James Zammit has never wanted to be anything other than a car dealer. Some of his earliest memories are linked to the car business because his father ran a small dealership when he was a child, and that helped to inspire his lifelong passion. Back then he would spend hours dreaming of having access to the supercars that now sit, side-by-side, across the floors of his luxury dealerships.
“I was adamant that I wanted to get into business as soon as I could,” James recalls with a laugh. “I would have quit school very early if my father had allowed me to but, thankfully he didn’t, and I finished my education before joining the company. That said, I got involved as soon as I could – at just 14. I started right at the bottom, cleaning and prepping cars for the showroom. I wouldn’t have changed a thing; as long as I was around cars, I was happy.”
It was in 2009 that James took his next step in business and branched out on his own, with his own showroom. In the years since, he has grown that to four showrooms all operated under his own brand, with another five showrooms that his company manages.
“There have been a couple of important milestones along the way,” he says, talking through the journey. “The first relates to our flagship showroom in Burmarrad, which I ultimately bought over after partnering up with its original owners. It was an established luxury dealership well before then, and I had been fascinated by it for years… so much so that I would sit outside it at night, just to admire the cars! In the end I mustered up the courage to speak to the then-owners, and they were happy to partner up. I bought them out in 2018.”
James’ next critical milestone came later that year when he secured his financial institution licence from the MFSA – a major step forward that enabled his company to finance car loans, whether they were for vehicles bought from his company or any other. “Since most car dealers on the island aren’t set up to provide finance, this was beneficial to the sector at large,” he explains.
These two quantum leaps have doubtlessly secured Cars Unlimited’s status as the leading car dealership on the island, and this was reflected in its €33 million turnover in 2017 and its 2018 target of selling 2,500 cars. Today, James leads a team of 52 people, while focusing his time on the development of a strong company strategy and supporting his team.
“There is no way we would have achieved this level of success if our team wasn’t so strong,” James says. “They do a fantastic job. As CEO, I strive to be a good listener as well as a doer, as that combination gives me the ability to analyse what’s going on on the floor, and then to take the right decisions to achieve company development.
“There have been some fantastic moments along the way. I think my favourite would have to be selling five Ferraris in one week! It was quite something given Malta’s small population but we did it. I think that proves that people come to us because they know we add value to their purchases. They put their trust in us and we deliver. People who bought their first supercar from us years ago return when they want their next one today. We provide peace of mind, as well as finance if they need it, so we’re a one-stop shop.”
Somewhat unsurprisingly, James cites his favourite thing about his role as the access it gives him to new car models, as well as the fantastic international events he gets to attend. “We were recently invited to Ferrari’s 70th anniversary event, which was pretty amazing,” he smiles.” We were surrounded by film stars and Formula One drivers, while getting to drive the cars ourselves. I think it’s the kind of life 10-year-old me would be proud of!”
Of course, it isn’t all fast cars and glamorous parties; there are a few challenges to the business. “As a rule, car dealerships have a terrible reputation,” James says. “So some people associate us with that without knowing us, and we get dragged down. We combat it by doing business the right way and being honest.” Meanwhile, the company is also keeping an eye on the global shift to electric vehicles. “We’re on it,” James says. “We have already imported a number of electric cars to test the market, and that was successful. The Maltese mindset will need to shift before the sector grows but I believe it will be on an upward trajectory before too long, especially thanks to the incentives the Government is giving. And yes, there will be electric supercars out there before too long too; Tesla has already introduced a very fast electric car to the market… it’s faster than a Porsche!”
And with this trademark forward-thinking approach to business, there is no doubt that James and Cars Unlimited will help to spearhead that shift, as well as any other shifts in the car industry on the island in the years to come. “There is so much in the pipeline for us,” the CEO says. “We are working carefully on our customer engagement strategy and are in the construction phase of our service centre development, which will be a new concept for Malta. Meanwhile, we will be strengthening and growing our finance function – not just in the car industry but well beyond it – and completing our long-term property projects. It’s ambitious, but I have no doubt that we will achieve our goals while also safeguarding our solid reputation and helping to lead the sector to new heights.”
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.