Twenty-five years can make quite a difference. In 1988, Melo Hili was running Motherwell Bridge, intent of making the business grow. Now, he sits in a corner office in the extensive Hili headquarters, at the helm of an enterprise active in 12 countries that employs 3,000 people. That’s right, 3,000. Half of them in the Baltics.

His brothers have all moved on, leaving him in charge of the family business, which was founded in 1923.

“Marin already had a separate company, Mariner, which he now owns completely. Hili Ventures is owned by me and Beppe, who decided to retire last January,” he said. His brother Paul moved aside some time ago.

“Although it is a family business we prefer to see it as a business owned by a family, rather than managed by one. In fact, I am the only one of the family that works in it today,” Mr Hili explained.

“The changes brought about the creation of Hili Ventures, which employs just a handful of people, but which then gathers beneath it the three main areas of business: logistics and IT; property; and restaurants. These have been entrusted to 12 managing directors – none of whom are family – and non-executives have been brought on to the boards, including Fimbank boss Margrith Lutschg Emmenegger and former minister Austin Gatt.

“Each and every person has a lot of knowledge in the area in which they operate while the non-execs have the bigger picture outside the island,” he said, adding that people were given plenty of career growth opportunities.

“We have over 300 people in management alone, a lot of whom are real success stories, people who joined as trainees some years ago and who are now managing directors.”

Another development arising from the restructuring is the setting up of Hili Properties Ltd, which will take over the group’s various properties in the near future, with a chief executive soon to be named. The intention is to exploit them for the group’s own use as well as to offer them to commercial clients. And the group also plans to acquire sites like office blocks – not only in Malta but also in Central and Eastern Europe, and in the Baltics – refurbishing them and renting them out to create cash flow.

“It could be quite a substantial part of the business, although it won’t have as many employees as the other divisions have,” Mr Hili said.

The take-over of Philip Toledo boosted an activity which was already under way with the setting up of the Hili Salomone joint venture some years ago. The latter had partnered the Salomone’s knowledge of Apple with the Hili expertise in operating overseas, and has already resulted in three Apple stores in Hungary and one in Romania, with two more planned in Romania next year.

Philip Toledo also came with considerable expertise, accumulated since it was set up in 1946. It too, however, had little overseas experience and Mr Hili saw it as “something we believe very much can help us grow in the future”.

“We are trying to take the company outside the island and already have a set-up in the Middle East, primarily focusing on retail. We are doing some work in the banking sector in Libya,” he said.

Is it too early to venture back to Libya?

“I think the jury is still out. We need to see whether it is the right time or not. We had some successes last year and recently won an order. So we are treading cautiously but believe there is scope for expansion,” he said.

The other side of this division is Mr Hili’s original ‘baby’, Motherwell Bridge, which did almost exclusively fabrication work for the first decade, manufacturing in the workshop and exporting to the Middle East.

“If you look at the model now it is the reverse. We probably have about 90 per cent construction and maintenance and 10 per cent which is fabrication. We have a major partner in container handling equipment, Kone Cranes, and do a lot of erection work for them in Spain and Oman, and in Abu Dhabi this month. And we are looking for opportunities around the Mediterranean and Africa,” he said.

A recent addition to the logistics division is a freight forwarding business in Lithuania, a model which they are planning to replicate in Belarus.

“The trucking business is a start-up operation but it has potential to grow as there are strong connections with Russia and Lithuania and we can use it across other countries like Germany,” he explained.

From Motherwell Bridge, Mr Hili had taken over Premier Capital, the licensee for McDonald’s, whose reins he has now passed over to Bertrand Attard.

The operations in the Baltics and Greece are growing steadily, with 31 outlets in the former and 20 in the latter, with a few added every year. Premier Capital is definitely open to the idea of new territories but Mr Hili admitted that this was not that easy and few were available. In the meantime, it is also investing in Malta, with the Sliema Ferries outlet opened last May and plans to open in Naxxar in the second quarter of next year.

Running a business across 12 countries takes its toll and he travels three weeks out of every four but he has no intention of slowing down. Where does he see himself – and the group – in 10 years’ time?

“I think we will have a much stronger business, more international than now. We are looking at acquisitions in the fields where we are active, primarily overseas but also local. Abroad opportunities are much bigger. We are looking at Eastern Europe as one of the mainstays of the organisation – for the next few years anyway – all the way from Estonia to Turkey!

“With regards to myself, the board and I have an open mind about the future. It is probably rather early to say whether the person who takes over should be a part of the family or not. It depends how good the people are and we have an excellent pool to choose from.”

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