Q&A Nazzareno Vassallo - Chairman of Vassallo Group
The Report Company: You have just launched a new corporate identity to coincide with the 65th anniversary of the company – what prompted the change?
Nazzareno Vassallo: The Vassallo Group, previously known as the Vassallo Builders Group, started out in the post World War II era as a construction company that focused on ‘rebuilding the nation’ following the devastation caused by the war. Over six and a half decades, the Group has continued to enjoy its strong heritage within the construction industry while also expanding and investing in a number of other economic sectors.
As part of its 65th anniversary celebrations, the Group’s board of directors decided that it was time for a rejuvenation of its brand identity, reflecting the heritage that the Group enjoys while also embracing its forward-looking dynamism and energy.
TRC: How has the group expanded over the years?
NV: We first started expanding into construction-related areas, such as production of concrete, joinery works, steelworks, everything relating to construction; then in the 1970s we started branching out into other areas.
In 1979 we ventured into the hotel and leisure sector and in 1982 opened the Bugibba Holiday Complex, a three-star holiday complex with 250 beds. Over the years further extension work has been carried out and today the hotel holds 869 beds.
In 1987 we joined forces with Winston V Zahra, through which a partnership was formed under the name of Island Hotels Group Ltd. We were the franchisees for Radisson in St Julian’s and the Radisson Golden Sands. After 22 years, we sold our shares in 2009, however we are still involved with the Bugibba Holiday Complex, today known as The Bugibba Hotel, which is still run and managed by us. Since then we’ve opened a new urban boutique hotel, The George, which opened its doors in June 2009. The demand for its unique product offering was so strong that accommodation levels were close to full capacity within just a few weeks of its launch and it is still going strong today.
During this period we also became involved in the catering industry and in November 2010, joined forces with Corinthia Group in an ambitious joint venture. The new company, Catermax, will be offering creative and distinguished outside catering, tapping into the conference and incentive market, weddings and high profile events and functions.
Elderly care is also one of our main strengths within the group. In 1991, we ventured into this area with the opening of the first purpose-built elderly care home in Malta. Today, CareMalta Group is Malta's market leader in providing quality services in nursing and residential care, independent living for older persons, specialised dementia care and certified courses in health and older persons care.
We now plan to develop the elderly care service further. Our next step is to cater for care in the community, for which we recently formed a new partnership with Malta’s leading ICT health specialists 6PM. The newly formed company, emCare360 Limited, will offer health care services through mobile technology. The idea is to start offering this service by the beginning of 2012.
TRC: What has been the strategy been in terms of which sectors you enter and which you avoid?
NV: I come from a family of 12, with 5 brothers operating in the same business of construction. I didn’t want my children to have the same experience, so I thought that I would try to divert my children into different areas of business. This would also diversify my involvement, instead of focusing all my efforts on the construction sector.
In my business, my strategy is to identify a specialist in an area where we don’t operate. We offer them the opportunity to develop this together, acting as a business angel. If you have an idea, we’ll support your idea, give you the opportunity to move it forward, support it administratively and financially and give you all the backing for that idea. At the same time you will develop your idea as much as you can, because we will give you our full support.
This strategy has been used successfully in catering, construction, rock cutting, property management, IT, education and other various fields in which we operate.
Today we have an interest in 35 to 40 companies and although Vassallo Group is a family business, we ensure it is managed in a professional way. Each company has its own board of directors and every month individual board meetings are organised to discuss each company’s budget and management accounts. We have another strategy board overlooking this, which meets once a month to overview all companies.
TRC: How did the recession affect the different parts of the group?
NV: Last year, 2010, was a record year for the group. We were very busy in the construction sector and elderly health care is an area that is still growing. We were affected in the real estate sector, but it wasn’t our main focus at that time. That’s where diversification comes in. Last year wasn’t the best year for real estate but it was a very good year in our other various sectors.
This year, construction got off to a slow start when compared to last year and will probably remain like this for the rest of the year. In other areas like the hospitality industry, results are better this year. There was some uncertainty because of Libya, but overall we cannot complain as yet.
TRC: Did joining the EU make much of a difference in the areas you’re involved in?
NV: I was a great supporter of joining the EU as I felt it was a great opportunity for our country. The fact that we’re part of a bigger community means it’s much easier to do business, especially since we adopted the euro, which reaps a number of benefits for the country. Overall, I would say it’s been a positive experience for Malta.
TRC: Is it difficult to build up and retain a skills base in so many different sectors in such a small economy?
NV: It is, yes, but we’ve been here for 65 years and I’m proud to say we have many generations of the same family working with us. As a group we very much believe in the welfare and well-being of our employees and try to be as flexible as possible whenever we can. We also believe in training, as this will help our staff in keeping their skills up to date, which is essential to the success of our business. We certainly believe that a happy workforce will contribute to the success of the Group and we are more than ready to invest in it.
TRC: What are you most proud of in your career?
NV: Looking back over the years, I am overwhelmed with all that I have achieved and the many business decisions that have shaped my career since then. I started from nothing and worked my way up, so I strongly believe that if you set your mind on something, it’s never impossible.
I’m proud that my children are very much on board and will continue in my footsteps. Apart from that, I’m also proud to say that I have been involved in every national project starting back in the 1970s, when we did the first turnkey project on the island.
As for the 1980s, I consider the construction of the new Air Terminal in Luqa an achievement because it was the first international project awarded to a local consortium. Another achievement came in the 1990s, when we were entrusted together with other local contractors with the construction of the Malta Freeport Terminal II, meeting both deadline and budget.
They’ve been a good 65 years. I’ve been here for the last 44 years and have been on the front line the whole time. I’m at a strategy level so I don’t involve myself in the day-to-day operations. I will strive to continue working for a few more years and at the same time enjoy some time off at sea during the summer months.