Anton Camilleri, often known by his family nickname, Tal-Franċiż, prefers to stay away from the limelight. That is where he gets work done.
So it was something of a surprise when he accepted to answer a set of questions that sought to shed light on one of the most talked about developers in recent years, thanks to his massive Villa Rosa development at St George’s Bay.
The development is designed by acclaimed Dutch architecture studio UNStudio, and will include two towers of 27 and 34 storeys hosting 789 services apartments, 247 hotel rooms and 16,000sqm of office space, according to revised plans submitted earlier in 2023. The hotel and serviced apartments are projected to host some 24,000 visitors to Malta every year.
The development of high-rise towers means that part of the 50,000sqm site will need to be left as open space accessible to the public, including an 11,000sqm terraced square and extensive gardens covering some 18,000sqm.
But before delving further into what is expected to be one of Malta's largest ever real estate projects, in our interview conducted via email, Mr Camilleri, for the first time, presents his story in his own words.
The ‘Tal-Franċiż’ monicker has always been something of a curiosity. Asked about its origins, Mr Camilleri says that family tradition has it that the nickname goes back to the time of the French occupation of Malta (1798-1800).
“One of my relatives had joined the French army. Upon his eventual return home, he knocked at the door, wearing his French uniform, and his mother refused to let him in because she didn’t recognise him. She only believed he was her son when he showed her a unique beauty spot he had. From then on, the family became known as ‘Tal-Franċiż’.”
There is not much by way of publicly available information about him, apart from his role as a council member of the Malta Developers Association. The AC Group website simply mentions that his father, who was involved in aircraft maintenance with the British Navy, always dreamed of opening his own business. But how did he land on quarrying?
“My father,” says Mr Camilleri, “was encouraged to get into the quarry business by his father-in-law who was a good businessman himself. Both my parents were from Mqabba, which was a quarrying town and this industry was booming at the time. He used to like this industry, so it was a natural choice to get into this business.”
The developer reports being close to his father, from whom he says he learned the importance of never giving up and always looking forward. “’There is always a solution,’ he liked to say.”
However, when Mr Camilleri was still at a tender age, tragedy struck. His father got sick, leaving it up to him, as the eldest son, to step up to the plate and run his quarry business aged just 12.
At the time the operation had five employees, obviously all older than the boy who was now set to lead them, but Mr Camilleri asserts that he immediately gained their respect.
Although work at the quarry was tough, he preferred the physical labour to school. He also notes that feeling the weight of responsibility at such a young age helped him develop resilience, with some guidance from family: “I developed thick skin and a strong stomach, which both proved very useful for business moving forward. My maternal grandfather pushed me to work with my head, not just my hands. And in fact, I was able to get my first loan at age 19.”
From quarrying, Mr Camilleri turned his eye to property development: “The property business has always intrigued me. There is big satisfaction to bringing your vision to life,” he says. “The quarry business, which is a very tough business, prepared me for some of the toughest moments in property. It also exposed me to people in development and certain aspects about building materials and costs.”
The decision to go into property turned out to be lucrative for Mr Camilleri, and he credits that nose for opportunity for his success. “You have to stay one step ahead to be successful,” he says.
Nice words, but that is easier said than done. When asked what advice he would give to aspiring entrepreneurs, he says that the younger generation must realise that success does not come overnight. “It takes a lot of sacrifice, hard work and risks. But it is not impossible. If you have the right sense of commitment, you can succeed.”
That passion for business comes at a cost, however, and Mr Camilleri is frank about the impact this had on his family: “One of my biggest regrets is that I worked so hard to provide for my family that I spent the first part of my children’s lives not even getting to know them. I only developed a relationship with my children when they started working with me.”
There was a time when the business operated as Camilleri Brothers, with Mr Camilleri alongside his brother Charles Camilleri. He explains that although the pair started in business together, “we eventually decided to part ways and work separately – it’s a question of different priorities and ideas.”
The break seems to be a matter of taking the decision to work alone on new projects – in fact, the Malta Business Registry still lists them as join shareholders in a number of enterprises.
Charles Camilleri is currently developing the site of the former Mistra Village in Xemxija, although the project’s future is in questions as the Court recently ordered the planning tribunal to re-assess the permit in light of current policies.
Turning to the reason for Mr Camilleri’s recent foray into the limelight, the Villa Rosa project promises to bring “unparalleled quality to a prime area of land” on the edge of Paceville. How did this idea form, initially?
“I had a strong belief in the site of Villa Rosa because it is so unique. Besides the historical building and the sea views, you also have large grounds. It’s a site that demands the highest of quality,” says Mr Camilleri. “And it lends itself perfectly to what I believe are the tourism needs for Malta: quality and open spaces.”
Notwithstanding his understandable enthusiasm for the project, it has not been without its critics, with some saying that the contemporary style of the new buildings will stand in sharp contrast to the heritage of the site.
Mr Camilleri is however adamant that the historic Villa Rosa itself will be “the jewel of the site” and “the fulcrum of the whole project”: “We have integrated it into a cohesive tourism project while retaining its prominence.”
A report that Mr Camilleri would be “self-financing” the €305 million Villa Rosa project raised eyebrows. While certainly no pauper, that sum would be difficult for any local to cough up in cash.
His business empire, largely if not entirely in the quarry and property sector, trades as the A. Camilleri Group of Companies and includes, among others, AC Group, AC Enterprises, Garnet Investments, Camcas, Caman Properties, AM Developments, ACS Developments, and Camilleri Group (no relation to the catering company known by the same name).
Total assets held by the above-mentioned companies amount to around €90 million, although the net asset value is a fraction of this figure, due to considerable liabilities in debt (seemingly largely intra-group) and trade payables.
Without precluding the possibility of the existence of other companies not listed above and any assets held personally or by close family members, the question remains – will Mr Camilleri be able to produce the considerable outlay required to see the project to fruition?
His response: “We are planning to finance this project through our own assets. No other partners will be involved.”
Sources familiar with the sector say that the “self-financed” description was likely a misnomer, explaining that bank or private financing would almost certainly be involved. However, such stakeholders would be limited to financing, without taking any equity position in the project.
Thinking of the future now – Mr Camilleri’s own eldest son, Adelbert, is primed to succeed him at the helm of the business, but his upbringing and education is undoubtedly different. For starters, by the 2000s, when his son was entering his teens, it was considerably less acceptable to have 12-year-olds working in quarries. So how did he ensure that his son would be ready to take over his demanding role?
“I’ve always believed education is important,” he says, “but so is experience at business and manual work. I always taught my children values, especially integrity (rġulija), and respect.”
One important lesson he made sure to pass on to the next generation is the value of one’s reputation: “In life, your reputation is everything, especially in a small country like Malta.”