally appeared in The Malta Business Observer


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