Established in 2015 as a joint venture between the Government and The Malta Chamber, TradeMalta has been helping local companies internationalise their services and products by offering expertise and guidance on the right networks and markets to tap into. This year, CEO Anton Buttigieg is determined to keep the momentum going.

Malta’s small size and the limitations of its market are challenges facing most local companies. Yet, says Anton Buttigieg, CEO of TradeMalta, with the myriad opportunities emerging internationally and away from the island’s shores, there’s no reason why this should continue to be the case. Maltese companies can – and should – seek to exploit the advantages the country boasts by virtue of its geographic location and membership of the EU.

“TradeMalta is a facilitator,” he says. “Our role is to help companies export their goods and internationalise their business, and we enable them by connecting them to foreign networks. In a changeable and changing world, we are focused on what we do and ensure our partners are aligned towards maximising their potential.”

Since its launch in 2015, TradeMalta has built on the work already carried out by Malta Enterprise in assisting Malta-based ventures to set their eyes on bigger avenues for trade. “We’re a trade promotion organisation that helps entrepreneurs and firms based on the island to internationalise; this has been our primary drive for the past seven years. And the expertise we’ve developed in-house is, indeed, based around the needs of the various sectors and industries to which our clients belong.”

Anton admits that, when the entity was first established, the world was in a different place to the fraught contexts in which today’s companies operate. “Seven years ago, Malta was open to all markets; the world was booming. Today, we’re seeing a shift in the situation; we’re looking at a slower global growth rate and many business leaders are reassessing their export destinations and the way they develop their product,” he explains.

These changes have occurred as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, he continues, as well as the current conflict in Ukraine. “There’s a rethink of the global trade regime, and much of this stems from the lack of security in, amongst other issues, sourcing raw materials which are used in the manufacturing process. We’re living, I believe, in a transitional moment, where people are asking questions on how our systems work, and what we can do to improve them.”

With the wealth of experience he brings to the role, Anton, and his team, are well-positioned to help companies navigate the awkward realities of the present system. Graduating in Economics at the University of Malta and later achieving a Master’s in International Economics and Industry Analysis from SDA Bocconi School of Management in Milan, Anton spent his formative professional years working in management consultancy with MISCO. “That gave me the opportunity to meet many business people who helped me understand the opportunities and challenges local enterprises face.” He later spent some years working in industry, before being given the opportunity to become TradeMalta’s first CEO in 2015.

“It was like coming full circle, since, here too, I have the opportunity to meet different companies in diverse industries. I seek to understand what they do and then the team at TradeMalta helps them achieve their internationalisation and export goals,” he says, going on to describe the various trade missions they have lined up in the past, and what they expect for the months ahead.

“We’ve organised a number of trade delegations to Japan, Korea and sub-Saharan Africa, for instance. And, this year, we’re organising our third trip to Ghana, which will bring together a substantial delegation. We’re essentially trying to find commercial opportunities in places where Maltese businesses are, traditionally, not present,” he asserts. And, as a result of this drive, TradeMalta has also managed to lobby Government to open Malta’s first representations in sub-Saharan Africa – “there is now a Maltese High Commission in Ghana and one in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia,” he says. “Africa is a continent of approximately one billion people, mostly between the ages of 19 and 24, so there are huge opportunities there across the board.”

He also sees further opportunities closer to home. “We’re an EU member and we now know how to operate on an EU level, so it’s easier to do business on our home continent,” he continues. Even in these contexts, Anton is still determined to guide companies to the most productive access points for their businesses.

“Companies need to carve out their own space and be realistic about their capabilities; many tend to overstretch themselves at an early stage and then realise, at their own expense, that they need to apply the brakes and recalibrate their focus. Sometimes you need to progress in baby steps, understanding the limits, learning from other people’s mistakes, and assessing what the clear trajectory is,” he advises.

Anton’s guidance has now aided dozens of companies and this realisation motivates him to continue helping other firms. “We are pleased when one of our clients succeeds, which usually takes around 12 to 24 months. And when we receive an email or phone call to say they’ve broken into the market they were gearing themselves towards, it gives us an immense sense of satisfaction,” he smiles.

Over the next few months of 2023, the business environment will continue to challenge business practitioners, Anton stresses, which means there’s going to be a further emphasis on the importance of personal contacts and relationships. “This is what will count; people will want to know they can rely on their Maltese partners, as service providers or manufacturing exporters.”

Ultimately, he says, being based in Malta will become secondary to the ability of local entrepreneurs to fully exploit the potential of their networks. “If you’re a leading provider of a product or service, you’ll always find a customer for it. In other words, if you have a distinct offering and – importantly – you can prove your worth by delivering on what you promise, the fact that you come from Malta becomes secondary.”

Anton, indeed, sees the world as teeming with possibilities for locally based firms. “We need to work smart, since, really, Malta-based businesses need only a fraction of the immense number of opportunities there are out there. We only need a little to keep our economy moving and to keep it strong,” he says.

He sees this year as filled with promise. “We actually have a number of projects coming up. And if we have gotten our strategy right, we will see good uptake from local industries to join the events we have organised.

“Here at TradeMalta, we gauge success based on how we manage to maintain local companies’ interest in our support, for that would mean that word of mouth has spread. Our remit is to know what markets are out there and to pass that information on to local stakeholders so they don’t miss out on the opportunities.

“I am sure that, this year, we’ll continue to build on this momentum,” he predicts.

This article is part of the serialisation of 50 interviews featured in MaltaCEOs 2023 – the sister brand to and an annual high-end publication bringing together some of the country’s most influential business leaders

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