While it may be hard to believe, the Chairman of Island Hotels Group – who had developed five hotels by the time the group was sold in a €50 million acquisition deal last year – started his working life as a school teacher. “I went to St Michael’s Training College and intended to be a teacher for the rest of my life,” Mr Zahra recalls. But, after teaching for nine years, he chose to change direction – setting up a business with his brother Tony.
At a time when the local tourism industry was still in its infancy, the two decided to start a car hire company. “I think we had about 200 pounds between us. We bought two cars and started renting them out, and with every 100 pounds we managed to make from renting those two cars, we bought another car, and another,” he continues.
The brothers then set up a travel company called Alpine Travel, and went on to expand into insurance and manufacturing. “We were building up a vertical operation,” Mr Zahra says, looking back, “but when I went into business, my dream was always to have a hotel, and eventually it came true.”
"When I went into business, my dream was always to have a hotel, and eventually it came true."
In 1979, the Zahra brothers partnered up with the Rizzo family to build Malta’s first aparthotel - the Riza. “At that time, the banks were not lending money for hotel building due to a government policy, and we didn’t have enough to build, so we entered a partnership,” Mr Zahra explains. Unfortunately, this only lasted five years; after which, we were bought out.” he says, admitting his disappointment at losing his ‘baby’ – so much so, that he decided to retire.
In 1985, Winston Zahra Snr sold his 50 per cent sharehold of the company to his brother and went into retirement. He was 45 years old.
“I spent about six months in retirement, until Zaren Vassallo, the Riza hotel contractor, approached me to manage his hotel – the Bugibba Holiday Complex,” Mr Zahra smiles. The offer developed into an equal partnership, and saw the businessman back at the helm of his own enterprise. Some time later, the partners set their sights on a piece of land in St George’s Bay which would be ideal for a five-star hotel, but it was not to be: the land was given to a French company instead.
Mr Zahra moved on, until one day he was struck with the idea to expand the Bugibba Holiday Complex. The extension took the hotel from 220 beds to nearly 1,000 beds, going from employing 20 members of staff to 200. Fresh from the success of the extension, the pair began looking for another hotel in 1992. The old Salina Bay hotel was up for sale and they took the plunge. “It only had 110 rooms when we bought it, and was in a devastating state,” says Mr Zahra, who was happy to don his project management hat once again to gut and extend the hotel. It was reopened as the Coastline in 1994.
Meanwhile, an idea for a separate company was born at a party at Mr Zahra’s house. “I normally engaged an outside caterer, but I thought, we’ve got our own staff, why not do our own catering?” As it happened, Winston Jr had just returned from his studies abroad. He took charge of the catering arm of the company and began building it into the successful Island Caterers we know today.
The paint had barely dried at the Coastline when the partners were approached by the same French company that had acquired the St George’s Bay site years earlier. They wanted to sell, and after some negotiating, Mr Zahra and Mr Vassallo agreed to buy. A target date of two and a half years was set for building the Radisson SAS Bay Point Resort, which was cut down to 18 months once works had started. “We made the deadline, and the hotel proved to be another success,” he says.
“It wasn’t an easy decision. I believe that what I did is what everybody should do when they’ve worked hard for a number of years. There comes a time when you should reap the fruits of your hard work and enjoy life a bit more.”
The Dragonara Casino came next, for which the government put up a tender. Mr Zahra formed a consortium of the main contenders – the Corinthia, the Westin and Island Hotels as well as Air Malta and Accor, which joined as experts in running the casino. “We won the tender, which was for 10 years, but stayed for 12, throughout which I was the chairman.”
With Island Hotels and Island Caterers doing well, they set their sights on the Golden Sands in late 2001. Island Hotels Group acquired the old hotel with the intention of refurbishing. Soon after, it was realised that it would be better to demolish and develop a purpose-built timeshare resort. It took 26 months to develop.
Then, in 2009, Mr Zahra’s long-time partner, Zaren Vassallo, decided to leave the company. “My family and I decided to buy him out. In order to do it, we decided to put the company on the stock exchange,” he explains. The Zahras bought 25 per cent of his ex-partner’s share and offered the rest to the public, making the Zahras the major shareholders.
Winning a government tender for the Hal Ferh Complex came next for Island Hotels Group – for which Mr Zahra says plans are ready and should begin shortly – but in 2015, something unprecedented happened.
“I treat life like a book, in which you have chapters that start and end,” he says of the Zahras’ decision to sell the Group to Corinthia’s investment arm, International Hotels Investment. “In October 2014, Alfred Pisani approached me to sell the Radisson St Julians to them,” he explains, adding that he didn’t like the idea of selling the hotel, but suggested Corinthia buy the whole company instead. The deal was finalised last August.
The next question is obvious. Was it difficult to bid farewell to a company after nurturing it for 29 years? “It wasn’t an easy decision. I believe that what I did is what everybody should do when they’ve worked hard for a number of years. There comes a time when you should reap the fruits of your hard work and enjoy life a bit more,” he says earnestly.
But while he may be on the way out, Winston Zahra Snr is far from what one would call retired. Apart from voluntary work, he’s on the Board of Directors at Caritas, and is the CEO of the President’s Trust. And in his free time? He lists reading, travelling, spending time on his boat and enjoying family as his main activities. “I keep myself busy, otherwise I get into mischief!” he chuckles.
And as he begins to step away from the sector with which so many have come to associate him –having also been president of the MHRA as well as member of the Malta Tourism Authority for a number of years – what does he believe the future holds?
Mr Zahra feels that tourism will retain its position as one of the main pillars of the economy, but points out that there is still work to be done. “You hear people saying, ‘let’s market Malta to a higher level of tourist’, but it doesn’t happen like that – you need to upgrade the island. Once that is done, the profile of the tourist will also change automatically.”
As for what the future holds for the energetic businessman, who was recently awarded the Member of the Order of Merit (MOM) by Government, as well as a lifetime achievement award by the Mediterranean Tourism Marem Nostrum, in his own words: “who knows? If a challenge crops up… who knows what’s round the corner!”
This is a snippet. Read the full interview on the latest issue of Business Agenda.