From Chairperson to CEO, Jonathan Shaw has seen (and driven) much change at Retail Marketing Ltd – the company behind Malta’s leading local grocery brand, Welbee’s. Since the company merged and rebranded in 2021, Jonathan has adapted to his role as he skilfully leads it through its growth strategy for 2024.

For Jonathan Shaw, ‘changemaker’ is the word that most accurately defines his role as a CEO. “I see myself as being driven by change and driven to drive change across the various teams within our organisation,” he says.

In fact, Jonathan adds that he not only accepts and promotes change but embraces it. “I think it is important to view change this way, because even though challenging at times, it can be a very positive catalyst. And since change is inevitable, I’d much rather be the one to drive it than wait for it to impact me,” he claims.

This was a particularly appropriate mindset to have during the merger of Retail Marketing Ltd, which Jonathan was appointed to facilitate as executive Chair of the Board in 2020. Once this was concluded in March 2021, the new set-up required a CEO and interviews for the position were held – until it was suggested that Jonathan might be the best fit given his ongoing involvement. “More than anything, I think I was the right person for the right company at the right time,” Jonathan muses.

The transition from Chairman to CEO was daunting at first and even a little strange, as the usual trajectory is the reverse. However, with hindsight, the move ticked a lot of boxes and felt like the natural next step for Jonathan at the time. “The two-year period leading up to the merger was all about gaining knowledge, building trust and overcoming challenges, so my chairmanship was like a test for both the company and me,” he explains, recalling the weight of the responsibility he felt at the prospect of leading four companies that had just merged into one larger one.

“Mergers and acquisitions are very delicate because the human element is often overlooked in favour of the numbers, but companies are ultimately made of people. In fact, many times these don’t fail for financial reasons but for cultural ones surrounding the transition itself, due to a resistance to change or a breakdown in leadership. So, taking the helm as CEO of a newly merged company is a feat in itself,” he remarks.

Yet, despite all the difficulties and tough decisions he had to face, Jonathan is proud of everything the company has achieved in such a short span of time. “I am very pleased with the way we managed to restructure everything and turn things around – from the milestones behind the scenes to our major rebrand. It gives me great satisfaction to know that Welbee’s – a brand that didn’t exist until recently – is now a household name and one of the biggest local grocery brands. As a marketing guy at heart, I love seeing our brand out there in the instantly recognisable ‘W’ on people’s shopping bags as they go about their day-today,” he smiles.

Welbee’s’ massive customer base is testament to its success, and something Jonathan does not take for granted. “I enjoy the sheer size of the company and the fact that we’re a mainstream, nation-wide brand, because it means that we have the opportunity to touch a lot of lives,” he explains.

While this is clearly a source of motivation and excitement for the CEO, Jonathan admits that it is not without its challenges. “Previously we had seven individual shops, which were like small agile boats that could move quickly. Now, we are one big aircraft carrier, making change naturally slower to implement. This can be frustrating as things take longer to happen, but you learn to understand that the slower pace just comes with the greater size,” he observes.

Discussing the economic challenges within the supermarket sector, Jonathan sheds light on how the business navigates inflation. He emphasises the profound effects of inflation on essential goods, particularly food. “Malta relies on food imports,” he says, “consequently, suppliers present heightened costs, compelling businesses to factor these expenses into their profit margins, while being mindful of the fact that when prices surge, consumer loyalty tends to wane, leading individuals to readily shift to more affordable brands. This underscores the notion that importers do not reap any advantages from price hikes, as such measures invariably translate to reduced sales.

“All of this makes the whole situation very sensitive and tricky to navigate but, on our end, we do our best through negotiation with our suppliers and by mitigating the pinch for our customers through price drop strategies, special offers, weekly digital coupons, a generous cashback system, and a wide range of choice to keep customers engaged and loyal.”

Jonathan goes on to add that the company’s relationship with local importers has been pivotal to its success, thanks to the loyalty and support it demonstrates through a ‘no parallel trading’ policy. “Even though we could have access to other brands, we champion our suppliers because, as much as I push my team to work on the customer journey and experience, I also value what I call ‘the business of experience’. I want to establish Welbee’s as the best company to do business with – from paying on time to not doing parallel trading,” Jonathan asserts, pointing out that this benefits both sides in the long run.

“I am also well aware that our suppliers (about 350 in all) play a crucial role in local employment. Supporting them adds value to our sector in the local economy, and I hope our customers recognise this by choosing to shop from a local business,” he adds.

Similarly, Jonathan explains that Welbee’s also strives to be an employer of choice by adopting a growth strategy that isn’t merely about expansion and opening new stores, but equally about growing its people. “Our HR team is very hands-on and values the importance of each role by prioritising training. Fortunately, we do not struggle to recruit as we find that many people want to work with us,” he shares.

Looking back on the year that has passed, Jonathan is pleased with the results. “We had a great 2023 with strong performance in most shops, and we also got a good boost from tourism,” he reflects, noting that the year went slightly better than projected. He reports that it was also a good first year for Welbee’s Campus Hub – the latest store to open and the first one since the merger. Strategically located between Mater Dei Hospital and the University of Malta, Jonathan views this outlet as an opportunity for future customer acquisition by building a relationship with students and winning their trust before they start managing their own households.

“The past year seemed to fly by and, in a sense, it felt like a big rebound year following the pandemic. The heightened activity within different sectors probably accounts for the general fatigue that I’ve observed across the business landscape but, overall, I personally enjoy the fast pace and the workload, and think it’s been a great ride,” he reflects optimistically.

Looking to the months ahead, Jonathan expects 2024 to be a year of increased expansion for the company amidst the competition of the supermarket and broader retail landscapes. Top of the agenda is the opening of Welbee’s’ tenth store at Shoreline Mall, scheduled for around March or April. “We have more sustainable store openings planned in strategic locations, along with a long list of projects, from operational deliverables to product changes, among many others. The sector is constantly evolving and we know that we need to evolve with it through ongoing innovation,” he shares.

Jonathan wraps up with his parting thoughts on the company’s main drive for 2024: “my goal is for Welbee’s to become Malta’s top local grocery brand and, more importantly, for us to keep on building on our customer base – through engagement, added value and brand equity, not just numbers. We want to be people’s go-to supermarket, where they willingly choose to shop because they recognise the value we provide,” he concludes.

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