James Ashton and Cathy Farlam Ashton give us the low-down on moving to Malta; in their case, from South Africa just over a year ago. They arrived with daughter Maddy and dog Bennington in August 2012 after taking a good year out sailing a leisurely round-about route to Malta via the UK and a lot of French canals. Their rather unorthodox arrival in Malta belies the strategic planning that went into their deciding on the islands as a base for both business and home. They run Omnicor, a company devising and running strategic, organisational development tools; its base remains in South Africa but in Malta, they have set up related arms of the business, and are starting a new venture, Talexio, with a local partner.
Intrigued by their story, and keen to pick their brains to help would-be expats moving to Malta, we interviewed Cathy and James over lunch last month at Mint, Sliema, a favourite haunt of expats itself. Now well settled here and with their various businesses growing, the Ashtons have found Malta a good move if not entirely plain sailing from day one, as Cathy explains.
Q. Why Malta? And was it love at first sight?
We’d already taken a year’s sabbatical from our business in South Africa, sailing and home schooling Maddy, before we moved to Malta as part of our journey here. Although Omnicor is thriving in South Africa from its base in Johannesburg, both of us had been thinking for some time about how to grow the business overseas – both in terms of its areas of expertise and markets. We were ready for a change of lifestyle too.
I suppose that Malta ticked a lot of boxes for the regular reasons; an English-speaking country within the European Union and so on, as well as being a fantastic sailing base! We wanted a mild climate that was comparable to that of South Africa and somewhere with a relatively straightforward business set-up climate.
No, Malta wasn’t love at first sight. We had spent a brief week here back in January 2008 and while that’s not necessarily the best time of year to see the country, the issues we had weren’t climate related; it was more a case of our finding the islands very urban, hectic and full of somewhat unappealing architecture. Surprisingly, we didn’t visit again before moving here. So, our first impressions of the place didn’t deter us either. In fact, they were probably a good insight into life here.
With hindsight, I’d say that Malta is a place that takes some getting to know if you are to appreciate what it can offer. Its secrets are on the inside.
Q. In brief, what were the highs and lows of your first year here?
I’ll start with the highs. As I mentioned earlier, Malta needs some peeling back to appreciate. But if you make the effort as a newcomer, then it has its charm and beauty. Its uniqueness lies in the quality of friendships you can make here. In less than a year, I’d say I’ve made friendships as deep and meaningful as any I had in South Africa. There is also a gentle sweetness to life here; it’s a place that retains its traditions and cherishes family life and a certain time-honoured way of doing things that many places have lost sadly.
The lows mainly relate to our daughter’s experience of schooling. I admit that we might not have done our homework on schools here as thoroughly as we should have. We slipped up in our research as we didn’t realise there were two key terms used here – ‘Independent’ and ‘Private’ – when it comes to describing schools. I think we’d have had more to look around if we’d known the right terminology. Overview information on the schooling system seemed difficult to come across.
Maddy spent a year in Senior 4 at the particular private school we chose; the atmosphere was very traditional and the facilities somewhat lacking and it just fell below our criteria of what constitutes an all-round holistic and forward-thinking education. As Maddy, 15, is in the final years to school leaving, we couldn’t risk making another mistake, so she is now at boarding school in South Africa and is happy there although we do miss out on daily family life. Schooling was our major ‘low’ in moving here.
I can’t judge all schools and would advise would-be expats with families to spend time doing extensive research, checklist in hand, when they visit schools. Ask about basics like the school library and whether the school offers extra-curricula facilities such as art, drama and sports clubs. Discuss also with school heads the mix of locals and expats, and how the various cultural backgrounds are catered for and also how parents are involved in and informed about school activities.
Q. Talk us through your business move here, its opportunities and costs.
Omnicor was holding its own in South Africa, where we employ around 25 people. They are a strong and able team and have been running the business there since we left. Our main issue with the business climate in South Africa was that of its insularity; we felt that we needed to grow overseas and needed not just proximity to new markets but also a new lease of life. That said, it isn’t automatic that a Malta-based business expands overseas either. We have learned a lot in the past year in Malta and in order to fulfill our plans we’ve linked up with a local partner on the organisational development side, while James now drives a totally new arm of business to take our HR and coaching interests overseas. We’ve already reaped dividends and are seeing new overseas leads come in. We’ve now business prospects in Chile; something I’d not have thought possible a year ago while in South Africa. Malta does in fact force you to think more entrepreneurially because its local market is so small.
As to business costs, well, while set-up seemed straightforward on paper, we did have a few hiccups. We had some issues with the legal, tax and banking firms and had to shop around a couple of times to find suitable professional partners who understood, pro-actively, what we wanted to achieve. We’d advise businesses moving here to do the same. Banking facilities were slow to start with, but we do understand the need to balance speed with thoroughness. Malta’s need to create a transparent and bona fide business culture meant we experienced some delays on account of the slowness of communication with South African banks and other entities. South Africa remains our main business base, but for opening horizons and diversifying, Malta is proving its worth.
On costs, a final word to say that salaries are low here compared to back home and in most of Europe so as we expand here and take on staff we will enjoy those savings.
Q. A final word: tips and advice
Network like mad when you arrive! Don’t assume that because Malta is small you won’t need to do some good old business networking. Be strategic about it and organised. We joined all sorts of groups, both business and social, ranging from an environmental NGO to a more formal business networking club. Relax and be sociable, and listen to as much advice as you can on the local scene. Go to seminars, conferences, and embassy and cultural groups’ talks and events, whether business related or not. There’s a lot happening in Malta so make the most of it.
One year one, our conclusion would be that Malta has been a good move. Personally, we’d have liked Maddy with us, but she’s happy at her school and has holidays with parents who’ve found a new horizons both socially and in business. All in all, Malta is working well for us.