Winston Zahra Jr grew up in one of the best-known and most successful business families on the island. So it’s no surprise that many of his earliest memories are actually related to the world of business.
“My father opened the Riza Hotel with his brother Tony back in 1979 and I think I decided there and then that I wanted to be in the hotel business,” Winston smiles. “It’s such an exciting industry; it’s all about people, movement and the fact you have to be on the ball 24/7 – at the ready all the time. I thrive on that.”
Fast-forward a few years and, after a couple of decades spent working his way up the company ranks, Winston says he realised he had become ‘de facto responsible’ for the business in 2002, when Island Hotels Group was building its Golden Sands property. He was COO back then, leading up to his appointment as CEO in 2009, around the same time the company went public and it became important to officially formalise its structure.
“My father and I both describe our journey over the 25 years of Island Hotels Group in the same way. For the first 10 years ‘I rode on his back’, then we spent five years side by side and, in the last 10 years, he ‘rode on mine’. The evolution we crafted together has been amazing. The company had just 25 employees when it started out and we built it all the way up to 1,300 team members. It was an incredible privilege to have had the opportunity to lead a team of that calibre and our success belongs to every single person thanks to a lot of dedication, passion, genuineness and creativity.”
As most CEOs will tell you, there is no doubt that – as a leader – your behaviour and decisions rub off on the rest of the company and filter down – and Winston agrees. “The way the CEO behaves forms the character of the company. It sets the tone for how people treat each other, how they treat clients, the way decisions are taken, and how things are implemented across the board. It is vital to know and understand that when you are leading a team.”
That said, Winston admits he has never given too much thought to the way he operates as CEO. “I don’t wake up in the morning and plan my behaviour,” he says. “I am who I am; I behave how I behave because of who I am and I don’t overthink it. Yes I think through decisions but, with me, people get what they see. Some people like that, and others hate it but, ultimately, that’s the way I am.”
Nevertheless, Winston admits that he has sometimes had to go against his own personal character to take difficult decisions. “That’s a tough one,” he says, “as it goes against your grain and people don’t expect it. But sometimes it has to be done in business, and it then comes down to handling things properly and explaining the wider context to your team. Good communication really is the cornerstone of good business, especially when times get tough. I have found that people don’t mind having to go on a bumpy ride if the journey and the reasons behind it have been explained to them. On the flip side, when they are out of the loop, you lose their trust and they become cynical.”
So, even today in his role as CEO of GG Hospitality, Winston says his ultimate focus has never wavered: people. “I get a buzz from seeing teams come together to achieve things, and from watching people grow, develop and become stronger. Sometimes they step into roles they may never have dreamed of and excel. When you understand the fundamentals of people, then you can manage them. Watching a business grow from nothing to a certain size is great, but nothing beats watching people flourish and enjoy success in their own right.”
And all that ties in very neatly with Winston’s current project – making GG Hospitality a success as it rolls out new brands and products in the next few years. “Growing the brand and the team right now is definitely the driver,” he says. “There are so many opportunities for growth and, currently, we’re getting the building blocks aligned. Just like in Malta, the biggest challenge comes from the lack of labour force, as the number of people willing to work in hospitality is dwindling; the industry isn’t traditionally a good match for millennials and z-gens. Thus, we’re remodelling how we work and our approach to that age group, because we absolutely have to get it right.”
As for Winston’s own future over the next few years, he sees himself leading the effort to grow the GG brands, and has plans in place for the company to grow significantly larger and more diverse. “The decisions we take today will set the scene and, with a little bit of luck, I believe things will grow significantly. I look forward to the journey,” he adds.
MaltaChamber.org.mt is proud to have serialised 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 were 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. This is the final interview from the 2019 edition – stay tuned for MaltaCEOs 2020.