INTERVIEW | Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Taking the tide at the helm

In a talk with business leader Alfred Mangion, David Darmanin finds out his plans on family business, his ambassadorship in Turkey and the opening of a new private Sixth Form.

Most self-made businessmen would admit that reaching one’s peak entails sticking to a simple formula of sorts. What is yours?
I have always believed that success comes with proper leadership and with the courage to be daring. Thirty years ago, when I started my business career in community pharmacy, I had the opportunity to travel to Libya in order to investigate the potential of representing an international pharmaceutical company there. This was 1973, at a time when business in Libya had been nationalised. Admittedly, deciding to go for this project was quite daring, but it was that experience that ultimately led me to where I am now. Back then I was convinced that I would be doing this type of work for just five years, since it was a relatively small operation. Nowadays AM Mangion Group centres so much on healthcare that we recently sold off our operation in IT sales and services in order to focus exclusively on marketing of general healthcare products as well as offer technical support in the installation of medical equipment in hospitals in Malta and Africa, Libya in particular. A recent development that will be opening new doors for the group is the penetration in Sudanese and Egyptian markets.

How do you compare Maltese business in Libya then and now?
We have seen drastic changes in Libya over the years, especially now that the market is opening up. The element of privatisation that Libya is currently undergoing is very important for us. Besides, now that we are providing a direct service to Libyan companies, our operations there keep on developing at a fairly successful rate. Malta has always nurtured and ingrained close relationships with the countries of North Africa through historical, commercial and social ties – with Libya, Tunisia and Egypt in particular. Being our closest African neighbour, Malta has a standing friendship with Libya and this has translated into enhanced cooperation through agreements reached within the framework of the Maltese-Libyan mixed commission, which I also form part of.

Fine, but really and truly, is Malta really the bridge between Africa and Europe? Aren’t we running the risk of being eaten up by other European companies in Libya now that Malta is in the EU?
Technically, with the new Schengen visa laws, it has become more restrictive for Libyan nationals to visit Malta. This does not help business. On the other hand, the ministry for foreign affairs has done a lot to facilitate requirements for Libyan businessmen to enter Malta. Libya is a very important market for us Maltese. Both the government and diplomatic corps acknowledge this fact.

There has been a whole hullabaloo on average medicinal prices in Malta being higher than those in Europe. Why is this so?
We represent a wide variety of brands, most of which are household names. When it comes to pricing, our principles abroad are telling us that we should consider ourselves lucky that they supply us. The market for medicinal products in Malta is as small as that of an average European town, and this will of course have a negative repercussion on pricing.

To what extent are your children involved in AM Mangion group?
Although I have retained my position as chairman, I have now decided to step back and let Jonathan, my eldest son, to take charge of our international division and Kristina, my daughter, to direct the local side of our business affairs. We are now present in all aspects of the healthcare market in Malta and this side to our business is also in constant development. In fact, we are dealing with a huge multinational firm in India in order to set up a pharmaceutical plant in Malta. Besides manufacturing, this development will also take us to the Research and Development side of the industry.

What are your expectations of your children? What are the working dynamics like, between the two generations? Do you still guide them through your modus operandi?
The future is theirs, not mine. Being very capable individuals I am certain of their success by applying their own methodologies. Of course, when I’m called to do so, I will give them all the advice they need. Other than that, both of them are well trained and have garnered enough business experience to carry on developing the group successfully, so I have no worries.

“Fathers create, children develop, grandchildren destroy.” This saying is often used to describe the scepticism on family run business models. Do you agree?
Yes I agree. Thankfully, our business is still at the start of its second generation. It’s true that I have two grandchildren but they are still toddlers. Who knows what the future holds for them? I have no idea as to whether I’ll be around when they’re of age, let alone anticipate their involvement in business.

Now that you have stepped back from the day-to-day running of your company, what do you do with your time?
I currently hold the position of non-resident Maltese ambassador to Turkey, where among other things, there is a huge potential for students to come to Malta for English language studies, as well as follow I.B. (International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme) courses at local Sixth Forms. It is important that visa facilitation is improved for bona fide students and business people travelling to Malta. For this reason, we are also opening a consulate in Turkey.
That takes me to another position I hold, as chairman of the St Edward’s College Board of Governors. There, we are currently discussing the possibility of a partnership between a locally established language school in order to set up in-house board and lodging facilities catering for language students in Summer and I.B. Sixth Form Students in Winter – since St Edward’s is now working on the development of a new co-educational Sixth Form that would offer this study programme exclusively.

You are also known for your involvement in Rotary Club, particularly in your governorship of the Malta and Sicily district of the club. What have your achievements been in this role? What are your plans?
Rotary gives me the opportunity to devote time in helping the less fortunate both locally and abroad. I was lucky enough to have been appointed Governor of the Malta and Sicily district for the years 2006 and 2007, where I contributed towards the message of our international president addressing illiteracy, clean water, health and international understanding. Rotary will not solve all these problems alone, especially when considering that unclean water and poor healthcare are the cause of death of 11 million infants annually. That said, Rotary may certainly contribute through its 1.2 million members worldwide. From my end, in my two years of governorship, we mobilised all of the 85 clubs in our district to contribute financially or otherwise. We have, in particular addressed illegal immigration, which of course affects both Malta and Sicily. Rotary is now committed in helping asylum seekers once they reach our shores. The La Vallette Club of Rotary, for example, runs a literacy programme for them. We also support Dar il-Kaptan, a respite home for disabled children. Internationally, our most popular programme is the Polio Plus campaign, which aims to eradicate the Polio disease from the world. Now that the Bill Gates foundation has donated USD200 million towards this cause, we are certain that we should reach our targets by next year.

30 January 2009

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