Adriana Camilleri Vassallo, CEO of Francis J Vassallo & Associates Ltd, was instrumental in founding the financial services firm in 1998. Run at the time by her father, who headed FJVA Group for over 20 years, he officially passed on the baton in 2019.
From day one, Adriana has ensured the company’s continued commitment to ethics, integrity, and relationship-building – all of which have been pivotal to its success. For Adriana Camilleri Vassallo, it is crucial to know when to focus on driving vision and strategy, and when to attend to day-to-day operations of the business, as well as striking a balance between the two. As CEO of the long-standing corporate services firm, Francis J Vassallo & Associates Ltd, she explains that, “it is important to know when to focus ‘on the business’ as opposed to ‘in the business’.
“I believe my role is to define our underlying purpose: why we do what we do and this is not solely driven by the bottom line. I need to set the tone and drive the strategy of the company, in addition to creating a culture and filling in the gaps to make sure I guide the team in the right direction,” she insists.
This broad view of her position has, undoubtedly, been influenced by her pivotal role in establishing the business with her father in 1998. “I had worked for a ‘Big Four’ company for two years and my father, who was a banker for 25 years and a former Governor of the Central Bank of Malta, asked if I was interested in setting up the firm. That was 23 years ago,” she smiles, adding that, in those early days, the business had a more limited offering. “We began as a corporate services provider with a ‘private banking approach’ to doing business, due to my father’s decades-long experience in private banking,” she explains.
Today, the company boasts 75 staff members and has widened its remit to include tax, regulatory services, compliance, and guidance with regard to trusts and foundations. The FJVA Group has also expanded overseas, acquiring a 49 per cent stake in a financial services entity in Luxembourg with partners they’ve worked with for many years. “We are not in the business to sell companies. We aim to provide solutions and create value.”
At the helm of the family business, Adriana strives to ensure these solid foundations continue to be built upon in a collaborative way. “I don’t believe anyone works in a silo – the success of the company is that of the team. My father handed the reins over to me in 2019, but, for me, it was never about the title – I’ve been doing my job for 23 years, and I’ll keep on doing it,” she insists. “We pride ourselves on being an independent, private firm, run like a close-knit family company. While, over the years, we’ve opened up opportunities to both family and non-family business partners, we want to retain a family culture, appreciating that everyone has value and a role to play,” Adriana says.
In terms of what she enjoys most about her role as CEO, Adriana explains she loves supporting her team. “If I can have the slightest positive impact on anyone, be it a member of staff or a client, then I’m satisfied. I love to work with the team, open up a dialogue and help them find solutions to challenges. It is this aspect of building relationships that drives me,” she asserts.
It is clear that Adriana’s approach lends to the dynamism of the sector, in which there is a continuous need to “adapt, carry on and stay motivated.” When COVID-19 first hit, the company was quick to move to remote working, and strived to ensure a sense of cohesion within the team. “The pandemic has taught us that it’s not about the resources you have; it’s about your own resourcefulness in using them,” she insists.
This is also crucial in the wake of the ever-increasing regulatory obligations and Malta’s relegation to the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) grey list last year. “The direct effects of Malta being placed on the grey list not only impacts prospective clients considering Malta as a jurisdiction of choice, but also financial institutions refusing to provide funding to Maltese entities. This is a situation being faced by a number of our clients,” Adriana says.
Moreover, she continues, the indirect consequences of Malta’s greylisting cannot be ignored. “The increasing compliance obligations, and their dynamic nature, may not be in sync with clients’ expectations and may be considered intrusive by some, not to mention the increase in costs as well as the difficulty to open a Maltese bank account,” she explains, adding that “some local financial institutions may also be seen as acting as ‘shadow’ directors when considering the level of information they request to process payments.”
The CEO insists that the longer it takes for Malta to get off the FATF’s grey list, the greater the economic impact will be. For Adriana, all players in the industry must work towards re-prioritising ethics and integrity in their working practices. “All players in the industry need to step up the game if we want to re-institute Malta’s reputation as a jurisdiction of repute,” she attests. “Reputation is everything when it comes to financial services. It’s not only a matter of trust between clients and providers, but also in the standards of the particular jurisdiction they’re considering working with.”
Adriana warns against over-regulation, stating that this cannot be used to compensate for “a lack of discipline in other areas,” but admits that she sees the shift in the landscape as constructive. “There are now more entry barriers to setting up business in Malta, which is good from a compliance perspective since we want to project a good image of the island,” she says.
The CEO believes that firms should be attracted to the country not only for its tax advantages – these should just be an “ancillary consideration” – but for the flexibility afforded by the jurisdiction’s corporate law. “Malta is a great place to open a business and entrepreneurs like to make the most of our corporate flexibility. We also have a very good framework for succession planning,” she shares.
Looking ahead, Adriana is focused on “continuing to attract the right business” to Malta throughout 2022, while also working on expanding the company’s clientele and services. “We are convinced we can contribute to reinstating Malta’s reputation,” she attests. “We are also looking at expanding our brand here on the island – we’re never really worked in the local market, so we have plans to branch out into new lines of business.” To this end, the firm has recently implemented an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system to help manage the company’s internal business processes. Adriana shares that she has already seen the positive impact of the ERP on the way the team is working, which bodes well for a productive year ahead.
“Over the years, we’ve remained true to our mission statement, which places mutual growth and success at the heart of what we do,” Adriana smiles. “Part of that is listening to our staff. We are not a top-down company; our team have fantastic ideas and we embrace them so that, moving forward, they feel part of the culture and purpose of the firm.”
This article is part of the serialisation of 50 interviews featured in MaltaCEOs 2022 – an annual high-end publication bringing together some of the country’s most influential business leaders. Featured Image: Bernard Polidano