17 July, 2023

Fortifying a legacy for the future


Chris Vassallo Cesareo was elected President of The Malta Chamber at the end of March, after serving on its Council for 10 years. Here, he speaks to Rebecca Anastasi about his priorities for the next 2 years, and how he plans to continue bolstering the entity’s 175-year heritage.

In its 175-year  history,  The Malta Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise and Industry has grown to become the backbone of private-public business relations.    Indeed, the organisation has proven instrumental in ensuring that the Maltese corporate community, as well as its strong industrial sectors – manufacturing, retailing and service providers – flourish, weathering the storms determined by the economy.”

In March, businessman Chris Vassallo Cesareo, whose CV includes a 10-year stint on The Malta Chamber’s Council, and an established career as Managing Director at Domestica, one of Malta’s leading furniture establishments, was elected President for a two-year term.

“My background is in the small-to-medium business sector, with Domestica being a second-generation family business, possessing investments in retail, manufacturing and servicing, so I’m very aware and conscious of the challenges and opportunities facing similar businesses working within these economic pillars – which, actually, include most of The Malta Chamber members. The fact that I’ve also been working on the Council, and working closely with the entity’s former presidents, means that I can also follow in their good footsteps,” he smiles.

Indeed, his key priority is to more firmly entrench the deep roots already established by The Malta Chamber, which, Mr Vassallo Cesareo says, is fundamentally dependent on the work of those starting out their careers. “My intended focus is on the future generations of business leaders,” he continues, adding that he’s also the Chairperson of JA Malta Foundation, which provides training and mentorship to entrepreneurial youths. “It’s our responsibility to give a platform and the space to future generations to excel in their respective areas,” he insists.

This is done through the commitment to The Malta Chamber’s five pillars: economic growth and resilience; environmental sustainability; digitalisation and infrastructure; human capital; and good governance. “We champion these foundations, to make sure we continue to leave a legacy,” he says, explaining that integral to these principles is education. “I don’t believe we can afford to separate education from industry. The Malta Chamber can help create the future, bringing educational institutions in touch with local businesses so we open the doors of opportunity, with youths being able to establish a career, and not simply look for a job. We are looking at things holistically, and this is tied to a national vision for the country,” he says.

Good governance will be another of Mr Vassallo Cesareo’s core priorities during his tenure. “Once you have this in place, then you can be competitive. It comes naturally. We have written a document giving recommendations on how to strengthen Parliament, and another on how to establish better procedures for public procurement.  Through these, what we’re saying is that we, as businesspeople, are also looking out to ensure the work is done correctly. For instance, if companies are not in line with the law, they shouldn’t be awarded public tenders.””

Trust is a two-way street, he says. “It’s our duty to raise these issues, since it creates a healthier economy which is more conducive to conducting correct business. To be more specific, if a tendering process has been launched and company A, that has done everything well, and paid all its dues, is competing with company B, that has not paid its taxes, then this is an unfair advantage, since the latter will have more cashflow, for a start.”

Concurrently, The Malta Chamber is also suggesting a lobby register – a proposal which has been put forward to Government over the past few years – in which meetings with public officials will be declared within 24 hours after the meeting is held, with the minutes uploaded on a public forum, so “they can be read and debated. They should be available to the public,” Mr Vassallo Cesareo says, pointing out that “the proposals being made by The Malta Chamber are always tangible, structured and concrete recommendations,” and therefore, workable.

This approach is crucial if The Malta Chamber is to fulfil its mission of championing the interests of the islands’ economic sectors and lobbying the authorities to ensure the best possible economic, social and political environment for businesses to flourish. “We are aligned to these five pillars, but we are also finding new priorities, new pillars. Our job never stops,” Mr Vassallo Cesareo attests.

Indeed, in the foreseeable future, The Malta Chamber will be focusing attention on the challenges associated with recruitment and human resources; the ease of doing business in Malta; access to finance and cashflow; helping to resolve the kinks in the supply chain; and the issue of Government competing with the private sector.

Moreover, The Malta  Chamber  is  keen  to  aid  businesses capitalise on the opportunities offered by technology, including by partnering up with Tech.mt, a Government entity launched to help tech companies export their digital offerings. “With this partnership, we represent the private sector, and we encourage firms to internationalise their products and services,” he says, adding that all local enterprises should be cognisant of the opportunities inherent in using digital solutions to also do business away from Malta’s shores.

“We are involved in several projects such as DS4Air, which has now ended, but its goal was to help companies become more tech-oriented. And there are other such initiatives in the pipeline, through which we give free services to our members, in order to help them expand,”” he continues.

Rising inflation has also been of concern to local businesses and, as a result, to The Malta Chamber. “At the moment, inflation is at a 3.61 per cent increase, averaging at 3.55 per cent, so this has been of major concern to private enterprises, irrespective of their size, turnover or sector. In fact, we’re being asked for clarity on how this will be resolved moving forward. We know, for instance, that Government has been absorbing the increasing costs of energy, but what’s going to happen when these subsidies stop?”

In his view, “Government must see how it is going to ease the way for local businesses in this regard, and I’m sure if we handle rising inflation correctly, we can navigate it. We don’t want the Government to be handing out money to everyone, for instance – but to those who really need it to survive. And once again, if a particular business has not paid its taxes, it should not be eligible for Government aid. Therefore, our solutions are very much linked to good governance and the associated competitiveness,” The Malta Chamber President says.

Looking ahead, Mr Vassallo Cesareo insists that the future is bright. “We’re celebrating 175 years of being in operation, and we still stand for the ethical voice of business in Malta. We champion policies and represent good business, and correct business. We have a strong stake, and there’s a firm direction, which can give the local business sector courage and strength to navigate what comes our way,” he concludes.

This article was first published in the Business Now 2023 magazine.

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