There is no denying that Tonio Zarb is an integral part of KPMG Malta – he has been with the company since 1979, bar a short three-year stint overseas.
“I joined KPMG the same year I got married, so it was quite an important year,” he smiles. “I’d actually started my career with another audit firm when I was 17, before qualifying in the profession at 20, and later getting my MBA.”
Tonio says he has very little recollection of choosing the profession that would go on to become his life’s work – accountancy. “I do remember that I studied science at school, but I couldn’t stand biology so I dropped out of the ‘doctor route’ pretty quickly. Meanwhile law required me to know Maltese very well, which was never my forte (I was good at literature but couldn’t spell). So I drifted towards accountancy and I found it came naturally.”
Tonio first joined the firm as a Manager, before leaving in 1986 to move to France and then to work in Belgium. However, in 1989 he was offered a partnership at KPMG and returned to lead the advisory function, which has grown from a team of two, to one of 100.
“And it’s been a very interesting journey ever since!” Tonio says with a grin. And he’s right; after all – in many ways, he and a number of his peers (both within the firm and outside it) were pioneers in what is today a very mature industry. “The structure we work around today didn’t even exist back then,” he says.
In 2012 Tonio was appointed Senior Partner – the industry equivalent of CEO. Today he oversees the company’s three main functions – audit, tax and advisory, as well as its support services function. In a nutshell, he is the one responsible for running the whole firm, but he explains that there is a bit of a difference between a normal business and a ‘professional services’ business – and especially one with a team of 400.
“Most businesses wouldn’t expect the CEO to service clients, but I do,” he says. “And all of our 15 Partners do too. We all still generate work, and do the work, so it’s a curious combination.”
The other part of Tonio’s role relates to leadership and vision. “If you don’t have vision I don’t see how you can be a CEO,” he says. “Your vision has to become that of the whole firm but, to achieve that, you have to have a group of people behind you who trust you enough to make it a shared vision. Finding common purpose is crucial.”
In fact, Tonio places ‘team building’ at the very core of his responsibilities and stresses that a leader should be perpetually thinking about the person who will succeed him. “You need to consider succession very early on. In our firm, the Senior Partner can only ever do a maximum of two four-year terms. I am in my sixth year,” he says.
On top of both the leadership and teambuilding aspects of what he does, Tonio also considers it important to act as the face of the firm externally, although he adds that this is a role he shares with the other Partners and Directors of KPMG who each represent their own departments.
“The upshot of all of that is that we are growing,” he continues. “Malta has raised its profile as a location for international business and business in general, and I believe that the island will continue to prosper. The challenge lies in ensuring all of this remains sustainable in the long term.
“As for KPMG specifically – we are excited about our future, whether it’s our building expansion project which is now almost complete, or the new projects that we will take on in 2019. We are focusing on our vision and what we want to do as a firm. The time has come to leverage our story, our values and our purpose, and to develop a phenomenal strategy that will be executed by a formidable team. We have come a long way in the last six years, and I look forward to where this next phase will take us.”
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.