When Roberta Abela was appointed as the Chief Finance Officer of Enemed two years ago as a female, relatively young C-suite executive at one of Malta’s largest heavy industry companies, it was a victory that bucked the norm.
She sits with WhosWho.mt to discuss her career and rise to the position – and give some tips for those aiming to overcome tradition and difficulties in their professional lives.
By profession, she is an accountant and an auditor. Her educational background is from the University of Malta, where she studied for a Bachelor of Commerce in Banking, Finance and Management. She simultaneously read for a Masters Degree in Accountancy with ACCA (Association of Certified Chartered Accountants).
During her career, she occupied several professional positions, including at KPMG, Vodafone (now Epic), Hili Group and PriceWaterhouseCoopers.
Along the way, she developed a professional relationship with Enemed, working closely with the company and its leadership team. When a vacancy for a CFO opened at the company, and when she was considering applying for the role, it was not a "leap in the dark".
Far from a leap in the dark
“I knew about Enemed, I knew the people, and I knew the senior management team”, she explains. She found the industry and the management style of the company very appealing and felt it was the right steppingstone to advance her career.
Roberta Abela/ Inigo Taylor
“Enemed is one of the biggest importers and distributors of fuel on the island, and due to this is a critical infrastructure”, she says, “and the opportunity to take on a C-suite position at such a prominent company was almost a no-brainer.”
In the position as CFO, she is part of the Executive Committee of the company, responsible for rolling-out the strategy that the Board of Directors lays out.
She’s also in charge of the finance department of the company, from its day-to-day operations to its broader strategies.
“My responsibilities include anything related to finance: from reporting of management accounts, budgets, financial statements, and the funding of capital projects.
For example, Enemed is currently approaching the completion of its Has-Saptan project, which is a €70 million renovation of underground fuel storage facilities and fuel dispatch depot in the limits of Hal-Ghaxaq.
The financing of this project, and any cashflow-related requirements, therefore, fall to her and her team.
On the other hand, by virtue of her senior management position, she’s also involved in the company’s broader, strategic drives, and she has also been involved in activities such as the new collective agreement of the Company with its employees.
Ms Abela says she enjoys her job, and one of the things she likes about it is how “dynamic” Enemed is.
“We’re a really dynamic company and no one day is the same as another. We’re constantly moving forward, and operating with a philosophy of continuous improvement”, Ms Abela says.
This was fortunate, considering the strain COVID would come to place on the business, both from an operational and a financial perspective.
The company, as a fuel importer and distributor was naturally hard hit by changes in habits during the pandemic, she says.
Malta’s airport was closed for three months, meaning airlines were no longer using Enemed’s facilities, and as schools and workplaces closed, drivers were forced off the road and inside - thus reducing the demand for fuel for the inland market.
Then there were obvious operational problems. Despite the decline in demand for fuel, the country was relying on it to supply this fuel, and it had to do so.
“Within a week, we set up a ‘works and measures’ team to address how the operational impacts of the pandemic could be managed”, Ms Abela says.
One of the measures that was introduced subsequently was the segregation of its operations team, with the intention that if any one member of either team tested positive for COVID, the other team could pick up the slack, making sure there was ample supply of fuel in the country.
From Ms Abela and the finance department’s perspective, the implications were also major, and they had to find ways to make sure the company could maintain itself.
In the end, it seems they were successful, and Ms Abela reflects proudly that Enemed was “one of the few companies in Malta that made no cutbacks in employee salary.”
Asked what part of the company she is most proud of, Ms Abela once again returns to its handling of the pandemic – pointing to its treatment of its staff.
“As a company we wanted to make sure that the mental wellbeing of our employees is being taken care of. We made sure we didn’t lose the human contact with our employees, because it’s easy to fall into a silo and get isolated working alone.
“Considering this, we made sure team meetings still took place (virtually), and that we retained contact with our employees.”
Aside from this, the company showed just how much it valued employee mental health by booking sessions with the Richmond Foundation to help sensitise the leadership team about mental health problems, Ms Abela says, adding that the company also made psychologists available for any staff suffering from loneliness or mental health issues.
“This reflects how we do not treat our employees as numbers, but as part of our family. We take an active interest in their lives (as much as is appropriate) and are conscious of any personal challenges they might be facing.”
The company also has a number of family-friendly measures, driven by the Executive Chairman of the Company because he is very “ supportive” of families and women in the workplace.
Staff can take advantage of extended paid maternity leave, over and above what is provided by law, and the company also encourages its employees to further their studies by sponsoring them to do so.
“Obviously we’re here to make a profit and give return to our shareholders, as well as to expand our company, but we are consciously aware that we cannot do these things without our employees.”
“When an employee is happy and motivated they will go the extra mile. And that is what brings this company its success”, Ms Abela says.
Lessons of the pandemic
Roberta Abela/ Inigo Taylor
Asked for a key lesson learned during the pandemic, she advises that we “always expect the unexpected, as cheesy and as corny as that might sound.”
“As an accountant, it's ingrained in our minds and in our professions to always expect the worst-case scenario, and this also sometimes carries over to our personal lives."
She acknowledges that while no one was preparing for a pandemic, even far-fetched scenarios need to be considered, and the pandemic has taught this as a valuable lesson.
“Always study, always do your best, always stand your ground"
Discussing her unconventional position as a comparatively young woman in a C-level role in a heavy industry, and providing advice for any women facing professional challenges, she emphasises “never give up”.
“Always study, always do your best, always stand your ground and make your point.
“I think females should be given the right opportunities to shine (not just females but any individual with talent and potential)– but the fuel industry is typically a male-dominated industry, and you can see it when you speak to some of our business partners – you rarely find a female counterpart”.
Having said that, Ms Abela states that Enemed is an exception to the male-dominated trend. The Board of Directors for example, is composed of five females and three males. The Executive Committee of the Company is made up of two females and two males, meaning there is a good gender balance.
Concluding, she says: “Nothing is impossible, you just have to believe in yourself and make sure that if you want to really get there, you need to work hard and put in the effort and you will reap the benefits. Even when someone doubts you or your skills, don’t be discouraged – do your best and the rest will follow.”