“I was appointed CEO in 2019, and it couldn’t have been more of a challenging time, with the pandemic coming in shortly after,” reveals Adriana Camilleri Vassallo of her relatively new role within FJVA – a business she helped set up alongside her father, Francis J Vassallo, 22 years ago, which provides corporate, tax and financial advisory services to international companies, family offices and private clients.
Since 2019, Adriana Camilleri Vassallo took the reins as CEO at Francis J Vassallo & Associates Group (FJVA). Founded by her father in 1998, she is determined to steer it towards a strong future.
“Our main goal was to create a company to provide tax and corporate services based on three principles: our ethical values, client satisfaction and relationship management,” she continues, and these have remained the company’s core values over the years since. “I believe that the relationship we’ve built with our clients has always been based on mutual honesty, transparency and ethics, and our strategy has always been to grow our core business over the years,” she adds, something the team has achieved, not necessarily by looking at quantity, but quality of clients.
Apart from this, the CEO affirms, FJVA has maintained a conservative approach to business over the years. “For us, it’s not just about increasing the bottom line and generating profit, it’s also about keeping our core values intact throughout the process.”
Speaking of landmark career moments, Adriana insists on milestones she shares with the FJVA team as a whole, revealing that the majority of her career has been dedicated to building the company, and together with her father, taking it to a complement of over 75 staff. “The whole process has comprised of landmark moments throughout. We have also invested in an entity in Luxembourg – expanding outside of Malta,” she notes, adding that while they are no longer a family business strictly speaking, having since opened up to a number of partners, they still favour a close-knit family approach.
As for Adriana’s role as CEO, her favourite aspect is motivating the staff to achieve the best results, as well as getting involved in every part of the business. “I’ve read that, as CEO, you have to wear a number of different hats. It’s true, and you need to juggle them. I love working with great talent, learning from people and building a fantastic workforce which is supportive of, and conducive to, the excellent work we want to deliver to our clients – I find that very exciting,” she adds.
This doesn’t come without its challenges, particularly against the trying backdrop of the pandemic in 2020. “Our biggest challenge is being able to support 75 families and making sure that you’re there for each one of them,” Adriana explains, going on to point out that the financial services industry also has its own challenges. “We need to make sure that we are up to scratch with all our regulatory requirements; they are ever-changing and becoming ever-more complex,” she notes.
Another challenge is balancing business with personal life. “As a working mum, whatever your designation within the company, balance is never easy, although I think the support and patience of our family helps us achieve it as best we can,” Adriana says, and she promotes these values among the staff too.
Highlighting the company’s introduction of half days on Fridays a few years ago, the CEO argues that restructuring the hours during the workday from Monday to Thursday helps give people additional personal time, which is in turn important to deliver and do a good job. “I delegate a lot and dedicate my weekends to the family. It is tough to do but having a good team who you can work with makes it a bit easier,” she says.
Turning her attention to the financial services industry as a whole, the CEO reveals that the landscape has changed ‘drastically’ since FJVA started out. “The industry has really flourished over the years, however, in doing so, we have had a lot of regulatory scrutiny,” she says, pointing to numerous requirements for compliance and transparency which are welcome, but which also come at a cost which needs to be taken into consideration.
“Since the compliance obligations are so dynamic and changing, it’s not always in sync with the clients’ expectations, and it requires educating the client to understand them. We are also not immune to the challenges which the credit institutions are facing, because what we do is also supported by them,” Adriana adds.
And while 2020 certainly dealt an unexpected hand, the CEO maintains that the financial services industry hasn’t been impacted by the pandemic in the way that other industries have been. “We still have new client requests coming in, although they have perhaps slowed down. However, our existing clients are using the opportunity to invest, and these compensate for a reduction in new business,” she explains, revealing that the team at FJVA has worked to use 2020 to their advantage, taking the opportunity to look internally, consolidate and focus resources on ensuring that the company comes out stronger.
“We have faced a bit of a slowdown in business but, for the sector, I think the pandemic has just accelerated the need for the further use of technology. In 2019, we had already spearheaded a whole IT infrastructure change and had put that in place before the pandemic, so we were one step ahead,” Adriana continues.
Looking to the future, one of the CEO’s ambitions is for Malta’s advantages as a jurisdiction to be further emphasised. “In the past, Malta was seen to be attractive mostly due to the tax advantages of the jurisdiction, but I think this shouldn’t be the driving factor, because Malta has so much more to offer – tax should be an ancillary advantage”, she laments, pointing to other benefits like corporate flexibility.
“We need to push Malta and the industry in this direction. Obviously, the regulatory and compliance aspects will continue to increase, and we need to embrace this rather than see it as a threat – it will allow the right business to come into the country, and that is an advantage for us.”
Acknowledging that Malta’s reputation has taken a hit in recent years, the CEO concludes that, “as an industry, we need to come together to make sure that this perception changes. We cannot do this alone.”
This interview was part of a serialisation of 50 interviews carried out with Malta’s top CEOs, featured in the bumper edition of MaltaCEOs 2021 publication, which was released in February 2021.