Interview | Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Big time fire-fighting

When Alberta Fire and Security were awarded the Mater Dei and Golden Sands contracts contemporarily, they chose to develop their platform rapidly in order to keep up with work. All well and good. But how did Director Liz Barbaro Sant deal with the situation when both projects had been completed? David Darmanin finds out

It was the golden eighties, and an enterprising George Barbaro Sant and his family had been involved in the importation of goods to Malta. Almost by coincidence, a fast-selling consignment of portable fire extinguishers had opened doors to the commissioning of an integrated fire-fighting system for a client. The project seemed to have enabled a healthy number of larger contracts in the same line of business. This is how Alberta was born.
Alberta is not George’s daughter. It is, according to his real daughter Liz: “just a name my parents chose for the company. My mother says it was the name given to the design of our first house.”
One of the many websites prospective parents would visit when looking for babies’ names defines Alberta as: famous, noble and bright.
There’s no doubt about Alberta being famous. It has become a household name after many years of persistence. Famous is off the checklist.
The owners’ surname gives “noble” away right? Check.
Bright? Liz, now 35 and calling the shots at Alberta is not just a pretty face. But before checking that off too, Barbaro Sant is asked a few questions, just for good measure.
“When I joined the business 19 years ago only five of us worked here. Now the headcount stands at more than 170,” she said.
Before joining Alberta, Liz worked as a receptionist at AX Holdings – who still seem to enjoy a healthy working relationship with Alberta.
“My father eventually wanted me to move here so I joined when I was still very young. Mind you, I started out at the reception desk here too. I slowly moved up to accounts and then to shipping. As we progressed, I grew with the company,” she said.
They grew and how. It was probably after they were awarded the tender for a multi-million fire detection and sprinkler system at Mater Dei that Alberta started considering big-time expansion. Besides, with a mammoth job at Radisson Golden Sands coinciding with the hospital contract, the Barbaro Sants for a moment didn’t know what hit them.
“We grew all of a sudden,” Liz admitted. “Because of all the major projects coinciding we had to implement a fast and effective growth plan. It seems we’ve managed.
“This has been the story of our lives. Before we consider embarking on a massive project we tend to think of it as a job too big for us to handle, but with determination and proper preparation we have always managed to follow through successfully and grow accordingly. When we look back we realise that not only have we passed our tests with flying colours but also that after every major project we are ready to move on to something bigger.”
Like with other precautionary measures, there was a time in Malta when businesses giving a toss about fire and security were few and far between. A slight increase in burglary incidence may have motivated both businesses and households to start installing alarm systems. But what may have really caused a jump in the industry was the introduction of EU legislation and standards, with which even the puniest of guesthouses charging a room rate of €30 per night was forced to install detection points, fire prevention systems and what not. Barbaro Sant however, does not admit to accession being a main contributor to her business’ boost in sales.
“I would say accession has neither affected us positively nor negatively. The introduction of legislation did give the industry a push, I cannot possibly deny that, but as Alberta we had already been educating on the importance of certain precautionary measures, and I think that is what really helped us grow. Even prior to Malta becoming a member of the EU, there were already a good number of businesses whose standards improved across the board, especially in the tourism industry. In other industries standards improved also, and not necessarily because of new legislation, but because they simply calculated the potential cost of a disaster vis-à-vis investing in a system to prevent it. Not to mention prerequisites to insure.”
As with any firm installing technical equipment, be it communications, IT, air-conditioning, fire and security or otherwise the quality of the product alone is not enough to ensure successful market penetration. It is generally the quality of after-sales and the knowledge level of technical staff that attribute to one’s reputation with the business community. And how does Alberta fare in this respect? Barbaro Sant is convinced this is their core competence.
“Alberta’s growth is definitely attributed to the strong technical team it employs, as well as the service we provide, especially in after-sales. We keep improving and investing in customer care. We have recently launched a new 24-hour service by which specific software handles a single phone number, enabling us to take overnight calls more efficiently while keeping every call logged.”
The Barbaro Sant legacy in Malta started with Simone Barbaro – a Venetian nobleman who settled in Malta in 1703 after earning the reputation of “father of the poor Christian slaves”. Seemingly, Simone Barbaro had spent a fortune redeeming hundreds of slaves for one hundred piastres each – a very commendable act for the wealthy Catholics of the time.
Liz’s pastimes do not extend as far as freeing slaves as she prefers target shooting or taking her Alaskan Malamute out for walkies. But at least, to carry on Simone’s legacy, she ensures not to treat any of her staff members as slaves.
“Our management structure here is totally flat. When we say we have an open door policy, we mean it. As much as such attributes may seem normal to any company of a certain size I still come across candidates who, during interviews, tell me they end up meeting their bosses once or twice a month. That’s unheard of here. I am very close to my staff and if there’s one thing I hate it’s when they introduce me as their boss. I consider our teams here to be my friends and colleagues,” she said.
One expects the restructuring process Alberta is currently undergoing to be no different to any other. Some people will move up the ladder, but there can be no major change without minor casualties.
“We are currently set with three departments working individually. Rather than having different heads for each department we are now after getting everything under one headship. We want to streamline our operations,” she explained
These are exciting days for Alberta, as ideas for further expansion keep flowing. “The ideas we have are as numerous as they are diverse in their nature of business, but so far we intend to focus on expanding our business interests in Libya further,” she said.
“We operate a centre in Tripoli now, and that is where most of our large projects are planned. We have managed to amass a good client base in the oil and gas business – with companies such as OMV, Wintershall, British Gas and British Petroleum – to name a few. We have just signed a €2.5 million contract with an oil company for the installation of fire fighting systems, to be installed in four different camps in Libya. We have also installed a CCTV system at the Corinthia Bab Africa and are also supplying the Wadan Hotel with fire doors.”
Incidentally, Simone Barbaro had gone down in history for building the hospice and church of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Tripoli, in the 17th century.
“The company grew so much that to sustain its growth we needed to look beyond our shores. I mean, how many Mater Deis can we possibly supply in Malta? With the Mater Dei project we built such a large platform that this move was inevitable.
“It was initially my father’s idea to start marketing our products and services in Libya. A friend of his had asked him to get involved in a project there, and since we never say no, we went ahead. We now have people stationed in Libya, with a branch manager as well as a marketing department. I get involved whenever the team needs to be supported.”
The further south a business moves the more macho business culture tends to become. Malta is already known to be rather patriarchal in terms of business dealings... Is she taken seriously in Libya?
“So far I’ve been to Libya three times, with my last trip ending just a couple of days ago. The reason why I went up this time round was to sign an agreement and meet existing clients. Seeing that we are dealing with large foreign companies I did not come across any such problems… I was very respected there.”
And in Malta?
“In Malta’s case I think you’re safe once you earn the respect of the people you deal with. I, for one, am used to treating people with the respect they deserve. There have been times when I met people for the first time and got weird looks or strange reactions… but that normally lasts until they understand I mean business. I remember this one occasion, years ago, when I was running through specifications of a burglar alarm system with a client. When I finished explaining he goes: ‘Can I speak to a guy please?’ I found that quite funny actually. Probably after 19 years in business you start growing a crocodile’s skin.”
Family run businesses on growth-path would often ponder on succession. In Alberta’s case, Liz is not certain whether she should worry on not having drafted out a succession policy. She contemplates on the question, but answers lightly.
“There are no children of the third generation so far in the business. If the situation remains the same we would either have to sell out or put the right mechanisms in place. My brother is still 30 years old, and my father is still very much involved in the business. My mother, although I wouldn’t be able to see ourselves working without her constant support, is not directly involved in the operation of the group. If the situation remains the same by the time I retire, we would probably have to sell. But at this rate I’ll probably end up being 80 by the time I decide to retire.
“Ultimately, we consider ourselves to be common people attaining uncommon results. Throughout the years, with all the changes we underwent, everything took its natural course. You find yourself taking decisions on a daily basis, which would end up shaping your business without knowing. I now stop to take stock of where we stand and realise that we’ve essentially turned this place into a one-stop-ship vis-à-vis fire and security. We can now supply small and large integrated systems and follow up with full services and maintenance. We’re on the forefront there.”
Bright? Check.

18 June 2008

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