“I’ve always been interested in the built environment, but never really wanted to work in the family business,” admits Benji Tabone Grech, Chief Executive Officer at Engel & Völkers Sara Grech Malta, explaining that growing up, working in real estate was actually off his radar.
Still, his initiation into the industry came early, through summers spent working in the business during his teens. “When I was 17, I started working in property rentals. I did well, and loved it. The following summer, I closed my first sale,” he smiles, though he would soon leave it behind in favour of his studies.
“I wanted to be an architect and to create space,” he says, which prompted him to study architecture in the UK. After graduating, he went on to specialise in environmental design, and started working with a small practice in London. Then, looking for something more, he set off to Berlin a year later, and got a job with a renowned technical design practice. “I spent a few years there, and it taught me a lot. I worked on some super interesting projects, including the Waldorf Astoria in Berlin,” Benji recalls.
Some years later, he returned to Malta for a short holiday. His family’s business, then Sara Grech Ltd, was at a crossroads. “Malta was at a point where it was going to start attracting a lot of international interest, and we needed to think about how to become part of a bigger network. So, we started looking for franchising opportunities. I took initiative, and called the franchise department of Engel & Volkers in Hamburg. Within a couple of weeks, we were in the boardroom discussing the franchise. I went back to Berlin, packed my bags and came home. My dream of architecture was replaced with the dream of being part of this franchise,” the CEO explains.
His first task at the newly established Engel & Völkers Sara Grech Malta was helping his mother, who was then the company’s figurehead, to implement a business plan, and, given his experience in architecture, he was also tasked with refurbishing the company’s first five offices. “We managed to fit them all out in something like four months! We launched the brand, and that was it. From there, I took on a team of sales agents, working my way up over the years to Managing Director, until my mum started taking a bit more of a back seat a couple of years ago. It’s been quite a natural process,” he affirms, tracing his journey to his current position.
Admitting that it’s all been quite fast, and that with the benefit of hindsight, more mentoring and coaching could have been beneficial, it’s also unsurprising, as “I’ve always been really hungry.”
Throughout that time, the industry hasn’t always been welcoming of him and his ideas. “In Malta, we have this culture instilled in us to divide and conquer. Alone, we seem to think that we can do better,” Benji laments, recalling how, when he first returned to the island 10 years ago, he joined the Federation of Estate Agents. “I sat around the boardroom table with the industry leaders and started speaking about sharing data and planning how we were going to move forward. They just kind of looked at me like, ‘what is this kid talking about?’ But I kept pushing. I went to all of the meetings of the BICC and The Chamber, and I ran around looking to see how to better the industry.”
Still, the CEO admits, he continued to be shot down with this ‘divide and conquer’ approach. “While my background is Maltese, my experiences abroad have enabled me to see what can be achieved when corporations and industries come together, pooling resources for the betterment of all. This has always been something that has rubbed me up the wrong way in Malta, where people don’t seem to be interested in how we can all benefit from our combined knowledge,” he asserts.
Having said that, Benji still considers the past years very interesting. “Pre-2018/2019, when we saw a massive peak in property prices, I was a big fan of data – analysing the market and really getting a feel of what’s happening. Before 2019, I was convinced that the property market was going to crash, but it didn’t. I think I was so frustrated with the industry that I wanted it to happen,” he reveals, highlighting how now, following the COVID situation, the demand has completely changed.
“We are now seeing an increase in rental prices again after being corrected by COVID, and on the sales side, we still have a strong demand, but there is a lack of trust. Moving forward, I think we are going to see a greater divide – there’s going to be a lot of stock that’s stuck on the market. A lot of the new buildings are not up to par, so we will see problems there, but the higher end market will keep moving strongly.”
Today, the CEO finds himself at somewhat of a turning point, as he contemplates what comes next for him and his business. “I’ve been doing this for almost a decade, and I’m hungry for something else, and some new inspiration.”
Admitting that things can change quickly, he says that currently, the biggest ongoing project that’s keeping him busy is taking over full ownership of the family business. With that will come some changes to the operation. “We’re trying to be much more lean, and look at how the business will go forward in terms of being a lot more specific in the kind of property we sell. Traditionally in this business, it’s all about the figurehead – I don’t want that. I want the brand, not myself, to carry the team forward. We will really be looking at taking the company into the future. That’s the main priority at the moment.”
On a personal level, Benji is also involved in a platform that provides free evaluations, and ultimately, his dream is to get into hospitality, through running a guesthouse or small hotel. “There’s a property with the potential for this that I have in mind at the moment, but we’ll see,” he teases.
Crediting his experiences and opportunities overseas with giving him a different mindset and worldview, Benji says, “I’ve been very lucky to have travelled a lot in my younger years, which gave me a lot of exposure to different countries and cultures. Meanwhile, a big part of my life growing up was sailing, having represented Malta in the Europeans three times – it gave me a way of being physically challenged and also helped me to think tactically about decisions I have to make.” Delving into his leadership style and the qualities that make a good business leader, Benji begins with resilience, emphasising the importance of “being able to stick it out in what you believe and inspire people to do the same.”
The biggest challenge today, he points out, is that everyone seems to be looking for instant gratification. “We have become so used to the ‘quick high’ that the more long-term concept of being inspired to chase after something you believe in is more valuable than anything else today,” he says, combining this with the importance of balancing wellbeing and mental health with business strength. “It’s also about greater awareness of what you feel, and being able to attract the right things around you.”
The CEO’s parting words of advice extend beyond having your own business or being your own boss: “if you have an idea that you believe in, go for it and don’t let anybody stop you. The important thing is that you believe in it, and to be open to a lot of lessons!”
This interview forms part of the 50 Business Leaders 2022 project. The new online serialisation on MaltaCEOs.mt will feature 50 distinguished business leaders, CEOs, and emerging business minds to create debate and encourage business leaders to share their journey with our readers.
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