Aboard a boat in Italy, Jamie Houston rings in to talk about CarBlu Malta, his yacht management and charter company based in Birgu. Right now, Jamie is in Tuscany refitting a boat. This is what the past year has been like for the CarBlu Malta Managing Director: building a Malta-based company from the ground up, while sometimes being kept away from Maltese shores.
“In March 2020, we were stuck in Oman trying to get to Malta,” Jamie begins. “Initially, instead of being able to work from our new office in the Grand Harbour, Mara and I set up CarBlu Malta from our dining room table in Oman with Clive and Will. Finally, the airports opened, and we could reach Malta in July. It’s been quite a ride! But we’ve got a fantastic team, and that’s been crucial. In my role as Managing Director, I work closely with my business partner Clive on strategy, but I firmly believe that I’m only as good as the weakest link in the chain, so I encourage, support and love seeing my team feel empowered and getting creative.”
It soon becomes clear that Jamie is a people person through and through, and he does not shy away from any task when it comes to propelling his business forward. “Every day is different,” he smiles. “I could be in a meeting with a board of directors one day and then driving a boat or getting my hands dirty doing repairs the next. We are currently a team of eight and we all enjoy the varied nature of the job. No one operates in a silo; we’re all learning from each other and getting to know CarBlu Malta and the charter industry inside and out.”
Jamie, though, is hardly new to the sector. He has worked in the marine industry for over 20 years, going from shore-based logistics and operations to boat-building and yacht management. He was the General Manager of the Olympic Sailing Village at the London Olympics in 2012, and then moved to Oman to work with Oman Sail, and later as a Director in a tourism construction company, building a touristic development with hundreds of apartments, villas, a golf course and marina.
“My passion has always been the sea, so that called me back,” continues Jamie. “I’ve always had a vision of running a charter business that shows full respect to the boat owner and enables them to run their boat at a profit.” So, CarBlu Malta was born and the decision to come to Malta was made. The island and its language even inspired the name, a play on words: car meaning ‘clear’ and blu meaning ‘blue’.
And from the get-go, the company has been all about blending Malta’s Mediterranean sensibility into boutique-style charter experiences, replacing the over-the-top formality of many superyachts with the more casual formality of sailing.
The business, though, did not launch quite as expected. The team was meant to be refitting boats from March through June 2020 in anticipation of a first charter season later in the year. “The pandemic hit us before we managed to pick up pace, so we’re about five months behind schedule and, of course, the world still hasn’t reopened to travel,” explains Jamie.
“That said, in some ways, COVID-19 has also brought positive pressure because people have innovated and thought outside the box. For us, it’s been important to remember that it is also OK to take some of the pressure off. We have re-evaluated, changed some plans and when the world is ready to play once again, we’ll set sail.”
In fact, Jamie is optimistic about the future impact the pandemic will have on the charter industry. He explains that when people start travelling again, a charter yacht will provide a perfect bubble, allowing them to holiday in a safe environment when things might still be up in the air. “We’ll be in a position to offer a family of four the opportunity to come aboard a yacht for a week for the same price as going to the Maldives,” he says.
“I believe that the charter industry will provide an opportune alternative to people who no longer feel safe going on holiday amid crowds and who want more space and seclusion. We’re also implementing health and safety processes that will see crew members and guests being rapid tested for COVID-19 prior to setting sail. From day one, I have wanted to create experiences and memories for people, so now I’m looking forward to giving our guests the opportunity to get out and remember what it means to be with family and friends, and to live again.”
As he looks ahead to CarBlu Malta gaining momentum, Jamie explains that there are many learnings from 2020 to be gleaned. “I think we’ve all realised that we are not infallible. If the world closes down, it does so for all of us. We’re lucky to have been given the opportunity to sit back, breathe and reflect. For Carblu Malta, this means that we have honed a vision that will take us forward as a fully sustainable company, refitting and managing boats for investors and welcoming guests aboard on charters,” he says.
“Perhaps even more importantly, though, 2020 has taught us the value of human connection and a sense of place. Malta has been integral to our brand identity from the start. We have Maltese team members and all other company employees have relocated to the island. I am driven to give back to the community that is home to CarBlu Malta and to bring genuine employment opportunities to young Maltese residents who are keen on working in yachting and the wider marine sector. To be able to give people a leg up in their careers is one of my main long-term goals, and then seeing them establish themselves within the sector will be a great moment for me,” Jamie concludes.
This interview is part of a serialisation of 50 interviews carried out with Malta’s top CEOs, featured in the bumper edition of MaltaCEOs 2021 publication, which was recently released. Despite the many challenges of 2020, this is the largest edition to date.
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