Malta Diary From P.S. Plod to Mr Multi-Mega Midas-Touch Bucks
I knew Tumas Fenech back in 1966 when he was a Police Sergeant stationed at Hamrun Police Station and would often see him plod up and down Hamrun High Street, where I lived at the time. He was a tall, red-faced jovial man who had a kind and friendly word for everyone – one of the boys so to speak because during his off hours he would drop in at our local bar and enjoy a few beers with us.
What I did not know at the time was that Tumas Fenech would go on to become a multi-millionaire by compiling what is undoubtedly the largest and richest group of enterprises in Malta.
Without any fuss and fanfare he was cannily buying, developing and selling property and when he retired from the force in 1968 he had already planned the road ahead, a road that branched off into hotel ownership and management that today includes the luxurious Hilton Hotel in St Julian’s, together with a number of other hotels, restaurants, two gaming casinos and various other well-heeled enterprises.
He died suddenly in 1999 leaving seven children with his son George Fenech taking over the enterprises and expanding them beyond even his father’s wildest dreams. Sadly enough George passed away late last year at the still relatively young age of 63.
Interviewed by “The Times of Malta” a few years after his father’s death, George described his dad as a fantastic “wheeler dealer” and a genius with an incredible vision when it came to property development.
George left school without any formal academic qualifications in 1968, the same year as his father’s police retirement and assumed the administrative responsibilities for running his father’s property enterprises besides being put in charge of the Armada Nightclub – much to his mother’s disapproval because of the “inappropriate environment for such a young man”.
Not relishing being henpecked, Tumas relented and gave George a domestic appliances and imported furniture centre to manage in their home town at Qormi.
By 1976, George began to flex his muscles with a dynamism that was to prove his father’s confidence in him. He purchased a number of self-catering apartments and later bought a small hotel named “The Cartwheel”. By 1979 he had also bought another much larger hotel “The Topaz” in Bugibba together with an accompanying pizzeria that soon acquired culinary fame under the strict supervision of his mother Guza (Josephine) Fenech who ran the kitchen with a firm hand.
Unfortunately, tourism slumped between 1981 and 1983 and George introduced a new idea and vision when he introduced timeshare to Malta and it became an immediate success. With abundant liquidity amidst the slump, the Fenechs bought the Halland Hotel in Ta’ L-Ibragg and then the more ambitious Dolmen Hotel in Qawra, later to become the New Dolmen and now the thriving and bubbling New Dolmen Resort and Oracle Casino when the original property purchase had been on the verge of bankruptcy.
However, the great stride forward was in 1986 when Tumas Fenech bought the Hilton Hotel in St Julian’s and fulfilled his lifelong ambition to own it. More about that later.
This was followed by the Mgarr Hotel overlooking Gozo’s main port in 1990 and now converted into a complex of apartments.
There was no looking back now. In four decades, the Tumas Group has amassed an empire of over 20 companies dealing in retailing, real estate, tourism, construction and gaming, the largest ever portfolio compiled by a Maltese enterprise and nowadays employing several thousand personnel with a turnover running into several hundred millions euros and valued at an even more astronomical figure.
However, the real flagship, the real piece de resistance of the Group was the demolishing of the old Hilton Hotel, rebuilt as the New Malta Hilton Hotel and the Portomaso Complex, complete with a large number of luxury apartments grouped around a splendid yacht marina and overlooked by a number of first class restaurants – all below the gaze of Portomaso Tower, Malta’s largest building, including the Group’s head office on the 22nd floor of the 23 floors building.
Needless to say, the tower project was controversial, being gigantic by Maltese standards amidst much criticism describing it as “a blot on the landscape” and an “environmental eyesore”. Later, George was to state the greater the volume of criticism the greater his drive came to bring the project to fruition.
Today, Portomaso Tower is vast office complex with five star conference facilities, a myriad of restaurants at ground floor level and bars and restaurants at higher levels as well hosting a gaming casino – and all just 100 metres away from the Hilton and the whole complex sitting on a vast underground car park in a country where road parking is at a premium.
The reconstructed Hilton opened in February 2000, flanked by Portomaso Tower, a cluster of luxury apartments and the 115-berth yacht marina. The complex of 350 apartments sold like wildfire with 40% of the buyers being Maltese when project estimates had put pre-construction possibilities at just 18% Maltese buyers. The remainder are owned by people from over 30 different nationalities, mostly from the UK, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany.
Despite such grandeur, enterprise and fame, the late George Fenech was a quiet, shy and retiring man. There were never any trumpet-flourishing inaugurations but just soft openings of operations. He always confided he hated being in the limelight and he intensely disliked official pomp and circumstance.
His ideal evenings were spent at home with his wife and two offsprings but having overcome so many obstacles and having achieved so much he could not ultimately dodge the inevitable journey and late last year succumbed to a debilitating illness.
N.B. Just in case anybody is curious, we do share the same family name Fenech but I am not a relative which is of course, a source of regret!