Innovating within a Traditional Industry
When sitting down with Neville Cutajar, managing partner and one of the founders of 3a Malta as well as director of 3a Global, the conversation inevitably turns to the identity and positioning of the firm and the network as a fast-growing player in the professional services sector.
Seeing that 3a Malta fulfils its mission to provide an innovative and comprehensive, yet personal service to local and international business is a matter very close to Mr. Cutajar’s heart.
As he states early on in this interview, the focus of 3a is to act as a catalyst for enterprises in realising their business potential through the 3a trio of core competences that include accountancy, assurance and advisory services.
It didn’t escape the founders’ attention that this particular convergence of services all started with the letter ‘A’, humorously capturing the coincidence in their brand name — 3a — which also provided the inspiration for their corporate tagline: ‘Your Aspirations, Your Achievements - Our Aim’.
Since being launched in February 2008, 3a has go Since being launched in February 2008, 3a Malta has gone from strength to strength. Led by team of dynamic professionals consisting of Neville Cutajar himself, Christian Vella and Clive Farrugia the organisation has more than tripled its initial complement of staff from 9 employees to 25 in just over seven years.
The firm has also created the first Maltese network providing accounting, auditing and advisory services- 3a Global which was launched in 2013 and which now already incorporated member firms in Cyprus, United Kingdom, Czech Republic and Italy a year later.
But what accounts for 3a’s success?
Neville is unequivocal in his reply. A firm belief in putting the values espoused by the company in practice, such as giving personalised attention to every individual client’s needs, an innovative and professional working environment for their employees; and a commitment to the organisation’s social responsibilities, contributed to the company’s continued growth.
3a’s business is in value-building, and every one of the themes above simply reflect the domains in which the brand exerts its efforts whilst practically conducting its business of maximising returns on the investment decisions being made by its clients.
However, as Neville clarifies, the company straddles not only the monetary economy but also a knowledge one, which explains why since the very start, 3a has placed such a premium in creating a working environment which develops its employees’ potential and facilitates the sharing of knowledge.
Punching Above Its Weight
Although working within a financial company involves a significant amount of number crunching, Neville stresses that 3a’s clients are not numbers, they are in fact people - entrepreneurs and established business people - who are best served when given individual attention to their particular set of needs and business goals.
This is achieved by training employees to look at client’s problems from a multiplicity of perspectives and empowering them in being able to offer relevant and timely answers to their clients’ questions.
In this regard, 3a’s strategy approach is to provide entrepreneurs with professionals who look at things from a Board of Directors perspective, thus providing real business solutions for strategic and investments decisions which need to be taken in real time.
Neville points out the company’s track record of client retention as proof that their strategy works and ascribes this to the founders’ will from the get-go to invest heavily both in the human resources underpinning 3a’s operations, as well as in the technology that permits open and free sharing of the company’s knowledge in the business amongst employees and clients alike.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the fact that 3a is a comparatively small outfit compared to larger and more pronounced organisations in the same industry does not lead Neville and his managing partners to underestimate their brand’s ability to be a major player in the market, at least from an innovation and client service point of view. The company is comfortable to punch above its weight, and this is particularly evident in its ability to attract talent as well as take on high profile clients and assignments.
What Does 3a Offer That Sets Its Apart From Its Larger, More Influential, Counterparts?
In a word, creativity. As a smaller company, 3a depends on the ability of its employees to be able to apply their expertise to a wider range of related areas within their specialisation.
An employee dealing with the company’s auditing services, for example, has to be able to conduct EU funding audits, internal audits, IT audits and more. The job description at a younger company is inevitably more open, as professionals have to implement their expertise in a wider range of scenarios which permits employees to meet the challenges faced by their clients with an eclectic approach that is capable of analysing it from a variety of perspectives.
The constant exposure to a diversity of challenges enables the company to maintain a fresh perspective on their business. However, Neville is quick to point out, it does not preclude the necessity of specialisation and the company still stands on the threefold areas of accountancy, assurance and advisory services that represent each co-founder’s field of expertise.
The experience that 3a’s clients are enjoying through its firm in Malta is in the process of being replicated elsewhere through the launch of 3a Global network last year, which has already gathered member firms in Cyprus, Czech Republic, Italy and UK within one year from its launch.
Local Company With A Global Outlook
According to Neville, this expansion of the 3a brand reflects its sensitivity to the increased impact of global trading on local markets as well as to the fact that Malta has become an important jurisdiction for foreign businesses to enhance their growth and international business. Most organisations in Malta are frequently engaged in business transactions with businesses based in foreign countries, and this requires a thorough understanding of the differences in the jurisdictions of these countries for an optimal operation.
As such, cultivating the right relationships plays a vital role in 3a’s work. Neville highlights the importance of forging alliances with professional advisers who specialise in every jurisdiction within which one intends conducting business, a requirement that becomes ever more critical for a company that cannot realistically be specialised in every single jurisdiction.
In fact, professional service firms today are often required to team up with other firms and integrate their skills in order to provide a holistic service to their clients. Whilst in Malta such a practice may seem threatening from a competitive point of view, 3a has thrived by building strong relationships with such firms, thus enabling them to maximise such opportunities.
Of particular importance is creating alliances with firms abroad. This not only gives a global competitive edge to 3a, but it has moreover enabled the brand to provide their clients seeking to do business in multiple jurisdictions with advice that is tailored to them and relevant to their circumstances.
Dealing With The Business Socialscape
This reality particularly affects Malta because the country has garnered such a reputation as an international economic hub for a wide variety of foreign companies, especially within the IT industry. For this reason, a professional services firm such as 3a is often placed in a position where it has to oversee business being conducted abroad; and often via electronic means.
However, even local companies are either selling or buying from abroad; a fact with makes this field very complex to administer and reinforces the need to tailor advisory services to the specific circumstances faced by the client.
According to Neville, no company today is immune to the emergence of globalisation. The realities of contemporary business requires solid relationships as much as solid strategies. He explains in great length the benefits of being part of an international network of firms, correlating them to the network which 3a has established.
One of the main benefits of being part of a larger web of companies is that the basic infrastructure needed by the client is already in place and is the result of extensive testing processes by different franchisees that ultimately contributed to setting up a system which is running in line with rigorous standards.
Knowledge At Its Basis
This is something 3a takes very seriously, but Neville says that the company has gone a step further than that. Not content with providing clients the basic necessities, they expanded their focus to include also essential (but sadly often overlooked) factors like customer relationship management, documentation and other factors that contribute to the running of a successful company.
The argument presented by Neville dovetails perfectly with his opinion that creating such a network isn’t for everyone. By necessity, the conditions set will restrict the way another member firm operates the business in order to assure brand consistency. It will furthermore establish a standard level of service and, ultimately; customer satisfaction which is derived by ensuring a service offering and an experience which is consistent wherever it is received from.
In keeping with their vision of how 3a Global has been set-up, the network has established clear rules of play; simple but effective rules of thumb, a flexible network providing access to resources, as well as an infrastructure and knowledge which is impossible to invest in and obtain as a small firm, but which will be economically viable as part of a network where costs are spread and resources diversified.
Franchising The Future
Neville has previously described the ideal person to run a franchise as somebody with a ‘capped entrepreneurial spirit’ - somebody willing to take on a more disciplined approach in running a firm.
But this doesn’t demean the disruptive energy of an entrepreneur ready to push the envelope. 3a itself has a number of unconventional decisions under its belt that shaped the kind of company it is today. Rather, the franchise environment 3a has set up is one that permits a level playing field for franchisees with different risk tolerances, whilst banking on the experience and lessons learnt from dealing with franchises themselves.
This regulated workflow serves to ensure that customers dealing with any branch of their operations, no matter where in they are located in the world, are given the same level of service.
A Web Of Information
3a’s commitment to outdo the typical offering of a network accountancy is evidenced by how keenly Neville explains the group’s efforts to set up a state-of-the-art IT infrastructure that can support the management practises outlined above.
The IT system in question is owned by 3a. In a bold move, however, the group decided to outsource its management in order to give itself the benefit of a flexible and cost-effective solution that does not burden the company with investing resources on an easily outdated infrastructure. This has permitted 3a to allocate more resources on pursuing its goal to becoming a globally recognised brand.
Another plus of the IT system developed by 3a is that it allows its employees to work completely online while still being able to provide the kind of seamless operation to clients that 3a takes great pride in giving. The system that is in place acknowledges professionals as they log onto it - even from home - and permits rapid sharing of information between 3a, its employees and their clients.
Another technical innovation that 3a developed is a depository of the knowledge learnt throughout its six years of operation that is freely accessible to its staff. This customised database has been modelled on Wikipedia and is known as the 3a Knowledge Share; a concept which will eventually connect all 3a franchises on a single web of information sharing.
Neville explains that 3a Knowledge Share is not meant to be a static storehouse of information, but a dynamic resources that is developed collaboratively by all the staff while dealing with clients and conducting research.
Any change effected by one member on the network will be automatically transmitted across the infrastructure, allowing employees to conduct realtime searches for items even while they are being updated. 3a Knowledge Share has both private and public components, with the latter being freely accessible by clients as well.
As part of 3a’s commitment to giving added value, both to clients and franchisees, Neville highlights that the system allows a lot of interaction for clients looking for opportunities to do business with 3a and to learn more about the advantages and disadvantages of operating in different jurisdictions.
This international sharing of knowledge could benefit also the employees of future 3a franchises since the exchange of information can eventually lead to actual sharing of human resources between the locally-based parent company and its satellites abroad.
Learning from Neville’s Experiences
In our interview with 3A’s Neville Cutajar, one of the company’s managing partners, director, and co-founder, we delved deep into the critical factors that shaped the success of the company from its startup years to its present position in the market.
In this column, we list five of the most salient learning points that emerged from the experiences Neville shared in our interview.
1. Put the values espoused by company in practice.
Though the values that every organisation embodies will differ according to its founders’ and target customers’ agendas, Neville pinpoints certain universal qualities that should be valued by companies and put in practice, including ‘giving personalised attention to individual client’s needs’, fostering ‘an innovative and professional working environment for [the] employees’ and ‘a commitment to the organisation’s social responsibilities’.
2. Develop employees’ potential and facilitate the sharing of knowledge.
Another key learning point from 3A’s experience is that time and money invested in developing your human resources will always yield the best return-on-investment for the company. In fact, Neville advocates in favour of ‘training employees to look at client’s problems from a multiplicity of perspectives’. When this is done in addition to investing in technology that facilitates the sharing of employee experiences, then the company can truly benefit from the combined knowledge of all its members.
3. Contemporary business requires solid relationships as much as it does solid strategies.
This point can be capitalised upon by investing heavily in your own and your employees’ abilities to ‘put [your]selves in [the] clients’ shoes’ in order to enhance collaboration with them. Neville emphases that this also involves having a thorough understanding of the client’s products and resources and finding a way to serve their specific needs beyond their expectations.
4. Listen to the opinion of the employees while taking the responsibility for making the final decision
Again, 3A’s focus on tapping the skills and experiences of its personnel is clearly conveyed in this learning point. Managers should help their employees to develop a proactive mindset and make it easier for them to contribute feedback on how to help their company ‘perform better and adopt more effective business strategies’. Mr Cutajar suggests that any final decision has to be taken ‘in full cognisance of the body of experiences and skills available in one’s team.’
5. Know, and collaborate with, competition.
Finally, Neville recommends studying your competition diligently. He complements this classic business advice with a further suggestion to ‘[put] excellent customer experience above all else’ and encourages local companies to be daring enough to explore the opportunities that lie beyond our shores. As in the case of 3A, this step needn’t be taken alone, but under the wings of alliances forged with international organisations working within the same industries.
Being part of an innovative, and fairly disruptive, professional services firm does have its fair share of challenges. Neville pins this down primarily to the fact that unfortunately many companies in Malta neglect to spend time to create a properly defined management layer onto their business, as well as a realistic business strategy that helps them assess objectively their current performance and pinpoint their strengths and growing edges.
One of most common requests that 3a has to field concern strategies and how to better use of company resources - something which Neville believes should have been determined at the earliest stages of company development in order to have a benchmark that companies like 3a can use to collaborate better with potential customers and give them more structured and actionable advice.
This situation requires the employees at 3a have to regularly put themselves in their clients’ shoes and look at the circumstances faced by the clients from a businessman’s perspective and understanding in order to enhance collaboration with them. This also involves being able to capitalise on the client’s products and human resources and figuring out the best way to improve performance.
Nevertheless, Neville says that 3a is in a position to widen its scope from a local company to one with an international perspective. He explains that the process that lead to this point was an organic one. In the first few years of business, the company was mainly focused on putting in place the systems and nurturing the human resources necessary to put 3a on par with its bigger competitors.
Forging Stronger Ties With Other Firms
Neville affirms that the company’s emphasis on a high calibre of competence and continuous investment in its people’s development means that now the brand is manned by a highly professional staff, most of
whom possess postgraduate qualifications in their area of specialisation. Several employees also have experience working with much bigger firms than 3a, including major foreign institutions.
3a has always attached a great deal of importance to the relationships formed between the company and its clients, and Neville explains that the same level of care has been dedicated to forging strong ties with larger firms located mainly in Europe. The group has been involved in setting up companies in countries such as Cyprus and the UK and has worked handin-hand with its worldwide partners for a number of years.
Neville readily acknowledges the importance of these international bonds and admits that in creating these links and embedding 3a within a strong network of like-minded firms, the group has a solid foundation on which to build 3a Global. As stated earlier, Cyprus was the first partner firm of the group with new member firms coming on board in recent months.
These changes are consistent with 3a’s vision for the future. Neville reiterates that being different from the competitors - carving out a unique niche in the sector - is what ensures 3a of its success. But this is not the only ingredient.
Words Of Advice
At the end of the day, Neville believes that it all boils down to good communication and sense of engagement in all parties involved in making 3a’s vision a reality.
He recommends that management should be humble enough to listen to the opinion of the employees while taking the responsibility for making the final decision. This decision has to be made in full cognisance of the body of experiences and skills available in one’s team.
3a’s rapid growth over the years is a strong testament to the leadership of the co-founders and the dedication of their employees. Neville is very clear about the conditions necessary to create a brand that is powerful enough to become a game-changer in the industry.
His advice to entrepreneurs seeking to do this is simple. Study your competition diligently, and find out what core benefits your company’s products and services truly offer, before taking the plunge. Neville believes that the internet has made it easier for prospective business owners to set up shop and recommends a gradual approach to growing one’s brand in the market.
True to 3a’s stance, he advocates putting excellent customer experience above all else, as well as having the daring to expand one’s horizons beyond these shores and explore the world of opportunities in that are available in foreign markets.
On the other hand, for those who are more comfortable within a preordained structure as opposed to the unknown elements of self-employment, Neville suggests that they have a crucial role to play in their company’s growth.
He believes they should not simply consider themselves as employees, but as partners or consultants that can give valid, field-tested feedback on how to help their company perform better and adopt more effective business strategies.
Achieving Their Aspirations
3a’s aim is clearly to achieve their aspirations in promoting a business model which extends its reach to an international client base while delivering a constant level of experience that is based upon the cumulative expertise earned over their years of doing business.
As described by Neville, meeting this goal involves a blend of human resources, networking and a sound IT infrastructure to facilitate communication between the former two. The path taken by 3a reflects the complexity of doing business in the modern world, and echoes the same challenges that are faced by the clients supported by 3a.
If their track record is anything to go by, then one can safely say that 3a does indeed live up to what they declare in their mission statement, namely that ‘each business encounter [is] a learning experience in itself.’
Innovating within a Traditional Industry