Interview with Johann Schembri – visionary leader at IZI Group
“Local knowledge and a strong work ethic are the key pillars of success.”
After nearly twenty years at the helm of IZI Group plc, Johann Schembri, Founder and CEO, provides interesting insights to how he nurtured a small entity into one of the most prominent gaming group of companies in Malta. In this interview, we learn about IZI Group plc, their operations within the local land-based gaming industry and the internationalization prospects of the group moving forward.
What can you recall about this 20-year journey at the helm of IZI Group?
When I started venturing into the gaming industry, I never imagined this journey would lead to the creation of one of the most established gaming group of companies in Malta. Although officially, the creation of the IZI Group (formerly known as Pinnacle Gaming Group) commenced in 2004, my first venture happened with the introduction of the first totalizator system at the Malta Racing Club and the establishment of a nationwide operation of Amusement with Prize (AWP) machines in Malta in 1998.
My vision was always to create an ecosystem that could provide a rich and versatile gaming offering in the local market while also creating gaming brands that would surpass the test of time.
When in 2002 I established Gaming Operations Limited, which to this day operates the retail arm of the Group, my intention was to create a gaming experience built on a robust product offering and service levels of the highest quality. Over time the company continued to grow from strength to strength, developing IZIBET as a gaming household brand in the process.
This pursuit for excellence was transferred to the casino sector when in 2010, together with Novomatic AG, we were awarded the concession to manage and operate the Dragonara Casino. In 2021, the Group was yet again successful in retaining the concession to operate the Dragonara Casino for another 10 years.
We now look forward to extending our reach to the Lottery sector, as we prepare to take over the National Lottery of Malta from Maltco Lotteries as from July 2022. After more than 2 years of preparation, National Lottery plc a subsidiary of the IZI Group, was selected as the Preferred Proponent in the RFP process initiated by the Privatisation Unit earlier in 2021.
What would you consider to be the key drivers of success in your business?
The most essential element in any business is to build a work culture that is based on core fundamentals. The people across the Group need to be like-minded and have the passion to succeed. Over the years, we have managed to find the right persons to form part of what I consider to be a formidable team. Most of the senior executives have been with the Group for nearly ten years, a sign of continuity, longevity and belonging. At the same time, we are always on the lookout for the right people to fulfil the roles that continue to assist our growth. The overall objective is to improve the collective learning process of the Group, and to build knowledge across all the facets of the business.
Would you consider the local land-based gaming market as the primary market for the Group?
Yes, over the years we have developed our business on the strengths of the local land-based gaming market. Over time we managed to take a leading position in all those business verticals we operate in. This is the result of clear planning and a drive towards attaining pre-determined objectives. Our key rationale is to put the customers first. All our processes are customer-centric and are built on local knowledge.
While land-based gaming is the origin of our business and contributes the lion’s share of our revenues, online gaming is also an important aspect of our business. In 2019, after years of development, the Group obtained its MGA online licence to be able to deliver the Dragonara and IZIBET products online. We anticipate exponential growth in this line of business and look forward to extending the online offering also to the National Lottery.
What challenges do you envisage for the Group going forward?
The gaming industry has evolved over time and through this evolution, new challenges emerge. The single most important challenge that we face is that of meeting customer expectations in such a dynamic and evolving market. Our philosophy has always been built on the premise of offering gaming experiences in a responsible, fair, and transparent manner. This dictates a zero-tolerance policy to financial crime and a compliance culture that is ingrained in our operation. In many ways we consider ourselves a role model operator and are proud of our unblemished track record in terms of compliance. This drive towards transparency and fairness is highly appreciated by our customers and is the main reason why we continue to be a trusted operator by thousands of customers who regularly visit our establishments.
What are the future aspirations of the Group and where do you see yourself in the next 10 years?
This is a very important time for IZI Group. In less than six months we will be entrusted to operate the National Lottery of Malta, which for the past 18 years has been administered by Maltco Lotteries, a subsidiary of the Intralot Group. We take pride in being the first locally owned entity chosen to operate a national concession of the calibre of the National Lottery. We look forward to bringing a local touch to the National Lottery and to operate this concession in the most enterprising manner possible.
We are also at the start of a new concession for the Dragonara Casino. We have big plans for the property as we continue in our efforts to position the Dragonara Casino as one of the most sought-after casino properties in Southern Europe.
Our future aspirations are driven by an investment-led programme that focuses on growth in the various business verticals that we operate in. All aspects of our business require new investments. The National Lottery needs a fresh look and a modernisation programme both at the level of product and service delivery.
The Dragonara Casino needs another major investment to position it amongst the elite in Europe, while IZIBET also requires a major investment to drive innovation at the level of the retail operations.
In the past 10 years the Group has invested €30 million to be able to deliver on its business objectives. We anticipate similar investments in the next 10 years to grow the business to the desired levels. In the next 10 years we will also strive to bring in an international dimension to our business. Over the past years we have been gearing up to take what is essentially a local land-based gaming operation to international markets. The last 5 years have been essential to gather knowledge at all levels of the business that will be required to internationalise our operations. The knowledge base of the Group will be imparted to other parts of the world, where big opportunities in similar lines of business exist.
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