One of the biggest local developments in the supermarket space in recent memory is undoubtedly the merger of four companies to form Welbee’s Supermarkets, a major player with stores across central and northern Malta.

Among the various challenges faced during the merger was the issue of bringing together all employees and imbuing a new company culture across all levels, from stackers to managers.

Central to this effort was the HR team, led by Head of People, Talent and Development David Borg, an HR veteran who has spent the last two decades in the field.

David Borg

“I believe that HR has always been a natural fit for me,” he tells BusinessNow.mt. “In March 2020, just eight days before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, I started my journey at Retail Marketing Ltd” – the company behind the Welbee’s brand – “embarking on a role that was both specific and very exciting.”

Bringing 400 (at that time) employees under a single organisational umbrella, of course, was no easy task, and David says he and his team of two dedicated professionals spent hours “listening to the owners express their pride in having some individuals on their team for more than two decades,” guided by the principle of “giving people time, listening to them, and establishing open channels of communication.”

Learning the names of 400 individuals took time, but David shares his belief that building a personal connection is crucial to foster a productive yet pleasant environment: “I firmly believe that by ensuring our employees’ satisfaction, we can enhance the overall happiness of our clients.”

Throughout the years, the HR team has taken various initiatives to bring people together, starting with simple onboarding sessions, and has succeeded in laying the groundwork for “a strong culture built on a shared sense of purpose”, with Mr Borg distilling this collective mission as a drive to “provide the best possible experience to our customers in the supermarket.”

His job was made easier by the fact that even when operating as four different companies, each one, at its core, championed employees.

“Our approach is truly interconnected,” he says. “We’ve designed a programme named the ‘Welbee’s Experience’, and it lives up to its name. When it comes to our people, our primary focus is on them, not just the customer. We firmly believe that when our employees feel valued, they, in turn, realise the value that keeps customers coming back – the memorable experience they had during their previous visits to Welbee’s.”

This focus on employees allows Welbee’s, in stark contrast with many other businesses, to have “no problem” in recruitment, even frequently bringing in family members and friends of its existing team and thereby creating a greater sense of belonging.

“Our approach has proven to be an ideal formula,” says Mr Borg. “We ensure that family members and friends do not work in the same shop, a feasible task considering our network of 10 shops.”

Employees’ referral of family and friends makes financial sense, too, contributing to a decrease in reliance on recruitment agencies.

The recruitment challenges become more apparent when the company is in need of professionals in finance, managers for new store openings, and other leadership roles.

However, the Head of People points to examples of promotion from within as a source of pride, noting that one cashier from Nepal successfully transitioned to a role in finance this year, while the majority of the company’s managers actually started as stackers.

“We look for people with a great attitude, proficiency in English, and a warm, friendly smile. By offering these individuals the opportunity to learn and grow within the supermarket business while ensuring they feel appreciated and respected every day, we create an atmosphere where they are eager to share their positive experiences.”

Asked what sets the Welbee’s experience apart from other employers, David replies that it is nothing but the company’s “unwavering commitment to placing employees at the heart of our business.”

He continues: “We strive to instil in them a sense of purpose, making Welbee’s an integral part of their lives. We treat them with the utmost respect as individuals and offer them the prospect of building a long-lasting career, starting from their very first role. When there are exciting career opportunities we always make sure that we have both internal and external candidates. This, I believe, is where we stand out.”

To further nurture employees’ growth within the company, Welbee’s has initiated a series of programmes, beginning with shop managers, aimed at providing them with additional value to contribute even more to the Welbee’s Experience.

It has also revamped the onboarding process, fine-tuned the roles within its network of outlets, and introduced challenges for individuals, team leaders, and managers.

“To augment these efforts, we’ve also brought in external trainers. Our most significant challenge remains the constraint of time, given that our shops are open from 7.30am to 10pm every day of the week. Fortunately, we have exceptional managers and leaders who recognise the potential and actively support us in implementing these improvements.”

For Mr Borg, the overarching goal is to foster employees’ growth, particularly managers and team leaders, by reshaping their mindset and thinking: “In the modern context, a shop isn’t merely about stocking products on the shelves,” he says. “It involves a comprehensive understanding of psychology and customer behaviour. We aim to empower our people to not only run the business but also to understand that what can’t be measured cannot be improved.”

Welbee’s has now reached a total of 450 people, which includes both direct and agency workers (accounting for seven per cent of the workforce). It also collaborates with a number of third-party companies operating counters within its supermarkets which employ over 120 employees in the supermarkets themselves. The employees of the third-party partners are also treated as direct staff when it comes to participation in events, training and communication platforms. Mr Borg also points out that 52 per cent of its employees are Maltese.

Looking ahead, the focus remains on nurturing internal talent and facilitating their growth, while also exploring opportunities to bring in fresh perspectives, new talent, and additional value from outside Welbee’s. “Our primary focus continues to be improving customer engagement and performance, but this doesn’t mean we lose sight of the human element and the unique demands of each shop. Every shop has its distinct challenges, and it’s essential to cater to those specific needs.”

As for Mr Borg, he says that his efforts yield constant reward: “To me, the most rewarding recognition is that our employees add value to the company but are also happy to work with the group and represent us well.”

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