The Ripard Group, originally a shipping agency, was founded in 1901. Over the years, this family-run business, one of the oldest companies in Malta, branched out into other sectors, including aviation and retail. John R. Ripard, Managing Director of the group, shares his views on business development and the future of Malta. He would like to see his and other Maltese companies become more environmentally sensitive.
Your company’s main focus is on shipping. Can you give us an overview of your activities in this field?
We are container agents for Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC), the second largest container liner in the world, which services Malta through the Freeport. As their agents, we look after their interests, and we sell international freight container services to and from Malta. For the last 18 years, we have also been operating our own small niche container line called MEDEX, covering Spain, Tunisia and Morocco. We used to cover Malta as well, but we recently decided to stop this service to boost efficiency, as we have other shipping activities covering Malta. We have a Tunisian partner that is actually part of our group. This extremely successful joint venture, which was launched in 2006, employs about 15 people and handles large amounts of cargo, covering the whole Tunisian territory. Last but not least, we have a cruise liner activity for MSC. We look after anything to do with the ships, such as crew changes. At the moment, we are handling four ships a week for MSC, two cruise liners and two container ships.
You are also involved in other industries. What is the scope of your business?
We are involved in retail clothing. I am the Chairman of a company that was set up in 1986 and runs a franchise for Next, with five shops in Malta and Gozo. We are also shareholders and founding shareholders in the airport ground-handling company GlobeGround. When Malta joined the EU in 2004, ground handling had to be liberalised rather than run by the national carrier. We were awarded a licence and negotiated a service agreement with GlobeGround to operate in Malta. This company is fully owned by our Maltese partners and us, and we have grown from strength to strength, handling approximately 8,000 flights a year. Our main client is Ryanair, but we also work with EasyJet and Emirates, among others.
Moreover, we are active in the marine business through our yachting business RLR, which was set up in 1963 by my father and his brother. In Malta our surname is synonymous with yachting. As avid sailors, my father and his brother represented Malta in the Olympics in 1960 and went on to launch the marine leisure industry in Malta. RLR is essentially a retail outlet and a yacht servicing organisation. We sell yachts, outboards and engines, and we have been distributors for Volvo Penta, Evinrude, Zodiac and Raymarine since 1963. Lastly, we also have a property portfolio that consists mainly of commercial properties, which we either operate ourselves or lease out to third parties. In a nutshell, our business operations are very diverse. I do not believe in consolidation. Each of these companies operates on its own agenda and with its own management team, and it will remain that way. The Ripard Group brand proves that you can be involved in many different sectors under one umbrella organisation, yet cooperate almost independently.
As one of the longest established family businesses in Malta, how are you tackling the challenge of introducing the next generation to the business, and what does the future hold for the group?
My guiding principle is that people should only get involved in the business if they have something to contribute and if it is good for their own personal development. I apply this logic to my own children and to the children of other shareholders. I have four children, and the only thing I promised them was the best education I could afford. They will only join the family business if they have something to offer and if it works for them as well. You need to love your job, you need to be good at it and continue to develop your skills. My oldest son, who is 28 and studied in the UK, currently works in shipping, but he is also a top-level competitive sailor. Keeping the business up and running is, of course, a priority, but sailing is also a very important focus in our family. So our next project may not be about money and profits, but more of a holistic initiative.
You have a very strong presence in the shipping sector. How did you decide to branch out into so many other fields?
In the 1980s my brother-in-law, the franchisee for Marks & Spencer in Malta, told me about Next, a new up-and-coming fashion brand that was worth investing in. That got the ball rolling. My overall view of business is that technical expertise is something you can buy. Your business may be rooted in a certain sector, but you have to be open-minded and flexible. You need to look at other businesses and sectors, and see where there is a good return on investment. After all, you will not be working in these other businesses yourself. You will be responsible for overseeing and guiding them.
I do not exclude continuing to become involved with other businesses that we are not necessarily naturally linked to. If we feel it makes sense to focus on a particular business and develop it further, we will do it. Our group’s philosophy is quite conservative. Today’s economy is a risky one, and we do not want to do business just for the sake of it.
As a true entrepreneur, who has taken risks to get to this point, do you feel entrepreneurship is lacking in Malta?
Malta is a good place for start-ups, but the market is tiny, which poses quite a challenge. Early on in my career, if you were not part of the family running the business, you were poorly paid. Today, there are many foreign companies in Malta which generally look for talent and skills, and are prepared to pay for them. Old-style family businesses generally do not think that way. These opportunities for career development, coupled with better salaries, have stifled entrepreneurship a little bit.
What are the key challenges facing Malta, and how do you think the country will develop in the future?
Malta is going through a little bit of a mini boom. We are attracting countless expats – particularly in the iGaming and financial sectors. This major influx of people has a positive impact on our retail business, but I think the challenge for Malta is to keep up with this growing population, for example in terms of transport and road infrastructure. For now, we seem to be thinking only in terms of “more people equals more activity and more business”, but in the long run, we require sustainable solutions, and the government needs to be aware of that.
What growth areas do you envision for Malta?
I think we need to focus a lot more on sport, not only in terms of business, but also as a leisure activity. Other issues that top my agenda are the environment – particularly water conservation, traffic and nurturing Malta as a safe place that has so much to offer. These are not necessarily areas that bring about business opportunities, but that is not what I am looking for. I am looking to make Malta a better place for the future.
How would you like foreigners to view Malta?
I love this country very much. I deal with a lot of foreigners, and most of them absolutely love Malta too. I think we need to recognise our weaknesses and work on them, but I am very positive about our future because I think most people are aware of the issues we need to tackle. As I said earlier, traffic is a major problem, not only for foreigners, but for locals too. Security is also very important. We need to make sure Malta remains the safe place it is today. And last but not least, we need to nurture our knowledge of the English language. After all, when we all speak the same language, fewer words are needed.
John R. Ripard studied at the London School of Economics and started his career as a cadet on a ship. He went on to work for his family’s shipping business, the Ripard Group, later venturing into the world of retail and aviation as a shareholder of various companies, including the Next franchise in Malta and GlobeGround, a major airport ground-handling company boasting Ryanair, Easyjet and Emirates among its clients. John has four children, one of whom has just joined the family business.