50 Business Leaders series
For many second-generation owners, getting involved in the family business when the time is right is somewhat of a no-brainer. For Andre and Nicholai Grech, Managing Partners at Mirachem Marketing Ltd, each of their journeys into the business was different – as was the business itself – slowly becoming indistinguishable from the humble import company their father started in the mid 1980s.
For Andre, the older of the two, the relationship with Mirachem finds its roots right at the start. “I was eight years old, sitting at the kitchen table in our old apartment in Guardamangia. I still remember the day as if it were yesterday – my dad was deciding on what to name his very first product, a locally produced detergent,” he recalls, smiling.
And from day one, Andre wanted to help, even selling the detergent to teachers at his school. “I would say that I was born into it. From when I was very young, I was excited about the idea of having a family business.”
Then, at the age of 20, he joined the company full-time. “From then on, my focus was on building a name for the company. In those days, people knew us more for the products we represented, so my goal was to figure out how to get Mirachem, the name of the company, out there,” he says.
For Nicholai, the more rebellious of the brothers, the journey into the family business wasn’t as black and white. “To be honest, when I was at Junior College, joining my father’s company was not something I saw myself doing,” he reveals, admitting that working there over the summer holidays hadn’t left the best impression on him.
“I just didn’t enjoy it,” he adds, though this also had a lot to do with his father’s ‘tough love’ approach. “As a kid, knowing that your father is the boss, your instinct is to get other people to do the difficult stuff for you. My father did the total opposite of that. But even though I hated it at the time, it helped me not have that sense of entitlement.”
Then, when it came to furthering his studies, Nicholai’s rebellious streak saw him drop out, and instead of going to university, he chose to join the family business – albeit on his own terms. “With everything I had learned along the way, I begun to think, let’s improve on the things I don’t like rather than just say I don’t like them,” he says. And with that, he joined forces with his brother to breathe new life into Mirachem.
A crucial chapter in the company’s history came about when Andre and Nicholai’s father left the company. “He retired very early, after turning 50. At that stage, we were in the driving seat. If there was a product we wanted to import, we just did it. We made a lot of mistakes, but made some great decisions too,” Nicholai says.
“We were these two guys in their 20s, roaming around the international trade fairs and shows, focused on making a name for ourselves by representing important brands – first within the toiletry and household business, and eventually venturing into wine,” Andre continues, recalling a pivotal decision that would help the brothers put Mirachem on the map.
“One of the main things that really helped put us where we are today within the wine industry was a decision we made in 2004, when wine levies were removed. We decided to start selling the wines at post-EU prices six months prior to entering the EU, paying the levy ourselves and not charging it to our customers. This way, we were making Italian wines available at the price of local ones. It was a big risk for two kids who were just entering the wine industry, when not even the biggest players were doing it,” he says, adding, “we came in and hit the market hard, so from day one, we were in amongst the biggest players.”
More pivotal moments would follow, with the business being entrusted with the distribution of several important brands. One the pair highlight as being particularly important came about in 2005 – Albert Bichot, which continues to be one of their top brands today.
Recalling how it began, Nicholai explains how the brothers went out for lunch one day and saw a bottle that hadn’t been on the market for some time at the restaurant they were eating at. “We asked about it, and were told they don’t bring that wine anymore, which was a shame, because it was so good. So, after lunch, we went to the office, literally drunk because we had wine over lunch, and sent the winemaker an email. They replied that we were the second Maltese company who had approached them that week, so I called Andre and told him I was booking flights to Burgundy. This was on a Friday. The following Monday, we were there.”
“The way the wine industry works is through connections and growing your network,” he continues, so taking over the distribution of Albert Bichot was an important step for the company. “They had great connections, and through them, we made our own connections with important players in the field.”
Looking back on those early days, Nicholai continues, “one of the good things we had in the industry is that we stood out. I remember when we were attending our first fairs in 2004, I was just 23 years old, and Andre was 28. We had the energy of youth, and when we sat down with these big names, we sold our energy – it was the only thing we had. As we developed relationships, these huge wine makers became father figures to us, and sometimes, they even went out of their way to help us grow.”
Since then, the brothers agree that the local industry has changed a lot – from the type and quality of wine people seek to its accessibility. “Today, everyone drinks wine – the people we employ in our restaurants, as young as 18 years old, are very much into wine. When we started out, those who really knew about wine were generally at least in their 40s,” explains Nicholai, adding that the market has also become very aggressive. “Competition is intense, and people are a lot more knowledgeable, which affects the market a lot. Over the past few years, internationally, wine has become more accessible.”
And with this changing landscape, growth and reinvention is necessary to stay ahead of the game. For Mirachem, that has meant venturing into the catering industry and opening their first restaurant, Fernando Gastrotheque.
Reflecting on this decision, Andre explains, “we have been suppliers for many years, and we were seeing gaps in the market. We would travel and see what different restaurants were doing – serving particular wines in specific wine glasses for example, or serving a variety of wines by the glass; restaurants with vast wine lists… and we wanted to bring this to the local market. We wanted a place where we could have everything working together, and finally, we wanted others to follow suit, so as to make Malta a hub for these great dining experiences.”
“Our idea when we opened Fernando was not to open a restaurant – it was actually a sales pitch,” Nicholai continues. “We wanted to find a way to promote our products in the best environment. In fact, initially, we weren’t looking for a restaurant, but a wine boutique, and things developed from there.”
Of course, if you’re going to do it, he says, then you’ve got to do it right – and so they did. So right, in fact, that the restaurant earned a Michelin Star this year.
Last year also saw the opening of their second restaurant, Onella, where the brothers – with the help of their younger sister Janika who recently joined the family business – continue to work hard to raise the standard, and they’re far from finished. “We have also signed the lease on a new place that used to be the Naxxar Football Club, which will feature a hybrid of a cafe and wine concept, and which should open in 2024. We also have another project – a new wine boutique – coming up, so we are quite busy!”
And with so much going on, effective leadership is key. Reflecting on the qualities of a good business leader, Nicholai points to his sports background as his inspiration.
“I play rugby, and it has given me a lot of of insight into how I like to be led, and, when I had the opportunity to lead, what I should do. I think the most cliche saying is to lead by example, but it is the truth. I used to tell my team, ‘I’m ready to put my head where you wouldn’t put your leg.’ A leader must inspire others. You must be the kind of person that others want to follow. You also must build confidence in your team and give them positive feedback,” he affirms.
Andre also draws on his own experiences for his leadership style. “Having entered the business first, I got to see my father being ‘a boss’. I never liked the idea of that. Today, our staff are our friends, our extended family, and of course, in every family there must be that person that takes the reins. As a leader, it’s important to get your team to embrace your ideas and move forward with them together. You should never take people for granted. I also believe in being positive – I try to find the good in everyone, and that’s how you can help people to evolve.”
This interview forms part of the 50 Business Leaders project. The new online serialisation on MaltaCEOs.mt will feature 50 distinguished business leaders, CEOs, and emerging business minds to create debate and encourage business leaders to share their journey with our readers. View full article here.