4 SEPTEMBER 2002
Frank Grima in many ways represents the quintessential entrepreneur. Starting off with a single restaurant, his investments in the leisure and entertainment industry have now skyrocketed to 25 in number. DAVID LINDSAY meets Mr Grima at one of the latest in his string of investments, a group of outlets at the Portomaso marina complex
Perhaps best known for his chain of Argentine Steakhouses, Frank Grima first ventured into business some 18 years ago with the opening of a Malaysian restaurant in London, where he was living at the time. That was followed closely by his first Maltese establishment in Malta, Going Places, although it no longer belongs to him.
Shortly after that the Bamboo Bar was opened in Paceville and since then Frank Grima hasnt looked back. Through a combination of determination and hard work, today he employs close to 600 workers throughout a chain of 25 bars, clubs and restaurants scattered across Malta.
But what is the key to successfully re-investing, especially in an industry that requires constant hands-on attention?
According to Grima the key is choosing the right partners. He explains, "Wherever I invest I bring in a partner. This person would usually be a working partner who takes care of the business as his own. Thats the only way to make ends meet in this line of business, since in catering you need to have someone on hand at all times."
He does this by offering managers from both front of the house and back of the house a certain percentage of the business for free and another percentage to purchase if they choose to take up the offer. The formula, although not found very often, appears to be working.
Grima explains the logic behind the practice, "If you have good managers, once they are offered something better they would take their ideas and leave. But by offering them a stake in the business I keep them on.
"I am very open to all employees and most of them have no reservations over calling me about a personal problem. I always try and help them as much as possible and in any way I can. I like to think of us as a big family.
"On reinvesting in particular, as long as the people respond to you and your ideas, you should keep giving them what they want. My thinking is if you open an establishment and youre doing well, why not open another and then another?
"I also carry out a great deal of groundwork and research before opening a new venture. The Japanese and Brazilian outlets at Portomaso, for example, were the result of market research - I gauged a demand for these types of outlets and people are responding well so far.
"If I am unable to get the right location, I simply wouldnt open until I did. I also take members of staff abroad and have foreign training here for my staff to ensure the right working practices are in place.
"I travel a great deal and I visit many different businesses, which is where I get a lot of my ideas from. I visit businesses, I look at their numbers and people say that Malta is unsuitable for certain ideas. But we have 400,000 people in Malta, which is quite a number for a small island. The market is there and as long as you can offer value for money, people will continue to come out, even in a recession people still spend money."
Grimas next big project is the opening of a new club that could be used to serve the conference and incentives market, which, Grima says, is a sector expecting future growth and is a sector with deep pockets. He is also looking at working closer with the hotels in this respect. However, in terms of the local market, he expects to target the over 30s market segment which dont venture out every night but, Grima says, they would if given a good reason to do so.
The Portomaso complex, Grima enthuses, is his favourite place and one that he believes holds a bright future for him. And the response and head counts at his Portomaso outlets speaks for itself.
But Grima is especially proud of the sushi outlet at Portomaso, he explains, "I am very excited about the sushi restaurant and people are responding very well to it. The local market is good, Maltese travel a lot and they are familiar with the concept. I was able to gauge a demand for the initiative and I have received a lot of positive comments on the restaurant.
However, Grimas chain of Argentine Steakhouses is what he counts among his greatest achievements to date - not surprising given the fact that some 3,500 to 4,000 people per week are served through the chain each week.
"The Argentine Steakhouses opened a lot of doors for me. People came and they responded positively, which gave me a lot of energy."
I ask how the mad cow crisis had affected business, which, he explains, accounted for a large and three-month long drop in revenue.
"I stuck to my policy as I know the people I buy from in Alberta are 100% safe, but obviously the clientele were still reluctant to eat beef, whatever its origins. But I knew the scare would pass and I still plan on opening more outlets.
"It wasnt easy. In fact, it was extremely difficult, especially given the fact that I had just opened restaurants and I had plans in the pipeline to open more. At the moment were thinking of opening outlets in Cyprus and Tunisia next year.
"Over and above that, next year we expect to open a wine bar in Calgary, Canada along the same lines as the Porto Vino outlet at Portomaso. Work is in progress and we expect to open by June next year.
"Canada is quickly becoming my second home. Business is good in Calgary, boosted by the areas oil business and Im really looking forward to doing more business there."
More than sheer business acumen, Grima is a firm believer is being directly in touch with his clientele a belief that brings him out nearly every night, visiting each of his establishments at least every three days.
He explains, "When I go to my restaurants, which is every night, I ensure I talk with every table and if I dont know the people I introduce myself. I make sure I cover each establishment at least every three days and I am in contact with my managers and clients every day.
Complaints, strangely, are not shunned by Grima but are, in fact, welcomed.
He explains, "One thing I like is getting complaints, as this implies a degree of trust, which in effect is a good thing. If there are no complaints, then there is something wrong because if patrons dont complain, they dont come back.
"However, if they do complain, they do so because they like the place and they want to come back. I take complaints very seriously but with a smile because that customer is guaranteed to come back.
"Listening to the customer is part of the secret of success and I am always asking clients how the business could be improved."
Having been a player for so long and being so deeply involved in the business, how has he seen the business develop over the years and what problems does he see the industry facing at the moment
"This business, like all other businesses, is like a rollercoaster - we have good times and bad times. And although this isnt the best of times, I cant complain. The entertainment industry, like all others, faces its own problems but it does definitely have a future, thats why I am investing in it like I am.
Having worked in the entertainment industry myself for a time, I ask him whether the unavoidable late nights take their toll and how he finds the inspiration to keep going.
"Its crazy but I enjoy it. The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is ask myself What am I going to do today? I do admit I need to slow down a bit but I reap the rewards every night when I see people enjoying themselves that feeling is even more rewarding than the financial benefits. Its the people that makes it all worthwhile."