Having studied business and entrepreneurship, Geoffrey Debono took over the family mobility business, Debono Group, in 2006. Now, he is driving change in the sector, adapting mobility solutions to support a built-up country in a post-COVID-19 world. Geoffrey explains that the challenges facing the industry and the thinking behind the company’s mission to give people “one hour back every day to do something they love.”
“I lead change within the organisation,” Geoffrey Debono says of his approach. “I work closely with the team and think outside the box to make the business better.”
Geoffrey has been CEO of Debono Group for 15 years now and, in that time, he has seen seismic shifts in the mobility market. He explains that the company specialises in selling cars and rides “for people or goods – we do both!” and that he always has his ear to the ground to cater to new demand. “When the puck moves, we need to make sure we are ready to receive it,” he asserts.
While he aspired to be a pilot at a young age, Geoffrey admits that it was a short-lived ambition. “My focus and determination shifted to working in the family business quite early. I studied accountancy and management at school, then went on to study entrepreneurship and business; both in Malta and at the London Business School,” he shares.
Having grown up around the company, which was founded by Geoffrey’s grandfather in 1960, he says it was “a very natural step to be part of the business”. When Geoffrey was 18 years old, his father sadly passed away and a General Manager was hired to hold the fort while Geoffrey attended university. “As soon as I was ready to join the business, I did,” he recalls. “Then I took over the running of it.”
Debono Group entered the mobility space (described by Geoffrey as the company’s “main business and forming 80 per cent of their offering”) in 2018, but it is far from the only market the company caters to. To date the Group has been involved in exporting, building and manufacturing buses, and the manufacture and exportation of mobile homes to Africa; all in the past six years. The company is also immersed in the technology space, having set up the first CRM for IT businesses in Malta, named iMovo. As if that were not enough, Debono Group also has a logistics business focused on warehousing solutions for B2B customers, and a property leasing business.
“Entering the mobility space has been a big change,” Geoffrey acknowledges. “In 2010 we became the first car dealer in Malta to offer both new and used cars. This meant we already had some experience in that field and we are pleased to hold a very strong position in this space today. Now, we do not want to be disrupted in our own space. It is a firm belief of mine that I would rather disrupt our industry myself than be disrupted by a new player.”
With so much on his plate, is Geoffrey ever able to take his foot off the pedal? “I love what I do,” he smiles, “so I dedicate a lot of energy to it. But, when I have a chance to relax, I love to travel with my family. At home I unwind by cooking and gardening. Right now, my free time is a little limited, but this is something I intend to rebalance.”
When it comes to his approach to leadership, the CEO says, “I am a firm believer in challenging the status quo. I love being in that messy space and solving problems that were thought to be impossible to overcome. I don’t think leadership is an innate quality; I believe anyone can lead – but you must have the desire and willingness to learn and be challenged.”
Geoffrey also says he’s grown to understand the importance of vulnerability in leadership. “It’s okay to admit you don’t have all the answers. This is where collaboration starts and you begin to brainstorm solutions. It is fundamental to success.”
As a forward-thinking company, Debono Group has recently been awarded an Equality Mark Certification by the National Commission for the Promotion of Equality. And, on the subject of the company’s diversity and inclusion, Geoffrey explains, “we always believe that the right candidate should get the job, regardless of gender. This industry is very male-dominated but that can be a limitation, so we ensure we hire the most talented individual to drive our business forward.”
Meanwhile, the company’s wider ‘dream’ is to “give people one hour back every day to do what they love”; replacing time that could have been spent finding parking or refuelling, with time spent on hobbies or with loved ones. “We want this for as many people as possible, which is why we created a ride-hailing service that is affordable,” Geoffrey explains. “To keep the cost low, people will often share a car with another passenger, but we have found this to be a happy medium for customers who need to get about cost-effectively. And it is better for the environment too.”
On the subject of sustainability, Geoffrey has a clear stance. “We do not focus on sustainability just to say that we have corporate social responsibility policies,” he asserts. “We do it because it is important. It is ingrained in our company ethos. With so many private vehicles on the road, congestion is leading to pollution. We envision a future where ride sharing is the norm; reducing traffic and improving the quality of life in Malta.” Debono Group’s ride-pooling service, named COOL, and its vehicle-sharing initiative in partnership with GoTo Global, both use hybrid and electric cars. “It is our duty to be part of the solution,” Geoffrey insists.
After all, it’s evident that the lack of space in Malta has led to increasing mobility issues on the island; something that Debono Group aims to address. “Clearly the need for people to move around is not being reduced,” Geoffrey points out. “Post-COVID-19, road congestion is back to where it was in late 2019 – in fact, it is arguably worse.
“There aren’t enough carrots and sticks for people to change. They are comfortably uncomfortable in their private cars. They may spend time in traffic or searching for parking, but they do not want to give up their own vehicle because, to them, their car means freedom. What we are trying to do is create an alternative solution that can help solve the traffic issue while giving people the freedom to get around. People’s anxiety about losing their freedom is the biggest challenge we face, and it is something we strive to overcome daily.”
Reflecting on 2021, Geoffrey identifies some positive changes brought about by COVID-19. “If you asked me two years ago if people would work effectively remotely and thrive in a flexible working environment, I would have said ‘no’,” he admits. “But necessity is the mother of invention. It is only when you are put in a corner that new solutions are found – and those solutions are in many ways better than the existing ones!”
The CEO credits the shift to home working with better team communication. “I started uploading videos on our company’s internal Facebook group,” he shares, “to keep the team updated and discuss any challenges we were experiencing.” Geoffrey adds that, “without a shadow of a doubt,” the greatest opportunity to come out of COVID-19 was the increased use – and capabilities – of technology. “The emphasis on digitalisation has been game-changing,” he says. “Technology is moving at such a fast pace, which, in turn, is helping us to improve our offering to our customers. The more automated our service, the greater scope we have for growth.”
Looking ahead, Geoffrey sees this year as pivotal for Debono Group. “2022 is very important because we expect to see production levels return somewhat to normal,” he attests. “There have been microchip supply constraints, which we hope will now be less of a problem, and we have a strong production pipeline plan.”
Finally, Geoffrey is confident that Debono Group’s focus on the customer experience will set it apart from its competition and enable the company to go from strength to strength in 2022. “Our goal is to change the way people view vehicle purchases and ride hailing,” he asserts. “We want to keep growing the business and creating solutions that improve people’s lives.”
This article is part of the serialisation of 50 interviews featured in MaltaCEOs 2022 – an annual high-end publication bringing together some of the country’s most influential business leaders.
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