Carmelo Abela Marketing is one of a shrinking number of local companies that has successfully stood the test of time and the many changes brought with it. Now under the leadership of the third generation, brothers and Directors Steve and Pierre Abela discuss the company’s origins, its evolution and its plans for the future.
To lead a family business with a legacy just 10 years shy of a century is remarkable, and somewhat of a privilege. Throughout its almost 91-year history, Carmelo Abela Marketing has grown steadily and pivoted when it was necessary to do so, to ensure its relevance and survival in an ever-changing business landscape.
Steve and Pierre Abela, Directors of Carmelo Abela Marketing, have been a part of the business since their school days, steadily climbing the ranks over the years to reach the position they have today. However, it was their grandfather, Carmelo Abela, who founded the business in 1932 with a small shop on Old Bakery Street, Valletta. It began by selling essential household goods, and Carmelo’s young wife, Giovanna, would lend a hand in the shop. Within a few years, and with a new location on West Street, they began selling food items, right before the start of World War II.
“Around this time, my grandfather, together with another company, entered the wholesale business. As food was being sold in rations, he saw a better chance of surviving in this line of business,” says Steve. “He would deliver staple foods, such as flour, rice and oil, with a horse and cart to the grocery shops. After a few years, he parted ways with the other company and continued the wholesale business alone.”
Carmelo and Giovanna Abela had two sons – the eldest, John, who would spend his time going around the shops to sell products after school or during holidays, and Joseph, Steve and Pierre’s father, who also joined the business once he came of age.
Between the late 1950s and early 1960s, the company underwent one of its first major changes, when it moved on from being a wholesale distributor to becoming an importer. “My uncle was noticing that, although the company had a good clientele, importers were going directly to the shops to sell their products, and so he saw the need for Carmelo Abela to start importing too,” says Steve.
“He presented the idea to my grandfather, and while it wasn’t easy, he eventually convinced him to move forward in this direction. The first consignment that Carmelo Abela imported was rice in 50 kilo bags, and they sold it all before it even arrived in Malta. This gave them the confidence that they were on the right path.”
The company re-located again within the capital, to East Street, and here, business flourished, with Carmelo Abela soon becoming the exclusive distributor of the foods it imported, supplying both wholesalers and retail shops under the leadership of the second generation, Carmelo’s sons. “I joined the company around this time and started working at East Street, while my brother joined five years later,” says Steve. They both worked their way through every level of the company – loading trucks, cleaning stores, as messengers to deliver documents to the bank and customs, as cashiers, sales persons, sales managers and, eventually, directors.
As the business continued to grow, it moved out from Valletta with a team of around seven workers, to Marsa, where the staff complement grew to around 15 people. By 1992, the third-generation brothers became shareholders in the business after buying and splitting their uncle’s 50 per cent share, while their father owned the rest.
“In 1995, following health complications, my father wanted to put his mind at rest that the business was settled between us, so we bought his share and became sole shareholders of the company with 50 per cent each,” says Steve. “Today, we are based in Mriehel and, together with another company, MacBake Importers, who we joined forces with, we have a team of around 80 dedicated people.”
Upon becoming shareholders in the business in 1992, Steve and Pierre saw its future heading in a new, different direction – which led to another of the company’s milestones. “During this time, we were still dealing with bulk products, selling 50 kilo bags of rice, five kilo tins of anchovies, and so on. We forecasted that, within a few years, the food business, in retail and other areas, would move into branded, prepacked products. From that point onwards, we searched for reputable brands and products to sell in Malta, rather than selling by weight,” they explain.
Their foresight certainly paid off. Today, Carmelo Abela’s portfolio of products has grown to include an extensive variety of widely known food and beverage brands, including Mutti (tomatoes), Parmalat (dairy products), Bonduelle (canned vegetables), Monini (olive oil), Parmareggio (Parmigiano Reggiano), Casa Modena (Italian cold meat cuts), Wyke Farms (cheddar) and Foxy (paper products).
The Directors explain that, before the internet, they would generally discover new products during commercial breaks on Italian television channels. “I would write a name of a product on a piece of paper, look it up, find an address, write to the owners and travel to meet them. Once there, we had to persuade them that we were the right partner for them to do business with.”
The company’s longevity is not a matter of chance. Over the years, and especially since getting into the driving seat, Steve and Pierre have focused on lifting the company’s products range to offer only the best to their clients, coupled with an excellent service.
“Today, alongside supplying retail shops, which includes supermarkets and convenience shops, we also supply food service providers – hotels, restaurants and coffee shops – which have exploded in recent years. As Carmelo Abela, we guarantee the delivery of goods within 24 hours of receiving an order from any client in Malta and Gozo, be it in ambient, chilled or frozen temperatures, including on weekends for urgent orders. We believe this gives us an edge in our field.”
Another factor that has contributed to the company’s success is its people, without whom the company wouldn’t be where it is today. “Our people are a part of the Carmelo Abela family and this is how it has always been for us, even today, with a larger number of employees than when we started out,” says Pierre. “In addition, my brother and I experienced every level of employment in the company so we understand all our workers well.”
Pierre adds that, having met and done business with most of their clients since their time working in sales, their relationship is based on a history of mutual trust and respect. “My brother and I would meet shop and supermarket owners in person to tell them about new products, and over the course of many years, we became friends. Unfortunately, we don’t have the time to do this now but our sales team does a great job of keeping us in the loop about new developments. Knowing what’s going on around us is crucial to staying on top of the game.”
Sharing fond memories of their earliest years lending a hand in the business, the Directors say they were both very close to their grandfather, often spending weekends with him, learning the ropes and playing on his farm – especially Steve, who is the elder of the two. “I can say that a lot of what I learnt in my youth, I learnt from him: the discipline of sleeping early to wake up early, going to mass every day before work, not smoking and drinking, even though my grandfather did! I’m nearly 60, and I still wake up earlier than I need to,” says Steve. “He doesn’t hear mass every day anymore though,” chimes Pierre, poking fun at his brother.
Working with their grandfather was a highlight of their childhood. Then, as the brothers got older, Carmelo took a step back from the business due to age, and they worked under the supervision of their father and uncle. Now, the Directors are pleased to see fourth-generation family members participate in the business. “Both our sons have been employed with Carmelo Abela for a few years now, and of course it is our hope that they, along with the rest of our children when they come of age, will continue taking the business forward.”
Since those early years, suffice to say that the local business landscape has changed considerably, and the challenges businesses face today are ever increasing. One challenge that Pierre singles out in his sector is parallel trading in retail, where local supermarkets import their own brands, while foreign supermarkets don’t buy anything at all from local importers. “There’s no doubt it has become harder to survive but, remarkably, we’re still growing, and we still have that hunger and drive to grow our business.”
Steve adds that the business is constantly changing and the secret to staying in the game, for any business and not just theirs, is to be flexible, open to change and not get stuck in their comfort zone. “We’re often told by the team that they’re amazed at how enthusiastic my brother and I are about work. It’s normal to start slowing down at our age, but we are still as excited by new opportunities and new business now as we were years ago.”
Looking ahead to the new year, the Directors are keen to mark the company’s 90th anniversary with the kind of recognition and celebration that it truly deserves. “We will be hosting a gala dinner in June 2023 and inviting our suppliers, most of which are also family-run businesses who we have a long history with. It would be a memorable experience to host them here, all together, once in our lifetime,” say Steve and Pierre.
“We are also looking forward to starting works on our new, state-of-the-art premises in Bulebel. This, we hope, will be our final move, which should be completed within two years. What we can say with certainty is that it will be an exciting and busy year for us and Carmelo Abela Marketing.”
This feature was first published in Business Now winter 2022/2023 magazine, the sister brand to BusinessNow.mt, both produced by Content House Group
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