Before Malta sold a third of its energy provider, Enemalta, to China’s Shanghai Electric, it hived off its petroleum division to another company, Enemed, which is today a ubiquitous sight on Maltese roads thanks to a growing network of franchised fuel stations.

The change was more than cosmetic, bringing with it the adoption of a commercial mindset that has been crucial to the company's development.

Speaking to, Kevin Chircop, who has led Enemed since 2015, says that being a distinct company rather than a division within a larger corporation brought many advantages.

“There is a big difference between an organisation of 1,800 people and one of 150 people. It is like that between a large or small family – it is a lot easier to maintain effective discipline and have a homogenous culture in a small one,” he says.

He adds that the stereotype of the entitled Government employee was “somewhat correct”, aggravated by the mentality that being part of the nation’s critical infrastructure meant each worker was indispensable.

“People were used to getting what they wanted, regardless of whether they were actually entitled to it or not,” he says, though he makes it clear that this was already much reduced by 2015.

Similarly, capital investment was often lacking. Mr Chircop describes much of the equipment used by the company as “a product from half a century go”, with all the personal and environmental risks that go with it.

Here, again, he is careful to avoid putting blame on previous administrations, saying that although Government was often more keen to dedicate large sums to electricity than to fuel provision, all the equipment used by Enemed and its predecessor was very well-maintained.

“Still,” he smiles, “having a modern computerised system with thousands of sensors capable of monitoring the environment on a molecular level installed everywhere, and of shutting down without manual intervention in the case of danger, is a tremendous improvement.”

This ties in to Mr Chircop’s efforts to instil a culture of continuous improvement in the company, something that larger countries often resort to privatisation to accomplish. Malta’s small size, however, limits its potential for investment.

“Abroad, it can make sense to have open competition to allow consumers to benefit from efficiency gains,” says Mr Chircop, “but having more than one company in a small market like ours makes no sense as sales would be too low to recover investment costs.”

The task, then, was to somehow get a state company to start taking commercial operations seriously. “I always insist on this, with workers, management and other stakeholders, that although we are a state-owned company, we must take the perspective of a private one. Just because our shareholder is the Government does not mean we should not seek to deliver the best performance possible.”

Perhaps counter-intuitively, one way Enemed was able to encourage a commercial mindset in its employees was through the introduction of a union, which Mr Chircop credits for “bridging the gap” between workers and management.

He explains that his slant of corporate perspective is the product of his 18 years with Baxter Healthcare, an American multinational with a longstanding presence in Malta.

“As a global company with plants in 62 countries, during my time there I worked with a diversity of cultures and work methods, but most of all, I learned from their way of valuing employees. The employee is not just someone who earns you money. The employee is someone without whom the company wouldn’t even exist.”

He says that when a company is trusting workers with expensive and potentially dangerous equipment, “it would be crazy” not to extend that trust to other areas.

“If I am trusting you to drive a specialised bowser worth a quarter of a million, how can I not trust you to be responsible? If I am trusting you to certify the quality of a product that will fuel aircraft, how can I not trust you to say the truth?”

Mr Chircop adds that it takes time for management to gain workers’ trust, but “when it gives them what is theirs by right without them having to ask for it, when it is fair and just in discipline and promotion, when there is transparency about how well the company is doing or otherwise… trust grows automatically”.

Central to the reconciliation of management’s and employees’ interests is the union, which can “speak to workers in their own language”, as Mr Chircop puts it.

The General Workers Union was key to Enemed’s roadmap through the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw its revenues take a nosedive. By being transparent, the company was able to retain its entire workforce despite, as a state company, being ineligible for Government assistance.

It did so by assigning its employees to alternative tasks, capitalising on the trust gained in more successful years and negotiating working arrangements that were perceived to be fair by all.

“We are proud to say that the people working with us cooperated. They gave up allowances and bonuses, gave up their job and did other activities so that company keeps going,” says Mr Chircop. “If the collective agreement stated that a worker should get a shift allowance but the task they were reassigned to did not operate on a shift basis, they did not stamp their feet and demand it. It was a collective, collaborative effort.”

Looking forward, Enemed is currently beefing up its standards by securing ISO certification and onboarding a new procurement system used, among others, by the UK’s defence ministry. Smaller purchases now also need to be co-signed, effectively limiting the CEO’s powers.

“The mentality we are trying to instil is one where we do things as we are supposed to, not because an audit is coming or for any external reason, but because that is simply what we do. We want to go beyond legal requirements and set higher standards as part of our culture. We want to be the benchmark for excellence.”

The drive for continuous improvement, Mr Chircop points out, reaps rewards in times of hardship, as shown during the pandemic. “It leaves you prepared for all eventualities,” he argues.

Ultimately, it’s all about providing customers with bang for their buck.

“The consumer pays good money for fuel,” says Mr Chircop. “So it’s only fair that we provide a fair product for a fair price.”

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Written By

Robert Fenech

Robert is curious about the connections that make the world work, and takes a particular interest in the confluence of economy, environment and justice. He can also be found moonlighting as a butler for his big black cat.