Joseph Portelli keeps a very low profile but his name is very synonymous with the construction sector. He sits for an interview with Mark Laurence Zammit on top of the highest building in Malta, Mercury Towers, his most ambitous project yet to discuss construction, money, his relationship with politicians and Ħamrun Spartans.
MLZ: We are on top of Mercury Tower. It’s beautiful up here, but when you look at it from street level, don’t you think it ruins Malta’s skyline?
JP: No, on the contrary. This is a special and unique tower. A city is built with projects like this. Take Portomaso. It made St Julian’s what it is today, and Mercury Towers will carry that legacy forward. It is built in a zone which is designated for it. A hundred years from now, Mercury, Portomaso and Pender won’t be the only towers here. I believe there will be 50 more towers here.
MLZ: Is that a good thing, though?
JP: Why not? It means that buildings which have been occupying so much space will be demolished to make way for projects which will open up 50 per cent of land to the public.
MLZ: How are they going to open public spaces if they will be developed by business people like you?
JP: I have not built the entire area. Out of the 10,400 square metres we have here, 5,000 square metres will be an open public space. I don’t think we blocked anyone’s view.
MLZ: Well, you did block views. You blocked all of these people’s views here.
JP: Not only did we not block their view, we have given them one. Do you know what it’s like to wake up to the view of a Zaha Hadid tower instead of the view of another apartment block?
MLZ: Hang on... they will wake up to the view of the tower instead of the sea.
JP: No, nobody has a view of the sea here, because every building is six floors high, so everyone sees apartment blocks wherever they live. If they had a sea view I would have agreed with you, but they didn’t. It’s the people living on the very edge that have a sea view. Not only have we not blocked their view, but because of this tower, the values of their properties have risen now. I wouldn’t say they doubled the price, but almost.
MLZ: Be honest, you wanted to build the tallest tower in Malta, no?
JP: No, no. I’ve had a long-time dream of building a tower. It wasn’t necessarily to build the tallest one. But after building many apartment blocks, I wanted a challenge like this. But if I were to go back five years, I don’t think I’d do it again. Believe me.
MLZ: If you had to start over you wouldn’t do it?
JP: I wouldn’t even dream it. Because had I done smaller projects, I would have earned way more money with way less stress and negative media coverage. Why does anyone need to go through that?
MLZ: I find it hard to believe you won’t build more towers. You are an ambitious man...
JP: No, wait. I said I wouldn’t have built a tower if I knew what I was going into five years ago. Back then, I knew nothing about building towers and I had to learn it all. But now that I know, building another tower would be easier. If I get another opportunity, I would build another one.
MLZ: Where will you build other towers?
JP: In areas designated to towers, obviously. I won’t build a tower in Gozo, or in Rabat. Towers are most suited for St Julian’s, maybe Sliema, Qawra...
MLZ: You are aiming to bring high-paying tourists to the country. But is this the only way we can attract tourists? Why does economic growth have to rely on rampant construction? Why can’t we be like Sicily, Cyprus, Crete and other islands? They’re not facing a building frenzy and yet they attract many tourists.
JP: Because we don’t have the land. If we weren’t as densely populated, low buildings spread over acres of land, with endless amenities and communal pools, would be beautiful. But where can you do that in Malta? Only on ODZ land, and that wouldn’t be right. We cannot afford to lose the little green land we have left.
Malta needs 100 more years of construction
MLZ: I agree with you, but this is where people are right, in my opinion. The buildings for rich people are beautiful, but the apartment blocks most ‘common’ people buy are simply concrete blocks stacked on top of each other. Look at Xlendi, for example. It’s just concrete boxes overlooking the sea.
JP: I don’t agree. In Xlendi we don’t have poor designs. They’re actually quite pricey because they’re seafront.
MLZ: They’re still ugly, though.
JP: Maybe you don’t like them, but they’re not ugly. In Xlendi, the authorities have been permitting high buildings for a long time. We only did what the policy permitted us and many others before us to do. We couldn’t build low buildings in an area already choked with high buildings. And nobody would. If you were in my position and you could build seven storeys, would you build just three or four? It makes no sense.
Maybe the authorities should have planned a waterfront with low buildings a long time ago. I would have been happy to conform to that, but they can’t do that now. Our apartaments in Xlendi are very nice. We’ve invested more to build better-looking balconies and façades. Talk to me after you see the finished project, God willing.
MLZ: Is Malta built yet? How long do we need to keep building?
JP: Malta needs 100 more years of construction.
MLZ: One hundred years?
JP: Of course.
MLZ: Who is buying all these apartments?
JP: I say, we don’t have enough apartments.
MLZ: We don’t have enough?
JP: I sell 80 per cent of all my apartments on plan.
MLZ: But you already said we are densely populated, why do we need more apartments? Aren’t you adding to the problem?
JP: We need to plan better infrastructure. Look at the new flyovers in the south, for instance; improved infrastructure will help us deal with the challenges more effectively.
MLZ: So we build higher, uglier buildings?
JP: No, but what are the government’s options? Do we build on ODZ? I’m against that.
MLZ: Have you ever built on ODZ land?
JP: No, never.
MLZ: Do you own land on ODZ?
JP: I am rehabilitating a beautiful garden in Gozo right now. Ten years ago I renovated the Ħal-Sagħtrija garden. I do renovate land, but it never occurs to me to build on ODZ. Let me bring up a case which the Times wrote a lot about two years ago. It’s about a small house I had applied to restore in Qala. Part of it was on ODZ land and many people in my situation applied and got permits to develop their bits of land. However, following an uproar in the media, the Qala mayor and some people, I renounced the permit. It was a €450,000 piece of land. I had every right for the permit, like all the others, but I refused it. Because I didn’t want the negative coverage.
MLZ: How much money do you have?
JP: I’d say I don’t have money because I reinvest all of it. I’m 44 years old, I’ve been in the business for 25 years and I don’t think I was ever cash rich because I’ve always reinvested and risked everything again. Like I did here, with this tower. I risked more than what I have with this tower.
MLZ: Do you know your net worth?
JP: I don’t know and I don’t want to know.
MLZ: You genuinely don’t know?
JP: Yes. Otherwise I would tell you, I don’t have anything to hide. Do you believe me if I tell you that money is not important to me?
MLZ: No I don’t. Your projects are money machines.
JP: Alright, they may be, but you have to consider what I do with the money. I reinvest it and I finance projects in Maltese NGOs and in third world countries. One day maybe I’ll be cash rich, and then I’d be able to help even more people. Because I like it a lot. I would like to help more NGOs. I don’t have money, but what I have is valuable. If I were rich, I wouldn’t have loans. When I pay off all loans, then you could say I’m rich, and then I’ll buy an international football team. But not for now.
MLZ: What sort of relationship do you have with politicians?
JP: I meet with them frequently.
MLZ: Do you need them to favour you in some way?
JP: Before I plan large-scale projects I meet with politicians to propose my projects to them and understand what they want for the country. If my proposals do not match their vision for Malta, then I put my plans aside and do something else. It makes no financial sense for me to invest heavily in plans for large-scale projects which the government does not want.
Let’s take Jerma. If the government had told me it wants the Jerma site to be turned into a garden, I wouldn’t have spent more than half a million euro in plans and designs for my project. And I speak with the Opposition as well.
MLZ: But why do you go to politicians for this?
JP: To speed up the process. I go to them to argue for my rights. They don’t always agree, and when they don’t, I say ‘thank you’ and walk away. I used to feel upset when I was younger, but not anymore.
MLZ: Do you donate to political parties?
JP: You can’t donate the amounts of money that people think we do. There are laws. But yes, we do help them. Out of respect. And we help both parties...
MLZ: So whichever one of them is in government helps you...
JP: Yes. I need them to help me. If they don’t want to, then it’s fine. The day a government tells me my projects aren’t needed for the country anymore, I will back out, cash my money and do something else with my life. It will be a loss for me, yes, but it will also be... well... I won’t say it will be a loss for Malta, because who am I to say I’ll be a loss for Malta? But it will be a pity to lose all those jobs. I just hope someone else will take my place, because it is needed for the country.
The day a government tells me my projects aren’t needed for the country anymore, I will back out
MLZ: Some people say the Planning Authority approves your permits quicker.
JP: I wish. People don’t know how many of our applications are rejected. We’re actually a little hurt, because we had wonderful projects which were rejected. With the planning authority, it depends on how responsive and cooperative the architects are with the authorities. If they are, then the permits are issued quicker. And we are very strict with our architects, which explains maybe why some of our permits are issued slightly earlier. But it’s not because I speak to someone to get my way. Forget it. The rules are what they are.
MLZ: Times of Malta had revealed chats between Yorgen Fenech and then planning authority chief Johann Buttigieg. In the chats, Fenech tells Buttigieg that you were indebted to him and they discuss what Fenech can take from you. What is that story?
JP: I couldn’t believe that news. I knew Yorgen Fenech’s father way more than I knew Yorgen. Way back, I wanted to buy the Halland Hotel from his father but he never sold it to me. I met Yorgen a few times during my negotiations with his father, and that’s it. I met Yorgen Fenech maybe four times at most in my whole life. So when those chats were revealed I was surprised, because we never harmed one another.
MLZ: Did you ever do business with Yorgen Fenech?
JP: No, never.
MLZ: It was also rumoured that you had ties with John Dalli.
JP: Sixteen years ago I had knocked on his door to tell him I wanted to develop projects in Libya. Shortly afterwards invited me to go with him on a trip to Libya to meet with people who would be interested in my projects. That’s how I know him. Today, his daughter works for us as a CFO and she’s brilliant. But some people say that he’s my business partner...
MLZ: Is that true?
JP: Forget it. None of it is. I have never done business with John Dalli.
MLZ: I heard you’re going to build a stadium in Ħamrun (Portelli is the club president).
JP: I can’t wait.
MLZ: Is it true?
JP: Of course. I have been arguing with politicians over it.
MLZ: Why with politicians?
JP: Because I don’t want to wait another five years to begin, I would like to begin tomorrow, if it were possible.
MLZ: What are you planning to build?
JP: A new ground. It will be modern and designed to create an appropriate income for the club. Right now I fork out €1.5 million yearly to win a league and we barely make one million.
MLZ: Ħamrun Spartans costs you €1.5 million yearly?
JP: Of course.
MLZ: What do you get out of it?
JP: Nothing, but it’s worth every penny.
MLZ: But you’re losing money...
JP: It’s the best money I’ve spent in my whole life. I wish I had a larger budget, six or seven million. I don’t have that money so I want to build a project which would make the club self-sustainable.
MLZ: So you don’t make money from the Ħamrun team?
JP: No, on the contrary, I found debts. But let me tell you, I never want to earn money from Ħamrun.
MLZ: Your business expanded so fast, somebody must have helped you.
JP: Nobody, really. My father spent 17 years working in Canada to raise my sister and myself. We weren’t well-off, but my parents taught us the best values. I dropped out of school early, but returned a year later and took over the school’s canteens. That was my first business. I made a lot of money for my age. I bought an apartment and a garage, converted them into a mini market, sold it and that’s how I started to grow. I am where I am today because I was willing to take a lot of risks. A lot.
Watch the interview online on Times of Malta