Martin Agius knows a thing or two about the retail business, having spent over two decades with General Soft Drinks, one of Malta’s leading soft drinks companies. As sales and marketing manager, he managed to help the brand grow its business in a challenging market and a change in mind shift of consumer behaviours for soft drinks.
In December last year he decided to take up a new challenge as the CEO of the rapidly-expanding The Convenience Group, which already has 62 outlets under its umbrella as either fully-operated stores or franchises.
“It was clear the shareholders behind the Convenience Shop had a clear vision to take the chain to different heights. It was tough to leave my former post, but their drive and determination to succeed had great appeal,” Mr Agius says.
The first Convenience Shop outlet was relatively inconspicuous, opening in Zebbug 10 years ago in an attempt to target changing market trends. However, it did not take long for the founders to realise the concept had enormous potential.
“The original owners were quite humble but visionary at the same time. They saw quite quickly that more and more people were seeking outlets that fitted in with a more hectic lifestyle and they started to service this market by opening more stores in various towns and villages around Malta.
“The formula has remained the same: a family-run business focused on delivering a special customer-experience while retaining a local feel. All our stores have a traditional look, such as wooden shelving, but are presented in a way that captures shoppers’ emotions. That’s what makes us stand out.”
Mr Agius explains that The Convenience concept has become more important than ever due to Malta’s changing demographics and socioeconomic environment particularly the expansion of the expat and tourist sectors.
“We are not competing with the traditional supermarket model, because the vast majority of our shoppers don’t want to spend much time in a store. We actually complement supermarkets as our customers are all about “Quick mission shopping. Our role is to meet their expectations in a five to ten minute period.”
The key to achieving this aim is to ensure that each Convenience Shop is stocked with an adequate range of items and tailoring the contents to each locality. “There is no one-size-fits-all. That doesn’t work for us. We are focused on the specific needs of our customers and fresh items like fresh baked bread and milk remain big sellers.”
The current business model is based on a 60/40 split of fully-operated stores and franchisees who see the benefits of being part of a successful modern brand. “Our strategy is to continue to grow rapidly. We anticipate that by end of 2019 the number of Convenience Shop outlets will increase to 71. Our growth strategy involves identifying new localities, without cannibalising volumes with the aim of retaining all the good elements that have made us popular with customers.”
The spread of Convenience Shop outlets is quite wide, with the brand now being present in almost all Maltese towns and villages. So far we are still absent in localities such as Mellieha and Gozo, though there will be no hesitation in establishing a presence in these areas when the right opportunities come long.
The Group is very conscious of the challenges presented by its expansion plan, and is investing in a sophisticated IT infrastructure to efficiently analyse market information and make informed decisions and ensure its workforce have the necessary information to take the right strategic decisions.
The Group is also committed to buying its stock from local distributors and suppliers. “We do not engage in parallel trading we support local businesses and believe in the importance of nurturing close relationships with them,” Mr Agius says.
The Convenience Group also places significant emphasis on human resources – it already has 750 staff on its books – and acknowledges their contribution to its success.
“The company wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without them and we consciously operate an equal opportunities policy that has at its heart diversity and inclusion.
We invest in training and stress to all our employees that we can offer not just a job, but a career. We are training our people in customer care, merchandising, food preparation. Several of our people started off as stackers and have made it to management positions, so the opportunities are there.”
In line with its growth, the Group is also focusing on creating a solid corporate governance structure. Along with shareholders Ivan Calleja, Joe Pace, Manuel Piscopo and the recent addition of lawyer Kevin Deguara who brings along a wealth of experience from a corporate legal and financial point of view, the Group has also appointed two independent directors Benjamin Muscat and Charles Scerri who have extensive experience in the retail, real estate, accounting and corporate finance sectors.
In its efforts to continue expanding and improving its operations the Group has recently tested the appetite of the capital market in investing in The Convenience Brand via the issuance of €5 million bond. The bond was fully subscribed and is now trading on the Malta Stock Exchange Prospects MTF List. “This was another confirmation that The Convenience brand has become a household name amongst the Maltese general public and a strong sign of confidence in the Group’s activities” added Agius.
“We are striving to enhance and grow both our management and organisational structure. This will help us i continue our expansion. Our mission is to be best convenience retailer in Malta by consistently serving the changing needs of consumers,” Mr Agius says.
Environmental considerations are also high on the list of priorities, as The Convenience chain seeks to be a champion in waste management. “We want to be at the forefront of environmental initiatives,” Mr Agius says.
Corporate social responsibility is also an inherent part of the Group’s philosophy. The recent launch of a Convenience Shop for Puttinu Cares in Qormi is testament to this. The Group will donate all its profits from the operations of this outlet to the Puttinu Cares Foundation, which offers support to cancer patients and their families.
“Our business is not just about profits. We want to play an active role in the community and this initiative is just one way of giving something back. We will provide support for good causes wherever we can, we believe in sharing and support towards the community”