When Albert Sant was barely a teenager, his elder brother Joe hit upon the idea of selling flowers and vegetables at the open-air market in Birkirkara. Hailing from a family of farmers, the two siblings were no strangers to fresh produce and hard work, and they figured that a stall at the popular ‘monti’ would increase their sales.
The ploy worked, and soon the two brothers cast their net further and decided to add textiles and clothing fabrics to their wares. Before long, they were touring various other village markets in the area. Their reputation started growing.
“We both had a very good nose for business. After a few years we decided to try our luck with construction and bought some land, where we’d go and work after the flea market closed for the day. Needing to get rid of some fabric, we used one of the garages to hold a temporary clearance sale and it was an immediate success,” Mr Albert, as he’s affectionately called by his employees, remembers.
Spotting the demand, he decided to keep it open indefinitely. Thus, the seeds for the first iteration of J.B. Stores – the initials representing Joe and Bertu – was born. It was May 26, 1983. Now, 40 years later, not only has JB Stores become a household name, it has also diversified into various other adjacent sectors, including homeware, clothing, home furnishings, haberdashery and more.
“In those days sewing was a big deal. People didn’t do fast fashion. But eventually demand dropped and we both realized that we needed to expand operations if we wanted to keep up with what society wanted,” he says.
This ability to stay ahead of the curve is possibly one of JB Stores’ biggest assets, together with the willingness to listen to what the customers want. Mr Albert describes how, together with Joe, he invested every penny earned and all his energy into the business, always keeping an ear to the ground with respect to competitors.
“I was never scared to set off on a new business adventure. When the opportunity showed up to venture into the hotel industry, we opened the Hotel Santana even though it was a completely new area for us. Eventually we opened Tal-Lira, which was another big pull,” he says.
He believes that when you spend time on the floor, the clients themselves show you what they want, whether it’s buttons, ready-made garments or whatever.
“It’s always been a very hands-on approach for us. Then, eventually, we decided to split day-to-day operations and Joe started running Tal-Lira, while I focused on JB Stores.”
He also believes that being a family-run business has given the brand an added edge, together with the fact that none of them have ever forgotten their roots. This includes Mr Albert’s sons and daughters, who – having been involved in different areas of the business for years – are now poised to take over the reins. What about disagreements?
“We do disagree, of course. Disagreements are a good thing in business, when they’re reasoned out. Nowadays I’m very suspicious if someone agrees with me all the time. I prefer to hear it straight. Then we discuss, and we reach a decision,” Mr Albert says.
A grassroots approach remains important, he stresses, as does building client relationships. Society may have changed considerably in the past years, with personalization of services perhaps not prioritized as much as it used to be. But regulars who walk into J.B Stores still ask for Mr Albert, and that’s got to count for a lot. It is also the approach he’s keen on seeing the new generation of J.B. Stores leaders continue to strengthen.
“The company culture and ethos start with me, and trickle all the way down. I couldn’t be prouder of having reached this stage, and of having my sons and daughters – who are all like-minded – to continue the work I started,” he confides, adding that he is looking forward to the brand’s continued growth.
“I can’t wait to see what new initiatives they will come up with. Growth is important for an organisation. Without it, the tree starts wilting.”
Does this mean that he won’t be involved at all, once the new generation takes over? He bursts out laughing at this question, and it’s clear that Mr Albert still has a lot to give to JB Stores.
“It’s in my blood, so I’ll probably still be walking around the shops and warehouse here. I don’t want to have to miss it too much. Plus I’m a people person, and possibly this is one of the reasons I put so much into building JB. As long as the Lord grants me good health, and with his help, I intend to continue working and guiding the new generation of leaders,” he confirms with a smile.
He closes off with a tribute to his wife Dorothy, whom he credits with making this family-run success story a reality.
“Had it not been for her calm, patient self, I would not be where I am. I always worked very long hours, travelling frequently and she always had my back. She never hindered me from growing and, of course, she raised the family with certain values, respecting others. It is these values that my sons and daughters will bring forth to the new leadership chapter of J.B. Stores.”
This interview forms part of the Digital 50 Business Leaders project. These high-profile interviews are exclusively featured online at MaltaCEOs.mt, highlighting 50 distinguished conversations with business leaders, CEOs, and emerging entrepreneurial talents. Through these discussions, we aim to showcase the remarkable journeys, achievements, and successes of Malta’s business leaders.
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