“On a personal level, let me start by saying that it is a privilege to lead such a vast and successful group of companies,” begins Robert Debono, who spent his early years amassing valuable experience within different factions of his family’s business before being appointed CEO of db Group.
Now, standing at the helm of Malta’s largest local hotel operator, he is excited to write the next chapter within the exceptional legacy his father started over 30 years ago, bolstered by a capable team who he describes as the most important ingredient to the group’s success.
“I was officially appointed CEO in September 2020, when the previous CEO, Arthur Gauci, stepped down. He still sits on the Board, and prior to that, I had the privilege to work with him very closely. Alongside my father, I consider him a mentor,” Robert reveals, admitting that taking over the reins in the midst of a global pandemic served as a baptism of fire for the young leader.
“It was one of the most challenging moments in our company’s history. We got through it, recovered, and are now working on continuing to expand and build on the successful partnerships that we have,” he smiles.
Forming part of the family’s succession plan for the business, Robert’s siblings have also been entrusted with key roles, while their father, Silvio Debono, stays on as Chairman. Expanding on their responsibilities which factor in their individual areas of expertise, Robert explains, “my sister Victoria’s interest lies mainly in marketing, and as Brands Director she is responsible for brand standards and communication with international brands. David is a lawyer by profession, and apart from being Chief Legal Officer is also heavily involved in HR. Meanwhile, Alan is an accountant by profession, and is the Chief Procurement and Accounting Officer, working closely with the CFO.”
“We’re very proud of the fact that there’s a lot of synergy between us,” he continues, affirming that the siblings work very well together and respect that everyone has their role to play, in order to continue to build on the business’ successes.
Still, the CEO makes one thing clear: “as a family business, we are careful not to make the mistakes that family businesses typically make, like having inexperienced family members in top positions, and making emotional decisions. We are building a corporate structure in which everyone is accountable. Alongside the family members, we have people that have been with us for decades, and they are vital to the company. We are also engaging experts in several fields to ensure that we are always on the right track.”
Delving into his plans and priorities for db Group in the coming months and years, Robert begins by taking stock of what the company has achieved so far. Starting with the Seabank and San Antonio, which are not only among the largest hotels on the island but also the only two all-inclusive resorts in Malta, he maintains, “their success speaks for itself, and our tour operators share statistics that tell us that they’re not only some of the best performers in Malta, but also in Europe. When we look at our competition, we tend to look outside of our shores within the all-inclusive space.”
Despite being heavily impacted by the pandemic, the CEO affirms that focusing on diversification has led to a faster recovery. “We’ve bounced back well, and have maintained our ambitious targets with the expansion of Starbucks – we had initially planned to open 14 outlets within five years, but we’ve done that within three. It’s a success which we’re proud of, particularly against the backdrop of COVID-19.”
Now, the plan is to focus and grow where they are strongest – both locally and abroad. “Our priority is to diversify the portfolio across different markets – essentially, we want to leverage the success we’ve had in Malta and move it into other markets,” he says, sharing the group’s international aspirations.
“Back in November, we opened up a family office in London, and the idea is to expand within four main pillars: hospitality, industrial catering, restaurants and real estate. There are a number of things in the pipeline, which we’re looking forward to finalising and sharing in the months ahead.” Locally, he continues, “we’re working to open three new restaurants by the end of June, and we will also open another four Starbucks outlets by the end of the year. We’re also in talks with a number of other brands with a view towards bringing them to Malta.”
Expanding on how the local tourism industry has developed in recent years, Robert says it has rebounded quicker than expected following the pandemic, with numbers even exceeding pre-pandemic levels in recent months. “Malta has changed significantly over the last couple of years. I believe that we’ve really upped our game, especially within the hospitality and catering sector, and we’re proud of the fact that we’ve contributed a lot in this regard,” he maintains, highlighting the importance of global recognition, typified by the listing of local restaurants in the Michelin Guide.
“We’re very proud of the fact that AKI is in the Michelin Guide, and continue to invest in the quality of our other restaurants,” he continues, referencing the fact that db’s recently opened South American restaurant LOA has been rated first on Trip Advisor since shortly after it opened its doors last year, and has also been added to the Michelin Guide this year. “We’re also proud that we brought Starbucks and Hard Rock Cafe to Malta, and believe that bringing international brands and big names to the island is the way forward,” Robert adds, stating that Malta needs to continue improving on its product across the board, focusing on bringing quality tourists and finding ways to innovate in order to stand out on an international level.
Sharing his thoughts on leadership, the CEO says that while there are different types of leaders, one quality that he learned from his father, who has done this exceptionally well, is key to success: “It’s having the vision to find gaps in the market, believing in this vision and taking a leap of faith – and finally, being able to bring together the right people to make this vision a reality.”
Emphasising the importance of investing in the right people, Robert continues, “while I do work as hard as possible and push and innovate, in the end, most of the progress we have managed to make is thanks to key people working together. What we have is all down to our people. The success comes from the team that we have built, and that is also the challenge moving forward – to find and retain the best people.” Sharing his advice in this regard, he adds, “don’t micromanage, and try to create a culture where everyone has a shared vision and knows what is expected of them.”
Revealing another challenge inherent in his role, the CEO references the constantly changing landscape within the industry. “COVID-19 brought about significant changes, but aside from that, constantly being aware of trends, customer preferences, new technology, and the day-to-day disruptions of the business is key to staying ahead of the curve. Despite these challenges, I believe it’s actually one of the most interesting aspects of my job, and certainly one of the most rewarding.”
The interview forms part of the 50 Business Leaders project. The 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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