Entering a family business with a history that goes back more than 125 years is never easy – but that is exactly what Charles Grech & Co CEO Michael Darmanin did a year ago, when he left the telecommunications sector he had spent 25 years working in, and took the helm of this local retail and distribution giant.
“Charles Grech & Co has been operational since 1881, so it’s extremely well-established,” Michael says. “I was drawn to that, and the fact that I would be doing something completely different following 20 years with Vodafone and five years with Melita. I love a challenge and I felt excited by the prospects of what we could achieve here.”
As someone who puts great focus on the learning and satisfaction parts of his life as well as the business ones, Michael took sabbaticals between each of his major career moves – something other corporate high-flyers may find difficult to understand. “I wanted to take a step back and discover, slowly, what I wanted to do next. It gave me the time to unwind, reenergise and look carefully at what was out there.”
Michael says moving to Charles Grech & Co marked a thrilling new step. “I wanted to work for a family business specifically, and sought related opportunities,” he explains. “I actually worked with my own father early on in my career, and wanted to return to that. I was looking for a medium-sized, family-run enterprise that wasn’t too dominated by family – meaning that their input is of course very valid, but that it doesn’t dominate the whole agenda. This combination is exactly what I have found here, and it is having very positive results.”
Asked to describe his approach to being a CEO, Michael says he doesn’t call himself a leader but stresses that he does like change. “I like setting out a goal or a vision, and getting everyone involved in attaining it. In today’s world, change is happening rapidly so we need to keep up with that – but it isn’t always easy to encourage people to change because they become accustomed to the status quo. In fact, most people are creatures of habit and will require a lot of support to do things differently – and that’s where being a good CEO comes into play. The thing is, if you stand still, you’ll just go backwards. That’s not an option for me. My question is always: how can we do this better? Yes, we’re doing well and that’s great, but what next? I question everything, but that doesn’t stop me from taking the time to celebrate our successes too.”
Michael also puts firm focus on the company’s clients at every stage in the process. “My tech background encourages me to simplify things,” he continues. “I consider myself to be the stupidest customer out there, so I want things to be simple enough for me to understand them, in the hope that that will make it easy for everyone else, too. “That then echoes through the team, as I like to have a good mix of people – ones that can contribute, challenge and criticise, and not just sit on the fence. When I look at my team I am pleased to see so many different viewpoints. I have seen the power of good teams in the past and wanted to underline that in Charles Grech & Co. Yes, challenges lie in taking tough decisions – for the team as well as beyond it – but this has to be done, and it’s not personal. Our team is so much more important than me as CEO, or than any one person on the team, and it’s my job to get the best out of everyone within it. I know that if I can do that, the results will be huge.”
All-in-all, Michael stresses that he is most driven by setting the bar very high, and doing everything possible to attain those results and achievements. He is motivated by numbers and KPIs, and is very results-focused – “We need to be passionate about our brands, our customers and our staff, and deliver results to our shareholders,” he says.
With that in mind, Michael says he is very focused on the continued diversification of the existing product portfolio and what the Charles Grech & Co brand can offer its customers moving forward. “The past 12 months have provided an immense learning curve for me and, because this sector hasn’t always been my craft, I have focused specifically on the numbers side of things. Today I am consolidating those numbers and looking at how best to expand into 2019 and beyond. We’re at a crossroads, and that’s exciting. When you have a brand like Charles Grech & Co – with all the history and equity that comes with it – there are always opportunities to explore.”
As for the challenges and opportunities facing the sector in general, Michael cites the importance of keeping up with opportunities for development – especially in light of the foreseen economic growth and population increases. “Things are accelerating and we have to keep up the pace, both as a company and as a nation. The current infrastructure in Malta is holding us back, including the roads, the planning, and increasing salaries. So, with any growth comes the challenge of matching up, and that’s not always easy.”
As for the future of Charles Grech & Co and his role within it, Michael says he’s proud to be part of what he believes will one day be one of the most recognised brands on the island. “This is a wholly Maltese brand and that’s something to be proud of,” he says. “It has achieved so much and has a bright future to look forward to. As for me, I certainly still see myself here in a few years’ time, hopefully enjoying the results of the decisions we take in the months to come.”
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.