Interview | Wednesday, 03 September 2008

An executive summary of the Maltese

Former UK business journalist Daniel Marks is put under the spotlight on his editorship of Executive Malta, a hardback compilation of Maltese biographies and economic commentaries, reaching out to a subscriber base of 45,000 worldwide. By David Darmanin.

In 2002, Gulf News posted young UK journalist Daniel Marks in Tanzania to work on a supplement covering biographies of members of the business community there. Sending off a young and vibrant Englishman to work in East Africa may, at face value, seem as though this job was intended as some sort of punishment. But Marks’ baptism of fire seems to have really paid off.
Less than a month into the project, the Tanzanian government approached Marks with an irrefutable offer: that of converting the supplement into a fully-fledged publication to be sold overseas, targeting prospective foreign investors to Tanzania.
“The guys at Al Nisr Publishing didn’t really go for it but the idea began to germinate in my mind,” he said. “So, after EPH Ltd was founded in conjunction with two guys from a data provision background, we took the concept to Turkey and it worked. We did Jordan next and then back to Turkey. After juggling between the two countries, we did Saudi Arabia, where we negotiated a co-production agreement with a publishing house and got an acknowledgement from the government. We then went back to work on another edition in Jordan and moved to Egypt right after, before landing in Malta.”
This is how Executive Publishing House was born, now releasing hardback editions, covering a series of executive biographies and featuring business stories on countries of international interest for business investment.
“A lot of it depends on how the government of a country reacts to the idea,” he said, commenting on the level of difficulty involved in getting a publication started. “Once they give you the green light, then it’s just a matter of getting the team started.”
Why Malta?
“This was the right time for Malta really. When we arrived here, Malta had just been through general elections, with a likely promise of a cabinet lasting for the next five years. This signal of political stability made sense for us, since when you publish a hardback publication, it is understood that it would be intended to last a while before its content becomes outdated. Another factor helping us identify Malta as one of the countries to pursue was the fact that this country promotes itself internationally to attract foreign investment. Since helping countries promote themselves is essentially our job, we thought Malta would be a good destination to pursue.”
Marks’ professional life calls for a nomadic lifestyle. Generally, when people travel on business frequently, one would either leave for short stays in several countries or for long stays in a restricted amount of countries. In Marks’ case, his job involves long stays in several countries.
“It takes about four months to build the content but then we have a lot of editing to do. All in all, you still need about six months to allocate for this type of project. It’s a lot of work,” he said.
Spending six months at each destination will of course help the team acquire a deeper insight on the culture, behaviour and history of a country – be it on a business level or otherwise. Marks left the country yesterday, making his way to Chicago to first get married and then get ready for his next assignment.
“Since I’ve been here I saw new aspects of Malta,” he said. “While I clearly enjoyed the tourist part, exploring the country through its people enabled me to live this experience from a perspective of being somewhere between an ex-pat and a tourist. I’m obviously very thankful for the Maltese friends I made here.”
OK, but has he made any money?
“We make profit in two ways. The book is largely subscriber-based, and this covers a percentage of production costs. The second area comprises sponsored sections within the publication, usually covered by the private sector,” he explained. “30 per cent of the profit generated from retail sales of the publication is given back to start-ups. In Malta’s case this was done through Young Enterprise. In Jordan for example, we provided seed capital for a company that offers audio-guides to tourists.”
All this sounds a little too easy for comfort. How do they actually negotiate their way through with governments of the destinations they are about to cover? How do they choose one country and not the other?
“We always have a set number of countries on radar. The way we go about it is generally by speaking to ambassadors to see how they can help. Obviously, some are more helpful than others.”
Their lead to Malta was Michael Refalo, incumbent High Commissioner to Malta in the UK, former minister and author of “My Century”, an adaptation of Herbert Ganado’s Rajt Malta Tindibdel into English.
“We found Michael Refalo to be quite helpful. He is a cultured and deeply philosophical person. At the time we spoke to him he was working on My Century, so I think engaging in publishing talk has helped. I think that on a cultural level, he’s a good ambassador for Malta. He seemed a little frosty at first, but he soon warmed to the idea,” he commented.
Half jokingly, Marks next comments on his impression of Malta prior to his first visit being that of a “fairly barren island mostly populated by English senior citizens.”
”It was raining when I arrived, so I thought it would be just like England. But during the first weekend I visited Gozo and got lost while driving – like that’s actually possible on an island that size. But as I was exploring I saw the greenery, the yellow wild flowers and the stone walls, the image I got as one of my first impressions of Malta will definitely stick.”
And not only, Marks seems to be utterly fascinated by the way we conduct business here.
“The way business is conducted in Malta is actually great. Malta understands the concept of work-life balance. In England you may be working 14 hours a day, but what you accomplish in 14 hours there, you can accomplish in eight hours here. The Maltese work smart.”
Huh? That’s a first. One would have thought inefficiency in Malta is one of the greatest contributors to inflation after oil and food price hikes.
“No I think Malta is generally efficient,” he insists. “Things get done here, or at least, that is the general business culture I noticed. The Lebanese for example, have a lot in common with Malta in this respect.
“I am also impressed at how accessible decision makers are in Malta. That is of course, once you get past the thorny and abrasive secretaries, who ask you to spell your name twice so they can tell you ‘he’s out’,” he jokes. “They will take a message for you of course, but begrudgingly - as though it’s not their job.
“But that aside, getting in touch with the right people is easy. The cabinet is open and accessible here, and although you have to knock on some doors longer than others, a mixture of patience and persistence generally pays off here.”
Then what was all that ministerial talk on changing red tape to red carpet about? Local businesses have long been complaining on inefficiency, especially at government departments and at ministerial level, which, even when willing to work, may at times be caught in a bureaucratic net that slows down work unnecessarily. But even when provoked with this statement, a determined Marks stuck to his guns and defended Malta’s prejudiced structures.
“Actually, if I look at my experience at the Department of Information, there seems to be a clear protocol to follow, and that is actually good. What is even better is that if you stay by the rules and follow that protocol things do get done. The DOI in particular, is good at filtering you and then directing you to the right people. Of course, if there is a bus strike, or some other predominant national issue things may get caught up under other priorities, but that is bound to happen in any country” he said.
Asked whether there is anything he can actually slate Malta on, Marks thought hard and said: “In Malta there is not much access to venture capital. Perhaps there isn’t much dialogue between the old and the new business generations. Furthermore, the banks seem somewhat reluctant to fund SMEs. This is a shame when you have such a young, vibrant and enterprising population. But unfortunately, being an entrepreneur is not looked upon as a career path here. Careers are boxed into ones related to employment, so you would traditionally qualify to get a job but nobody thinks of qualifying to create jobs.”
Now that’s more like it. How does Malta compare to other countries covered by Executive Publishing?
“The Maltese are very astute buyers. They have a good nose nose for the deal and know how to squeeze the seller, without destroying the goodwill of a purchase. The Maltese are not like Arabs, who generally throw their money around. Buying is very western here. In selling however, there’s still some distance to go. For example, you may walk into a Sliema shop and leave after ten minutes because nobody would have come to assist you which is surprising for a service oriented culture. In comparison with Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and especially with the Lebanese, who are great sellers, the Maltese are more relaxed while others sell out the blocks,” he said.
Meanwhile, Marks plans on returning to the island for a second edition of Executive Malta in 2010.
“Malta is a market we will be covering every two years. Next time we might be entering into a co-publishing agreement with a Maltese publishing house. We noticed that the Maltese like doing business in the spirit of partnership so we thought this would be a good way of going about things.”
What about the way of doing things in Malta? We are generally regarded as an eccentric population aren’t we?
“There are some peculiarities. I love the amount of hand signals the Maltese do. For instance, while driving, people in cars coming the opposite way would make a weird signal with their hands. In the beginning I thought it was an insult of sorts but after some months I realised it is done to warn me that I’d been driving with my headlights on. Oh, and I absolutely love Maltese buffets. It’s a race to see who fills up the plate first. And there’s always the typical old lady slipping food into her bag. Driving in Malta is also very particular. Whereas in other countries one would have to think about pedestrians and other cars, here you also have to mind horses, or old people having conversations in the middle of the road. Not to mention the car parks… Maltese parking lots represent the victory of engineers over architects. They are definitely not for the faint hearted.”
On a final note, Marks recounts all that will stick in his mind now that his Malta adventure has come to a close.
“What will stick in my mind is the style of doing business in Malta. The first meetings are very formal, but when you start doing business the style is very relaxed. I think in most Maltese companies one finds an English front office and an Italian back office.
“While I was here I interviewed over 100 people and met many more, but three people come to mind that have had a real and lasting influence on me. There’s Ivan Bartolo of 6pm. Positive things happen to positive people, and I think he is the living example of this. Then there is of course the story-telling ability of Albert Mizzi, which I will never forget. Finally, Fr Joseph Mizzi, the priest who did my Cana course while in Malta, who was thought provoking and really good company.”

03 September 2008

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