Joseph F.X. Zahra’s earliest memories of business relate to his family. His father Alfred, who owned and managed one of Malta's longest-established family businesses, E Theuma & Co, instilled a strong business ethic in his son.
“Studying economics felt like the right choice,” Joseph explains. “So I did. I then took on a job as Head of Research for the Malta Development Corporation (which is now Malta Enterprise) in the late 1970s, and worked there for six years.”
Joseph explains that his sector – market research – took its quantum leap in the 1980s. It was around the same time that he noticed a gap in the human resources sector too. “I have always been driven by the concept of solving problems as part of business, so my idea was to set up a company that could provide human resources services,” he continues. “So, along with Lawrence Zammit and John Grech, I set up MISCO, in the early 1980s when I was in my twenties, while my father held a dormant shareholding. ”
That of course marked a very formative move in Joseph’s career; one that propelled him firmly into the world of research, analysis, human resources and business consultancy. “The early 1990s were such an interesting time,” he reminisces. “Various companies were restructuring back then and changes were being made to Government authorities ahead of EU membership; there was so much to be aligned.”
They were projects that highlighted his talent in the field, as Joseph was soon sought-out to take on another public role, this time as Chairman of Bank of Valletta. “I stayed in the position for seven years,” he explains. “It was especially interesting because it was an Executive Chairman role as there was no CEO – although we worked towards the appointment of a CEO during my tenure, in 2004.”
Joseph then went on to play an integral function in a number of other very innovative projects taking place at the time. Among them, he was the first Chairman for both the Arts Council and the National Council for Higher Education. “I started both of those projects from scratch, and found it very interesting to be working to develop autonomy from the related authority,” he says. Between 2005 and 2008, Joseph chaired the National Euro Changeover Committee which introduced the euro in Malta.
Joseph sees the role of the CEO as an executive position – someone who has taken on the primary responsibility for the company’s vision and policies. “The CEO is all about leadership and obtaining results,” he says. “The CEO needs vision, to lead by example, and to be out there on the floor rather than locked up in an office. He or she is someone who actively listens, and who doesn’t have the monopoly over the company’s ideas or opinions, but is open, strong, self-aware and knows their limits. Empowering others is absolutely crucial.”
As for the challenges he sees to business, Joseph says these mostly come from the rapid changes taking place. “We need to be agile enough to adapt to them,” he says. “Today’s world is one of disruption due to digitisation, technology and geopolitics, so it can be hard to keep up.”
With that in mind, Joseph says that CEOs have to be effective within a lifespan of around six years. “A CEO that has been in the same company for 10-to-15 years will have their roots so deep that they will start resisting change,” he stresses. “The first year or so is all about understanding the business, becoming part of the team and coming up with changes. By the time you get to the third or fourth year, you have to become aware of complacency – or consider moving on. I disagree with CEOs maintaining their job for 10 years or more.”
Joseph has certainly kept moving over the years. Even now, he sits on many Boards, including the listed companies MAPFRE Middlesea plc and Medserv plc locally, as well as Birks Inc, a jewellery business listed on the NY Stock Exchange, and Fire Group in Italy. Across all of them, he says that he has maintained one key focus: relationship building.
“The speed with which the business world operates means that you risk creating transactions rather than relationships,” he explains. “And that’s exactly why my daughter Maria, who is a human resources consultant, and I founded SurgeAdvisory, because we really want to be able to build and maintain relationships with our clients on a personal basis. We have been very selective when it comes to the people we want to work with here; it’s a different model but we have been successful.”
And it is clear that leading SurgeAdvisory alongside Maria makes Joseph happy at this stage in his career, and he is looking forward to doing so for many years to come. “Just, perhaps, in a calmer manner,” he smiles. “Over the next five years I have no doubt the company will be doing what we do well, while making even better use of the latest technology or business models to suit the changes that take place. My focus is always to make us more efficient and more effective across everything that we do.”
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.