Today (at the time of writing), 16 months shy of his 80th birthday, the energy with which Joseph Zammit Tabona approaches the projects within which he continues to be heavily involved – and the drive to continue to be of service to his country – is palpable (and contagious).
As I sit opposite him in the beautifully furnished Presidential Suite at the Xara Palace (the culmination of a dream he shared with his wife Susan to restore the 17th century building to its former glory), it is with stunning clarity that he tells the story of his impressive career, spanning over 50 years in finance and industry.
His journey in local business finds its roots in 1968, upon his return to Malta as a young man, following a five-year Articleship in Accountancy with Turquand Youngs & Co in London.
“At the time, Leslie Duncan was the Malta General Manager, and he and Harold Farrugia were made Partners with effect from the 1st January 1970,” he says, recalling how he would soon join them as Partner himself, in March 1972, at the young age of 28. “I worked hard, as I have done throughout my life, and it’s probably because I enjoyed the accountancy profession so much,” he explains, humbly.
He would go on to acquire the entire Malta practice together with the aforementioned Mr Farrugia some years later, in 1976, taking over the running of a company with an impressive staff complement of around 150 people. Then, after buying Mr Farrugia’s share in 1979, he began operating it under J. Zammit Tabona & Co.
Some years later, after initially declining an offer to merge, Mr Zammit Tabona decided to join forces once more, this time with Norman Spiteri and John Bonello. “I remember we would meet in various hotel rooms towards the north part of the island so that people would not get wind of what we were planning to do,” he smiles naughtily. “The three of us were all educated at St Edward’s College so there was a common bond from the start. It was agreed that we would operate under Spiteri, Zammit Tabona & Co. and that we would continue to represent Coopers & Lybrand.”
Recalling a very particular obstacle the three faced at the time, Mr Zammit Tabona shares, “we were scheduled to make a formal announcement in June 1984, but we had to delay the announcement to August as I developed malaria during my travels, which restricted me to my bed for some six weeks!”
But this was not the last of the firm’s leadership changes. “In early 1988, John Bonello and I acquired Norman Spiteri’s share in the practice, and started operating under Zammit Tabona Bonello & Co. A couple of years later we changed the name of the firm to Coopers & Lybrand,” he explains, which they kept until 10 years later, in 1998, when they decided to merge with Pricewaterhouse to form PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), which it continues to go by today.
Throughout this time, Mr Zammit Tabona began investing in property, he shares, starting with an apartment in Salina Court in 1981, before purchasing another, and another, in the same complex, and renting them out. “By the 1987 general elections I had acquired more than 50 per cent of the units within the complex,” he says, recalling how in 1988, he began working on developing the entire complex, giving it the name Salina Wharf. Later, in 2016, he would partner with Bilom’s Michael Bugeja to redevelop the entire footfall of 6,000 square metres of land that represented the former complex of Salina Wharf, and today, it is run by his son Justin, together with Mr Bugeja.
But when one thinks of Mr Zammit Tabona, it is probably another property that comes to mind: the Xara Palace Relais & Châteaux, within Malta’s silent city. Recalling how he acquired the 17th century palazzo from Robert Strickland in 1996, it took several years to restore and open its doors in December 1999. It was, and continues to be very much a family affair, he says: “restoring the Xara was my wife’s dream, and it was never on my cards to run it myself. My wife and children – my daughter Nicola Paris and son Justin – have been involved in the running of the hotel with various former General Managers and CEOs since then.”
Meanwhile, the end of Mr Zammit Tabona’s accountancy chapter came about in March 2000, when he decided to retire from the practice, but, as the well-known saying goes, when one door closes, another is sure to open, and in this case, it was several!
Over the years since retiring from the accounting field, Mr Zammit Tabona has served as Director or Chairman of several companies, and in each position, he maintains, “whatever my role would be, I would always aim for the very top. Throughout my life, I always set three-to-five-year targets of what I would like to achieve. I never disclosed my ambitions to anyone, so whether I reached those goals or not was my own decision.”
In tandem with his work at the firm, Mr Zammit Tabona had served as President of the Federation of Industry between 1991 and 1992, and in 2000 to 2003, he was appointed for a second term. Looking back, he recalls, “I decided to spend most of my time looking after the interests of manufacturing companies in Malta, which at the time represented a substantial sector of the local economy.”
This led to a gamut of roles within Malta’s Government. “Since March 2000, I have been extremely fortunate to have worked with Government in various honorary positions. As President of the FOI, I became a Board member of the Malta Development Corporation (MDC), The Malta Trade Export Company (METCO) and the Institute of Small Trade Practitioners (IPSE),” he says, explaining that at the time he focused on streamlining the processes with these Government institutions, and was ultimately appointed as Chair Designate to work on merging the three institutions by then Minister of Finance, John Dalli.
The result was Malta Enterprise, established in August 2003, for which Mr Zammit Tabona served as the first Chairman, until 2006. “The composition of the three Government agencies at the time totalled 211 people, and in the merged Malta Enterprise we only took 80 employees and engaged a further 12 persons from the private sector,” Mr Zammit Tabona recalls, highlighting the important work undertaken in those early years to attract several pharmaceutical companies to set up in Malta.
Then, in 2006, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi asked him to become Chairman of the Malta Stock Exchange (MSE). “There had not been any IPOs or Corporate Bonds to market, and I changed all that by approaching former clients of mine to come to the market, be it for an IPO or, more strongly, for Corporate Bonds,” he explains, recalling several meetings with the College of Stockbrokers to explore how to strengthen Malta’s Stock Exchange.
2006 proved to be a busy year for Mr Zammit Tabona, and he was also approached by Minister Tonio Fenech to set up public/private enterprise FinanceMalta, which he did, in April 2007. He would then go on to serve as Chairman of the MSE and FinanceMalta until he was appointed Malta’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland in 2009.
“Prior to that I was asked to become Malta’s Ambassador to the United States by three different Ministers of Foreign Affairs – one of them also offered China,” he reveals, smiling as he tells me how he turned them all down, for, “the United Kingdom was always my target, as it had been my second home since 1963!”
Sharing an anecdote from his time as High Commissioner – a role which he fondly describes as his “best experience” to date – Mr Zammit Tabona confides, “when I arrived in London, I was interviewed by the Diplomatic Magazine. In my interview, I said that I was going to concentrate all of my efforts on attracting business to Malta, which I did. Some two months later, I was given an appointment by the Marshall of the Court of St James to present my credentials to Her Majesty, the late Queen Elizabeth II. Needless to say, I was excited to meet the Queen for the first time, and when I did, the first thing she said to me was ‘I understand you are here to take away business from London.’ I went very red in the face and replied, ‘Ma’am, as you well know, Malta is a tiny place, and we could do with the crumbs of London, which would be more than enough for us.’ She laughed and that broke the ice,” he chuckles.
Ever humble, the business veteran continues, “I always classify myself as a lucky person, though I have always worked hard throughout my life. I have always been extremely honest, and worked to the best of my abilities, though like everyone, I do have my weaknesses, which I am fully aware of.” Admitting to being camera shy and sometimes being lost for words – which I fail to pick up on throughout the course of our chat – Mr Zammit Tabona also concedes to having particular strengths, including an adeptness for networking, which have certainly come in handy throughout his business life.
Owing to his extensive experience in various sectors, I point out how he must have seen the island change, both in the business sense and in terms of landscape, to which he attests, “I can honestly say that I did see the face of Malta change from the late 1960s.” Commenting on the drastic increase in property prices since that time, when “flats in Qawra used to be sold for Lm300 and a garage for Lm100”, he feels that Malta has done extremely well with regard to the value of property, and is pleased to note that 80 per cent of local families own their own dwelling. What concerns him now, however, is the future.
“At present, I do worry that we do not seem to have a clear vision. I am a firm believer that anyone that wants to work can reach the top, but at the moment we lack the clarity of where we would like our beloved country and its people to reach. For instance, when I embarked on the Xara Palace, most businesspeople thought I was mad in trying to get a reasonable return from a 17th century palace with 17 suites. At the time, my wife and I wanted to have the best property on the island, and I feel that we achieved this, as within a year of opening our doors, we were asked to join the Relais & Châteaux brand. Since then, we have had many distinguished film stars and people staying at the Xara Palace, including King Charles III and the Queen Consort. We were also fortunate enough in having our Executive Chef Kevin Bonello who, through the de Mondion, was awarded a Michelin star on 26th February 2020.”
And despite his long and decorated career – having been conferred the knighthood of Magistral Grace by the Sovereign Hospitaller Order of St John in 1997, made a Member of the Order of Merit by the Government of Malta in 2016, and awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Malta Stock Exchange in 2017 – Mr Zammit Tabona still has plenty he wants to do.
Apart from his role within the Malta Business Network – which he set up in 2011 – he is Chairman of Valletta Cruise Port plc and Tigne Mall plc, as well as Director of Klesch Group Ltd, for which he travels to London several times a month.
He is also not done helping his country, and is Chair of the Malta Financial Services Advisory Council (MFSAC), which is composed of heads of the Commissioner for Revenue, FIAU, MFSA, the MBR, the Malta Stock Exchange and FinanceMalta, as well as representatives from the private sector, namely the MIA, MIT, IFSP and the MBA. Sharing what’s currently keeping him busy, he reveals that the Council has recently finalised a detailed 10-year strategy for the financial service sector which was presented to Minister of Finance and Employment Clyde Caruana, who is now ready to head the implementation of this strategy document.
“I’m always keen to learn more, despite my age, and I continue to love connecting people. I have always enjoyed working, and the bigger the challenge the more I get involved,” he smiles, with a glint in his eye, as we conclude our chat – “life is a challenge, and it’s what you make of it.”
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