From humble beginnings, KDM Investments has grown into a highly successful group of companies spanning security, aviation, mobility, tourism, and more. For CEO and Chairman Kenneth De Martino, the keys to success are solid fundamentals, strong relationships, and an overarching focus on people above all else.
Having set himself a clear and ambitious goal early on, Kenneth De Martino devoted his career to achieving it. His dream was always to eventually own a large group of diverse companies. And now, nearly 25 years later and after what he describes as an ‘extremely colourful journey’ that dream is a very successful reality.
Kenneth traces the roots of his formidable business career right back to the 15 years he spent working in financial services at Thomas Cook, a time he says was his learning period, where he had the opportunity to develop his skills, build his confidence, and pick up vital lessons in management and leadership. The formation he received in that time is what drove him to strike out on his own and is still part of what guides him today.
“Thomas Cook is a global company employing thousands of people but, when I was there, I was never a number; I was an individual with my own qualities and talents,” Kenneth explains. “They nurtured me and gave me the space to grow, and that is what motivated me to move on: I wanted to create that same opportunity for other people.”
Now forging his own path, Kenneth’s first step towards what would eventually become the KDM Group was a travel organisation, still operating today as FCM Travel. From there, he moved into enforcement, later transitioning into security with the setting-up of G4S Malta. Next came the CT Park chain of car parks and, in what he describes as his biggest transition so far, an aviation ground handling company that today operates as Aviaserv and handles airlines including Ryanair, Emirates, Lufthansa and Easyjet. Most recently, the Group has stepped into the mobility sector with the Whizzascoot network of shared electric vehicles and kick scooters, as well as operating a number of rental properties, among other investments.
Yet, despite the vast diversity in the Group’s companies, Kenneth insists none of its growth was random. “It all happened by design,” he says. “I have always been very focused on business opportunities within the service industry, and all our businesses today depend on people. I think people are the most important asset of any organisation.”
Building on what he learned in his own career, Kenneth says this focus on individuals is part of the Group’s core fundamentals. While he may not know every single one of the roughly 2,000 people working for him by name, he says he spends enough time ‘on the shop floor’ to have got very close. “We nurture the people who make the organisation thrive, and create an environment and infrastructure for personal growth. We encourage internal creativity, build on solid relationships with our partners, and try to unlock individuals’ maximum potential. That is how we survive. During the pandemic, if it weren’t for these core values, we would have struggled.”
When the pandemic struck, a number of Kenneth’s businesses – and particularly those in the travel and aviation fields – came to a complete standstill, although others, such as security, continued to thrive. What surprised him, he says, was the Group’s resilience; how ready members of the organisation were to support each other as they shifted to new communication processes and used words that had never been uttered before as part of day-to-day business. “My lesson was how to adapt, to learn, to accept, and to move on. Those were the most important factors that kept me in the right frame of mind and allowed us to go on,” he says.
However, the challenges were not limited to the height of the pandemic in 2020. As the Group entered 2021, Kenneth says the question became how quickly it could bounce back and get its businesses back on track – a task made even more challenging by the changes in the labour market and the difficulties in finding the right people to bring on board to support the recovery process.
“I think these difficult times have taught us to be a bit more innovative, to understand the value of diversification,” Kenneth says. “But it also allowed us to better appreciate people’s individual qualities. We all learned that an organisation needs to be sustainable in order to survive. And I think the COVID-19 months gave us the opportunity, and the capability, to transform our businesses and to look for niche markets, and new ways to survive and begin looking forward to a brighter future.”
Still, Kenneth is clear that the world is far from out of the pandemic, and that most businesses are still adapting, changing and innovating their set-ups to be ready for 2023, the year he believes most sectors – and the travel and aviation sectors in particular – are looking towards for a return to pre-pandemic levels of business.
Already, however, he sees the signs for optimism, even in the hardest-hit sectors. In aviation, he estimates that the market is some two-thirds of the way back to pre-pandemic levels. Other sectors, such as travel agencies, he says, should be thinking about broader re-dimensioning. “For some businesses, it’s about looking for a comeback, while others must look for a way to change and survive in a totally new world. Innovation is a number one priority.”
Particularly in areas less impacted by the pandemic, such as the Group’s mobility ventures, the focus is on the future. The Whizzascoot rollout of scooters and kick scooters has continued apace, while an increased focus on electrification has seen the installation of hundreds of charging pillars around the island. Kenneth believes the sector is still in its infancy and is keen to seize the opportunities as they arise. “Shared technology is very interesting. Today we talk about shared cars, bikes, scooters. But I think we will see it in a lot more areas in the coming years, and we’re looking at those areas to see if there are opportunities we would want to exploit,” he says.
“In general, I think the global investment landscape is shifting beneath our feet. I want to make sure the KDM Group is a winner in terms of being able to adapt and putting our money to work where it really matters most.”
A large part of that, for KDM Group, is the question of succession. As a first-generation business owner who has built up his companies over a quarter of a century, Kenneth says his mind is now turning to who comes next. “I’ve spent a lot of time developing my own children, who are willing to get more involved and ready to take over. It is crucial to pass on to the next generation what has already been built, without losing anything along the way but adding to what has already been achieved.”
Kenneth describes as his “biggest failure” his inability to properly balance his business and personal life. Outside the office, he enjoys travelling and spending time with his family, he has a long-standing association with the Scouting Movement, having served in several positions including that of Chief Scout, and is also Chairman of the Board of Trustees for the Duke of Edinburgh International Award, a global organisation aimed at giving young people valuable life skills. But, he admits, his main passion is business, something he loves and has never found a chore.
This next year, then, may be an opportunity to refocus and lay the foundations for the 25 years – and more – of the Group of companies he built. “2022 is about creating the space for the younger generation to come in and take over, learn from their own mistakes and have the room to take their own decisions. As for me, I’ll finally be able to get my work-life balance back on track!”
This article is part of the serialisation of 50 interviews featured in MaltaCEOs 2022 – an annual high-end publication bringing together some of the country’s most influential business leaders.
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