Norman Aquilina

Farsons Group CEO Norman Aquilina expects 2024 to bring with it accelerated competitive pressures, prompting a “much-needed-consolidation” within the sectors the diversified group of companies operates in.

Mr Aquilina, who has led one of Malta’s largest companies as CEO for the past 14 years, was speaking as part of the latest instalment in MaltaCEOs.mt’s end-of-year series. During the interview, he highlighted a number of key opportunities and challenges that this year will bring, together with his most notable achievements from 2023.

He remarked that the past year proved to be “constantly challenging, yet steadily settling, and growingly encouraging”.

Mr Aquilina pointed out that it was primarily challenging due to the “pronounced and persistent” issues of ongoing inflationary pressures, labour and skills shortages, as well as increasing competitive pressures.

2023 also served as a settling period for Farsons Group and many other firms, as it tested the resilience of the business community during the “highly volatile post-COVID-19 pandemic period”, together with some lasting spillover effects and continuous supply chain disruptions, which he said have “steadily started to ease off”.

Additionally, Mr Aquilina stated that the year also enabled the company to “regain its momentum” and “reset itself” to better navigate and ensure it is favourably placed to reap the benefits of its work and investment, despite the remaining challenging market conditions.

Mr Aquilina noted that as a result, the “continued strategic guidance” in keeping Farsons Group “focused and well on track” despite the various distractions, is an accomplishment he is proud of.

“Also, of broadly getting management to hold on to a challenging and non-consenting mindset, whereby rather than accepting that some challenges are here to stay, we continued to persevere with our set corporate objectives. Our steadfastness in the face of adversity along with ongoing significant cross-currents, is an accomplishment in itself which we can look back with satisfaction,” he explained.

In this respect, he expressed his gratitude towards the management team for always being “ready to roll up its sleeves, dig its heels deep into the ground, and face the competitive pressures with an unwavering commitment”. Mr Aquilina said that despite it not being unique to just 2023, finding people who offer support during highly challenging times is something everyone should be most grateful for.

Looking ahead, he remarked that 2024 will bring various opportunities and challenges, both to the sectors in which Farsons Group operates, as well as in a wider context.

Mr Aquilina said that he forecasts competitive pressures to persist and accelerate in the coming year, as some businesses are “growing from strength to strength”, while many others are “struggling to keep up”.

“This may sound like a growing market imbalance, even if it should be viewed as a much-needed consolidation, given the market generally remains overly fragmented, hence inefficient, and more often, uncompetitive in certain areas,” he said, speaking about Farsons Group’s operating sectors.

He emphasised that these factors result in a “mixed bag” of opportunities and challenges, adding that the company will see this expected shift in market landscape as an opportunity to strengthen its strategic position, consequently placing it in a “better position to tackle the challenges and ride on the opportunities”.

From a more general perspective, Mr Aquilina said that he forecasts two primary challenges businesses must tackle in order to not fall behind, with these being wage growth and keeping up with emerging technologies.

In recent years, businesses have struggled with mounting salary demands, with three in every four business stating that employees are requesting higher salaries, all while finding it difficult to recruit experienced and qualified personnel. This was an issue that Mr Aquilina emphasised last September in the build-up to Budget 2024, where he remarked that inflation needs to be well managed in order to avoid the risks of a wage-price spiral which can potentially hurt both employers and employees.

In his comments for the end-of-year series, Mr Aquilina stated that mitigating this “inevitable wage growth” brought about by the tight labour market will remain a challenge in 2024. This needs to be tackled through changes in one’s business model and the resulting “efficiency and productivity gains” in order to retain competitiveness.

In addition to this, businesses have also had to heavily ramp up their investment in order to keep up with the rapid digitalisation that is taking place within the business sphere.

Mr Aquilina said that this is a challenge that will persist over this year, as businesses need to “stay up to pace” with the accelerated digitalisation drive and to also “start to navigate through the rise of artificial intelligence (AI)”.

Turning to his life away from the corporate world, when asked about how he spent the New Year, Mr Aquilina said that he celebrated and enjoyed the company of his family and some close friends. He remarked that the prefers quality time with those closest to him, rather than partying with many others.

Additionally, he also dedicated some time for “deep reflection and recharging”, setting from the outset his targets and priorities for the year.

One of his particular personal targets is to learn how to switch off more when he is away from the workplace. He admitted that he finds that the best time to reflect on upcoming opportunities and to be inspired for new ideas is when he is away from his work environment.

“That said, this is more a matter of striking the right balance between much-needed quiet reflection and outright switching off, which in both instances are independent, yet interdependent,” Mr Aquilina explained.

Apart from this, he also stated that he wants to dedicate more time to listen and observe what he calls the “big picture” rather than being held up at his office. “I am a firm believer in always wanting to have a broader perspective and if you get overly held within your working environment, there is a risk you detach yourself from market realities that are so essential in your decision-making,” Mr Aquilina affirmed.

Expanding to where he sees himself in a year’s time, Mr Aquilina said: “Apart from more of what I’m already doing, I would say pushing forward a couple of additional projects to continue to strategically drive our group onwards and upwards. The ambition of constantly seeking to raise the bar remains as strong as ever.”

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Farsons Group CEO Norman Aquilina

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