“Thank God We’re Not Larger”

1 July 2017 Projects Malta is a small team with big ambitions, chairman William Wait tells Amanda Nicholls

An island of just 300 square kilometres would usually play a relatively minor role on the world stage. But Malta is a country that punches above its weight. Its position in the middle of the Mediterranean as a gateway to North Africa, its national language of English and an ambitious progressive government ensures this is a country that demands attention.

Malta’s infrastructure challenges reflect its ambitious nature. Out of a population of 450,000 there are 192,000 working, an increase of 32,000 in four years. There are also currently 35,000 non-Maltese workers and two million tourists a year. This, combined with limited access points to the capital city Valletta, puts a huge strain on transport connections.

The increasing pressure on infrastructure for the island was at the heart of the need for a government agency to help identify and promote new schemes, and three years ago Projects Malta was born.

Chairman William Wait heads up this small but ambitious team. Wait has a long private sector background, having spent 23 years manufacturing cosmetics packaging – first in the UK and then moving to Malta in 1997. Wait saw the business grow from 200 employees to 900 with premises in Europe, Asia and North and South America. In 2013 he was appointed deputy chairman of Malta Enterprise – the agency promoting direct investment into the country – before making the leap to becoming a full-time government employee running the Water Services Corporation.

Wait says: “Running water utility in Malta is not easy because there’s no natural source of water and the aquifer has been overused. We needed to make sure that the little that is there would replenish. I spent two years as the board chairman and CEO and we turned this from a loss making company into a profit making company.”

During that time, Wait’s team worked with the World Bank using Malta’s expertise in water to help countries in the Middle East and North Africa. One such project focused on Beirut, where although there was enough supply, leaks and delivery issues meant people were receiving water just three times a week. “Our team went out there and today they have water 24/7,” says Wait.

He then turned his experience in project delivery to help promote collaboration with the private sector with his team in Projects Malta.

Although Projects Malta is primarily a PPP entity, the focus of its work is to get projects delivered with the private sector, which can also include using a concession-based model minus the private finance.

Wait says forming the team, getting projects to market and pushing them over the line has been a challenge for a country with no history of PPPs. “We started from zero and unfortunately PPPs are very attractive for people who want to oppose or to criticise because when they’re not understood they raise a lot of suspicion.”

Wait recalls trying to get a relatively simple car park project off the ground. The site was near a large church and the agency had to speak to the local council, the labour party club, the nationalist working club, the local boats club, the football club, the association for the bus drivers and “anyone under the sun that has a stake in it”.

The project was endorsed but the church appointed a separate team of architects to oppose the project. “I received a letter giving me personal responsibility for doing damage to the temple of God,” says Wait.

Despite objections, Projects Malta is pushing ahead with its first foray into concessions, starting with health. And Wait says the Maltese health sector has a very good reputation within both the public and private sectors, something that it plans to build on through a number of initial projects.

Two years ago, Projects Malta packaged up a services concession for the redevelopment, maintenance, management, and operation of sites at St Luke’s Hospital, Karin Grech Rehabilitation Hospital and Gozo General Hospital. The authority received three bids from its request for proposals process before awarding the contract to Vitals Global Healthcare.

But once again, there was significant opposition to the projects. Says Wait: “If you do nothing you get criticised and if you do something you get criticised. ‘Why did you put this and that and why did you do it for four million a year and not five million’ Why three hospitals and not one?’ Why, why, why?”

Used to the speed of decision-making in the private sector, Wait admits he “used to get frustrated” but decided to “balance the team” by recruiting from within the public sector. New employees have now joined from the planning authority, Malta Enterprise and legal compliance from the Ministry of Industry.

Bolstering the public sector experience has proved helpful in trying to get new projects off the ground. Wait and his team are currently promoting a new €10m water tunnel under Valletta but the planning and negotiations are proving protracted. He explains: “We needed to get Transport Malta on board and UNESCO because Valletta is a World Heritage site. We had to deal with the planning authority, the Water Services Corporation, and then when we were summoned to a committee in parliament one guy asked me, ‘so when you do the tunnel will Valletta collapse?’”

Wait says getting projects over the line is the main function of Project Malta. It appoints the procurement team but he describes the agency more as a facilitator. “We are there to ensure that the process is happening and we get involved if there is an issue with financing, but our main job is pushing, pushing, pushing to overcome obstacles.”

Although Wait and his team are energetically driving projects forward, they are battling with attracting the right private sector partners for these small bespoke deals.

In April this year, Partnerships Bulletin reported that the International Logistics Hub PPP project at Hal Far failed to attract proposals for the second time. Wait is keen to talk about how open Malta is for international business, but the PPP industry can be a cautious one and anything new or different – particularly small in value – can scare off potential investors.

“Malta has a big message and the big message is our doors are open for business,” says Wait. “We want Malta to develop as a logistics hub and that means investing in local transportation. When I say transportation I also mean goods as well as people. And when I say local, I mean Malta but also from Europe and Africa.”

Wait also sees an opportunity in Brexit and encourages British companies to consider Malta when looking for a European base. “Malta is an annex of England and if you want to remain in the European Union it is the place to be,” he says.

Projects Malta is still working on shaping deals that are attractive to the international PPP community and Wait believes overseas players partnering with domestic firms are the future bidders for new deals. The agency has appointed DWPF as advisers with a background in traditional PPPs in order to build attractive projects for the market.

Housed in an apartment in the small town of Silema, it’s clear that Projects Malta is finding its feet as a new organisation and discovering the many challenges in bringing PPPs to market.

However, Wait sees huge opportunity for the country and is committed to getting the projects off the ground.

He says its geographical position and culture gives Malta huge potential for further growth and there is an inherent challenge in getting the infrastructure investment to sustain the country’s ambitions. “Sometimes I think, thank god we’re not larger.”

This page was last updated on:
8 January 2018.

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