10 On The Weekend – Yakof Agius: “Firms Try to Set up a Self-Regulating Body With Limited Success”

Ten On The Weekend is a weekly feature on IMI, the concept of which is simple: Each weekend, we ask the same ten questions to a different industry figure, letting readers get to know the interviewee on a more personal and informal level than they might in an ordinary business setting.

This weekend’s guest is Yakof Agius, Co-Founder of CIVIQUO.

How do you spend your weekends?
My weekend recipe is simple – Food, drink, music, friends, and family.

I love cooking, and I am not going to be humble about this; I am good at it! In Italy, they say “good cooks are like sorcerers that dispense happiness”. So, during the weekend, I like to cook; and with a nice meal, you need good wine – my current favorite is a blend of Gros Manseng and Sauvignon from Domaine Horgelus.

Music is essential for my weekends. You need a soundtrack to life, no? If we are going out to catch up with friends over drinks, it is going to be my ’80s playlist. Otherwise, I am blasting some classic rock from the ’70s.

And of course, good company; meet up with friends, get our children together, make memories. So, for me, the weekends are not really about what you do; if there is food, drink, music, and good company, I’m in.

What are your top three business goals this year?
1. Continue to consolidate the industry as we have been doing, and help as many of our industry colleagues as possible by softening the economic impact of COVID-19 through enhancing digital connections and providing a way for people to get things done in isolation;

2. Continue hitting our revenue targets so that we successfully run another funding round – this time our series A, which is now open. This comes after having successfully concluded a very successful seed round with a raise of EUR 1.5 Million;

3. We want to continue to refine our offering and enhance the already considerable value Civiquo brings. This will see us focusing on entrepreneur and start-up visas quite a bit. We are working with several municipalities in Europe and we are certain that once we start rolling these out, they will become an important asset to both CIVIQUO and the industry at large;

These are the top three business goals for this year. Our collaboration with France’s largest rural incubator/accelerator, UNIQORN, is also another gamechanger. The partnership will enable us to connect investors with promising start-ups to help them get the most out of their investor visas.

What is your biggest business concern right now?
So far, the industry has been unable to truly adapt to a rapidly changing landscape. CIVIQUO was born in 2018 and we are the first entity in the industry to provide a way to connect clients and professionals seamlessly online. We literally had an entire industry that was not trading online in 2018 and a huge amount of potential was wasted because of this.

To make matters worse, the industry is plagued by a lack of standardization and shared norms. We have seen many firms try to set up a “self-regulating” body, with limited success in terms of standardizing the practice.

CIVIQUO focuses on the practical side of this. The industry will not standardize with reports, it will standardize with specific, specialized tools and processes. We produced the industry’s first risk assessment framework and did not ask for money or affiliation. We produced it, distributed it for free, and allowed for adoption to take place organically with the result that several firms are using this framework to structure and review their applications.

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Another example I like making is “I cannot disclose my price because every situation is different.” – No, it is not; this is purely opportunistic and damages the reputation of the industry! After looking at hundreds of applications, you learn that they mostly require the same resources.

In fact, 20% of applications are usually identical. 70% of all applications will be very similar, with some expected variations usually related to source of wealth and funds, nationality, tax, or some specific matter concerning one of the applicants. 10% are very different and peculiar cases, which require extra resources, but which can easily be factored into a pricing calculation.

I know this because my experience with front-line customers, immigration professionals from all over the world, and, as Head of Due Diligence with the Malta IIP, has shown me this. So, the “every situation is different” claim is a tired and old excuse, which leverages the current lack of transparency to increase rates.

We cannot continue to approach this industry in an artisanal manner. We must acknowledge that immigration services are standardized, and our pricing mechanisms must reflect this because that is how we show we are real professionals. This will also help everyone move to the online world, especially now, as COVID-19 and CIVIQUO make this transition easy and effortless.

We literally went from being an innovative way of doing business in this industry, to be the obvious choice, overnight.

Which book is on your nightstand right now?
I am obsessed with the entire legend behind the Knights Templar. I have been meticulously reading into this legend and all its branches, for the past thirty years. I am currently exploring an aspect of this legend so I am reading three books in parallel: The Lost Gospel by Simcha Jacobovici, The Nag Hammadi Scriptures by Meyer and Michael Baigent’s The Jesus Papers.

Following the COVID-19 pandemic, I also pulled out my copy of Sir Isaac Newton’s Observations upon the prophecies of Daniel and the apocalypse of St. John. When the person who developed the principles of modern physics talks about the end of the world, I listen.

How and when did you first get into the investment migration industry?
6th of January 2014 was my first day as Group Head of HR, and also operations for the Malta office of one of the firms in this industry. CIVIQUO’s office today is in the same exact room, where I had my interview with the CEO of the firm at the time – Eric Major – back in December 2013.

After the change in leadership within that firm in 2017, I accepted the offer to join the Government of Malta’s Individual Investor Programme Agency (back then Identity Malta), as Head of Risk and Compliance, whilst also overseeing HR and IT.

I have very fond memories of my time with the Agency. The entire team was like a tight-knit family, with a profound dedication towards our work. Here, I spearheaded the redesign of the MIIP’s due diligence procedures which eventually became considered as the gold standard in the industry, culminating into the first citizenship-by-investment risk matrix, and authoring the 3rd edition of the Malta IIP Handbook, which is the current version.

What was your proudest moment as a service provider?
My work at the MIIP agency with Jonathan Cardona, Monica Farrugia, Charles Mizzi, and the rest of the team, under the leadership of Hon. Julia Farrugia is a cherished memory.

But of course, the pinnacle, so far, is Monday the 13th of August 2018 – Day 1 of operations for CIVIQUO; a day which I had the opportunity to share with close friends, Ryan Darmanin and Domenique Bonnici.

Which investment migration market development has surprised you the most in the last year?
I am not going to comment about changes in programs, because these are inevitable when you understand the dynamics of the industry, but in May 2019, the European Commission held its first-ever stakeholder meeting, which went largely under the radar for almost the entire industry [ed: It did not, however, escape the attention of IMI; read about it here].

Even the “self-regulating bodies” failed to mention this important meeting to their constituents, which is disappointing; an important meeting with the EU Commission, considering all the reporting and complaining that was going on, and the impact this could have on the industry, and no one mentions anything? This made absolutely no sense at all!

CIVIQUO took immediate action by advising everyone of this meeting through IMIdaily.com and our social media channels and creating a survey asking the same questions which would be addressed during the meeting so that we could bring the voice of stakeholders to the European Commission. I remember at the meeting, a representative of an international firm told me, “were it not for CIVIQUO, we wouldn’t have been here.”

I also must admit that I am somewhat disappointed by the European Commission’s work and commitment on this matter. Not only has the work of the group of member state experts not been published, even though promised by end of 2019, but not even the minutes of the meeting that took place in December 2019 have been published for public scrutiny yet.

A much higher degree of professionalism is required by the EU here, not only because they are an international political body but also because they have been very forthcoming in their critique of the industry’s work yet failed to follow up adequately. Now we must wait for whatever ‘surprise’ awaits as the Commission follows up on this at their own leisure. A surprise that, following the impact of COVID-19, could have catastrophic implications for the industry.

The CIVIQUO platform, which pools and explains residency, citizenship, and visa programs, is becoming an increasingly important tool for both investors looking to relocate, and companies seeking to offer their services in a more transparent and ethical manner.

If you could go 10 years back in time, what business decision would you change?
10 years ago, I worked at one of the world’s largest banks. I left that position 2 years later and a year after that, I entered the industry – and I would not change a thing.

I am very meticulous when making decisions; ask, acquire, appraise, aggregate, apply, assess – that is my decision-making mantra. I think that decision-makers have an obligation towards those that will be impacted by their decisions. Making irresponsible, biased decisions without using all the available information and without considering the impact on others is simply not right; I guess that’s why they call it ‘gut instinct’ – because results are usually s***

What investment migration industry personality do you most admire?
I always admired people who got things done in general. In this industry, even though some may have retired since I had the opportunity to work alongside them, my admiration goes to individuals like Mark Stannard, Jenny Stannard, Daniela Bugeja, Tia Mercieca, Derek Nicholson, and Annemarie Grima – arguably the best citizenship by investment team in 2015, in the world.

There’s Jonathan Cardona, Monica Farrugia, and Charles Mizzi, under the leadership of Hon. Julia Farrugia. What a team!

And of course, all the CIVIQUO shareholders and team, whom I admire, respect, and have heaps of gratitude towards, because they put up with my nonsense on a daily basis!

If all goes according to plan, what will you be doing five years from now?

  • Take CIVIQUO public;
  • Support start-ups that could change the world;
  • Enjoy life.

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Christian Henrik Nesheim AdministratorKeymaster

Christian Henrik Nesheim is the founder and editor of Investment Migration Insider, the #1 magazine – online or offline – for residency and citizenship by investment. He is an internationally recognized expert, speaker, documentary producer, and writer on the subject of investment migration, whose work is cited in the Economist, Bloomberg, Fortune, Forbes, Newsweek, and Business Insider. Norwegian by birth, Christian has spent the last 14 years in the United States, China, and Spain. 

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