In 2003, Malta’s Maritime Pilots decided to become their own bosses and form a cooperative. Chief Pilot Jesmond Mifsud has been voted its CEO every year since its inception, making this his 18th year at the helm of the Malta Maritime Pilots Cooperative (MMPCS). Now, 2022 promises to be a year of growth, both for our maritime industry and for the cooperative’s branches.
If there ever was a jack of all trades who mastered them all, it would be Jesmond Mifsud. A maritime pilot by profession, Jesmond splits his days between his seafaring job and his managerial one as CEO of MMPC. And although his role as CEO requires him to be on call at all times, he never gave up his role as Chief Pilot. “Being at sea still gives me the most pleasure,” he admits. “I really enjoy meeting people from all over the world, seeing new vessels, and watching new technologies being used.”
His day starts at 4am and, on a typical day, he works a 12-hour shift piloting vessels entering our ports. The rest of the time, he heads the team of 16 maritime pilots who make up the MMPC.
Apart from piloting vessels, they offer consultancy services relating to seafaring, run a training centre and clean any oil spills in our waters. Jesmond also liaises with the authorities on behalf of the cooperative and distributes the work between his colleagues. He is known for his team-centric approach to leadership, while his humility and respect for his colleagues are obvious.
“There is nothing that a person can achieve on their own. I am backed by my colleagues, who respect and support me, and we also have a very good team at the office who work well with both the authorities and the pilots,” he says. “My team also includes my wife, who is very tolerant and supportive of what I do. She knows how dedicated I am to my job. It’s not unusual for us to have to cancel plans because I am needed at work to solve a problem.”
Jesmond’s background on board ships has equipped him with the ability to take quick decisions, which is an asset in his role as CEO. “In shipping, decisions have to be made on the spot because, aboard a ship, problems can’t wait to be tackled,” he says. “I am not saying that I have always made the right decision, but every person has their ups and downs. Even if you make a mistake, you can never give up; you have to keep going.”
What started as a group of pilots becoming their own bosses has since grown into a much larger operation which encompasses various services. “We started helping with conveyances when vessels come to our harbours needing food, water and crew changes,” explains Jesmond. “We realised that an oil spill in our ports wouldn’t only affect pilotage but Malta’s water supply and economy too. That is why we launched and invested heavily in Ocean Care, which tackles pollution in our ports.”
Then there is Maritime MT, the school the MMPC opened to train pilots and other seafarers, and perhaps the coop’s biggest and most ambitious project to date. “We started with our own simulator for big ships for captains and pilots,” says Jesmond. “When Transport Malta encouraged us to go even bigger to try and help the industry, we moved to bigger premises and started offering more courses, covering most maritime jobs.
“I have said this before, but it bears repeating: there is only one captain on a ship, but there are so many other professionals working both on board and ashore. Just to give you one small example, there are about 3,000 people working on board a cruise ship, and they all need marine induction courses to be able to work on a ship. And the same goes for luxury yachts, which is a growing sector in Malta. At Maritime MT, we give courses that cover careers in various maritime sectors, including superyachts, merchant shipping, and even recreational sailing.”
In a career that has had many highlights, one of Jesmond’s proudest achievements remains the investment in more pilot boats that the MMPC managed to secure. “We figured that getting more boats would enable us to increase our turnover and, as a result, the whole country’s economy would benefit,” he explains. “The faster we are, the better trained, and the more in touch with new technology, then the better we can utilise all our quays. Due to the relatively small size of our ports, the world’s largest ships would be unable to berth without pilots, which makes us an essential link in the chain of the maritime industry.”
Being Europe’s smallest country with the smallest number of pilots has only garnered more respect for Malta’s pilots internationally. “We always have someone on the Board of the European Maritime Pilots Association (EMPA), and they always act on our ideas,” Jesmond says of the cooperative. “In other countries, it’s possible to specialise in different types of ports but here we have to be able to do everything – from general cargo delivery to drydocking and superyachts. Thus, international pilots respect our ability to deal with different situations and different vessels.” In fact, Jesmond and his colleagues are often praised for their expertise and the seemingly impossible feats they perform daily when guiding ships as long as four football pitches into the Grand Harbour or Marsaxlokk Port.
And while piloting some of the world’s largest ships is undoubtedly challenging, the COVID-19 pandemic brought about a whole slew of new challenges. When the new restrictions affected the way and extent to which Jesmond and his colleagues could interact with the visiting crews, adapting to the new normal wasn’t easy. “We are used to going aboard, greeting the crew like we would old friends, and having a coffee with them,” says Jesmond. “But this obviously wasn’t possible anymore; now I almost feel like I’m intruding into their space when I step onto a ship, even though I cannot do my job without going on board.”
Thankfully, although restrictions are mostly still in place, 2022 is looking brighter. “The lack of passenger cruise liners in Valletta cut our income drastically,” Jesmond divulges. “Luckily, there seem to be more bookings for 2022, and the same goes for conveyances and Ocean Care.”
Jesmond’s biggest hope, however, is to continue investing in education. “We want to expand the school further, and have also just invested in a new Electronic Chart Display and Information System, also known as an ECDIS,” he says of MMPC’s plans. “It’s not easy keeping up with all the new technology, but we do our best to stay abreast of it all.”
Now, apart from expanding Maritime MT, Jesmond hopes to convince the authorities that the maritime industry needs more people from all walks of life. “12 per cent of our GDP comes directly from the maritime industry and we have the largest flag in Europe. Many professionals are still needed on board passenger vessels, including doctors, accountants and people in managerial positions, to mention but a few. After all, passenger ships are the equivalent of hotels and have the same needs. The only difference is that they are floating,” continues Jesmond. “We need to take a good look at our education system and see where we are heading. It’s useless investing solely in industries like gaming and ignoring other opportunities which are staring us in the face. I hope change will come sooner rather than later,” he adds.
This article is part of the serialisation of 50 interviews featured in MaltaCEOs 2022 – an annual high-end publication bringing together some of the country’s most influential business leaders.
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