“If I succeeded, anyone can!” – Nazzareno Vassallo
Nazzareno Vassallo has built an empire that started from his father’s humble business in the dusty, lucrative sites of construction and moved on to become the pioneer in the sectors of private care and hospitality. Today, Vassallo Group is among the leaders in developing public projects, real estate, catering, hotels and care for the elderly and the disabled.
At 65, Zaren, as he is fondly known, is still the reference point and driving force of Vassallo Group, and although he does occasionally contemplate retirement, it remains a fleeting thought.
Ten years ago, determined not to remain the company’s sounding board and mentor, he moved out of the Group’s headquarters at Three Arches to Villa Amodeo, a property in his beloved Mosta that he had coveted for years.
Celebrating 50 years at the helm, the fire driving his vision shows no sign of being extinguished. His eyes still gleam when he discusses a new project. He now focuses on the areas he loves most, safe in the knowledge that his five children and loyal team of executives will continue to expand and diversify the legacy of Vassallo Group.
Peering into the past with a sense of nostalgia, he shares his accomplishments and vision to keep taking the Group from strength to strength, emphasizing that: “If I succeeded, anyone can!”
On the company’s inception
“My father was a farmer and when I left school at 15 one thing was clear in my mind: I was never going to become a farmer. I had big dreams and a thirst to change the status quo.”
The youngest of five brothers, from a total of 12 siblings, Nazzaerno Vassallo stated: “I joined my father who had set up the business 70 years ago. Dozens of contractors and workers from the industry must have started under my father’s guidance. He was a good man with a huge, ‘quiet’ influence, but we were very different.”
He continued: “In those days, there was no bookkeeping and nothing was recorded – transactions depended on the memory of whoever you were doing business with, and everything was paid in cash. I immediately realised we could no longer run the business without records.”
At 15, nobody had taught him how to handle this, so he started visiting Emanuel Attard, a civil servant par excellence, and he would guide him on bookkeeping. He encouraged him and equipped him with a skill set which allowed him to transform his dream about creating a company a reality.
In 1971, the construction company Vassallo Builders was registered. At the tender age of 18, when his father and brothers entrusted him with changing the system.
The one driving force that keeps him going to this very day is the fact that they always try to be trailblazers in whatever they do: “We were innovative then and we have remained innovative now.”
On the challenges of running a family business
In 1985, Nazzareno Vassallo bought his father and brother’s shares and became the company’s sole owner. Determined to do things differently, and ensuring his five children would have the opportunity to join the business, he worked arduously, with a clear vision in mind:
“I know it sounds unusual but I involved my kids as shareholders when my youngest was just six months old – in fact, I needed legal permission as they were all minors. I didn’t want them to go through what I experienced to finally get their share. I wanted them to feel they were the rightful owners from day one.”
But, he elaborated, “I also appointed non-family members to top positions and started widening our company portfolio, operating as a holding company and creating new subsidiaries. I wanted my children to work together, yet be apart.”
Many people question whether this is healthy, and to this he answered: “I think it is once you achieve the balance I tried to create. My vision is that they don’t step on each other’s toes in the same business. They all have their own area and expertise.”
“I’ve also recently appointed Tonio Depasquale, who represents a fatherly figure for them, as chairman of the operating companies to allow me to ease out slowly and not remain the company’s sole reference point.”
It’ll be another challenge when his grandchildren grow up, always thinking of succession: “I’d like them to be involved in a controlled manner after I leave.”
On a mission to care
“We care, we really do.” In the early 1990s, Casa Arkati could have been a block of flats but he wanted to leave a legacy; a project with a social conscience that still made business sense. The choices before his were either a private school, a private hospital or a home for the elderly. They chose the latter, because they felt it was the most pressing need for society in the light of an ageing population.
He explained: “As a construction company, we didn’t have the right expertise so we sought the advice of British specialists to set off on the right track, and then eventually took over.”
Today, Vassallo Group have a number of homes for the elderly, and as a person, Nazzareno Vassallo is happier to increase the number of beds rather than taking a dividend at the end of the year. “Of course, it’s nice to reap the profits”, he said candidly, “but it’s a double win if we increase the business.”
One can sense his genuine happiness and sense of achievement when he said: “It makes me happy that in the past 18 months the Group has become involved in three different care sectors: private homes for the elderly through CareMalta; we’re running HILA and Hand In Hand from Casa Apap Bologna, services for persons with disabilities and autism; and we’ve now inaugurated the latest exciting project run by HILA to transform Casa Santa Monica into a specialised home for ALS, MS and neurological patients, today known as Dar Bjorn. This home is the brainchild of Bjorn Formosa who suffers from this degenerative disease.”
Nazzareno Vassallo’s genuineness is palpable when he emphasized that “we are and we plan to remain, a private company with a public conscience.”
When asked about what he will do if he retires, he sincerely said: “I love my work, I love to dream about new projects and that will never die. To me, embarking on a new project is like going on an adventure. I had always said I wanted to stop working either after 40 years of work or when I became a grandfather, whichever came first. These two milestones coincidentally took place within a week of each other, but I went to work the next day!”
With a smile on his face, he expressed: “My next project involved working on the home for the elderly in Mellieћa, and I couldn’t exactly stop halfway. The day we inaugurated the home should have been my retirement party, but I still turned up for work that week!”
However, he did take one strategic decision; and that was to move out of the headquarters to an office he had set up in Villa Amodeo in Mosta.
He moved out to give his children a chance to grow, without having him continuously by their side, doubling up as their sounding board, and to take responsibility for the day-to-day decisions. In his opinion, he thinks it worked.
Villa Amodeo still acts like the power station of the Group, but The Three Arches delivers the vision.
He actually increased not decreased the hours he put into the business because he enjoys what he does. Here, at the villa, he spends as many hours as he wants: “I’m happy in this space.”
“The company, which employs more than 1,700 people, continues to make great strides and we’re on track to achieve our Vision 2020 targets.”
On the fear of failure
The fear of failure is with you all the time, but this does not scare him. What keeps him going is the determination to succeed and the energy to persevere until he obtains the results he wants. One of the principles that has guided him throughout the years is to never take on a job he cannot complete.
Who is Zaren?
Perhaps one of the most difficult questions to answer is the one about himself: “Zaren is a lot of things: I am a man with a finger in many pies, and I’d like to think I’m the Guardian Angel of Mosta, the town where I was brought up.”
He considered himself poor when he set out his business endeavours, he certainly didn’t want to die poor. With a smile on his face and always keeping himself grounded, he concluded by saying: “I’m nothing special; I’m just blessed with a determination to succeed!”