With a long career dating back to 1978, Michael Grech is a true pioneer in the local financial services industry. After working at a bank for 13 years, he made the then-risky decision of setting up his own business, Michael Grech Financial Investment Services in 1994 – at a time in which, he says, “financial services in Gozo as we know it today was non-existent.”
Such was his achievement that in 2015, it earned him the Midalja għall-Qadi tar-Repubblika (Medal for Service to the Republic), which Michael humbly considers a landmark in his career. “It was really nice to receive that acknowledgment, particularly because at that time, it was unthinkable, especially for a Gozitan, to leave a stable bank job and set up his own business,” he reveals.
Today, he is in the process of handing over the reins to the second generation, his son David, who has equally ambitious plans for the business moving forward. But, before going into their future, Michael casts his gaze back to the beginning, when he was just setting out.
“I remember taking the decision to leave the bank in 1991, as I felt that there was a void with regards to financial services locally, and especially in Gozo — in those days, trading on a foreign market was almost unthinkable,” he says.
“Initially I was working from an office at home, visiting clients at home or in their workplace, until eventually I opened up an office in Victoria in 1994. I got my license from the Malta Financial Services Authority and things grew from there. In 2000 we set up an office in Malta, in Birkirkara, and in 2007, David, who had completed his studies in banking and finance, joined the business,” Michael explains.
By that time, David already had an intimate knowledge of the family business, having spent several summers working there, making it a point to focus on each department and the work it does. “At the time I’d be given basic tasks like filing and bank runs, but as I tell our apprentices today, that’s how you get a real idea of what’s going on, and it’s something you can’t get from a classroom in school,” David maintains.
Since then, the business journey has included many highlights for both Michael and David, but nowadays, Michael admits, “seeing my son succeed me as Managing Director of the company and taking over from me bit by bit is very rewarding. It’s great to know that the company will be in safe hands.”
“Over the years we have also widened our scope,” he continues, explaining that they are now agents of one of the biggest local insurance companies; and are also members of the Malta Stock Exchange. “We were always careful to go grow slowly but steadily, without moving into many sectors at the same time. We never shied away from investing, be it in human resources, IT or infrastructure.”
Chronicling his own time within the business, David explains that throughout his career, the world has seen and continues to see vast changes in technology. “When I joined, things were already changing in such a way that you need to change to adapt, otherwise you’ll be left behind. This was still a time where most of our data was kept in simple Excel files, so we started the process of upgrading that system to one that can evolve together with changing technology and regulations,” he says.
Nodding in agreement, Michael adds, “technology has advanced by leaps and bounds. At the start, computers were basic, and a useful tool was the fax machine, which was very efficient and safe.” Still, he smiles, despite the improvements in technology, “we still deal with certain companies who prefer their orders to be sent to them via fax, due to the fact that they are not hackable!”
Meanwhile, he continues, regulatory issues are also continuously changing, presenting a constant challenge. “The fact that Malta was grey listed by the FATF has pushed regulators to move from one end of the spectrum to the other in a very short space of time. That is one of the biggest challenges nowadays,” he maintains.
Another aspect that has changed a lot, according to David, is the availability of services, where people can now access certain services online without going through a financial services company.
“Nowadays you can open an account and begin trading without ever talking to a human being. That creates a situation where, unless you provide added value, so as to justify why someone would come to you, people will do things on their own,” he explains, noting that it is the personalised service they offer at Michael Grech Financial Investment Services that sets them apart — “we know our clients by name, we know their story, and this is especially important when you’re giving financial advice. No single instrument or investment fits everybody.”
In fact, Michael adds, “we can safely say that we are now into the second and third generation of our clients as well. That, in itself, says a lot. Most of our business comes from referrals.”
Delving into what he considers to be the qualities of a good business leader, Michael reveals that, high on his list, is leading by example. “You also have to be dedicated. This can sometimes come into conflict with family time, particularly with our business being one that doesn’t sleep. But you have to be service-driven,” he says.
Adding to this, David believes that “you have to be a leader, not a boss.” On a personal level, he continues, “I also think communication is important. Outside of my job here, I’ve been a leader with the Scout movement for 25 years, and I am also a coach in the local football nursery, and in all of those, I find that communication can really make or break you as a leader. You can have the best ideas or methods, but if you can’t communicate them in an appropriate way to your team, it’s useless.”
Communication is also a two-way-street, he continues, affirming that everyone in the team has something to offer. “You can learn from anyone and everyone. I don’t see myself as higher or more important than anyone else.”
And while their sector is one with an inbuilt level of unpredictability – with markets able to turn around at any time – the pair maintain that the most unexpected aspect about their job is the close relationships they are able to foster with their clients.
“As you get to know your clients better, they start to open up to you and you become part of their family, in a way,” David explains, as Michael nods in agreement. “Sometimes, they even end up asking for your advice on personal matters beyond their investments.”
Moving forward, the pair discuss their plans for the company in 2022, and maintain that while challenges will remain mainly regulatory even once Malta gets off the grey list, there are also many opportunities ahead. “We always keep abreast of what’s going on in the market, and try to be avantgarde when it comes to software solutions and other opportunities,” they say, adding, “we also take our Corporate Social Responsibility very seriously. We like to help out with several NGOs in Malta and Gozo, and also organise events including clean-ups. We believe that caring for our environment is very important.”
Closing our chat with a final piece of advice for aspiring leaders, Michael maintains, “always keep your feet on the ground. Plan things out and don’t shoot from the hip. Analyse what others have done and try to learn from their mistakes. Stay humble, regardless of the heights you reach in business or social circles.”
Adding to this, David’s advice would be to “divide your ultimate goal into smaller, bite-sized goals which you can achieve. And when you do get there, reward yourself.” Smiling at his son, Michael nods, affirming, “it’s a journey, so you have to take it in stages.”
The 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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