An Ironman athlete, Pio Vassallo is well trained in pacing himself for a gruelling marathon, but nothing could have prepared him for the challenges and unpredictability COVID-19 posed to the Group’s performance. “When you’re preparing for a race, you have a start and a finish. When the virus hit the island in March we were agile and adopted to the fear of the unknown. Now, we’re better equipped, but you never know if you’re going too fast or too slow to get to the finish line intact,” he says.
Reflecting on the past months, Pio described how when the virus hit, all the Group rallied to safeguard its care homes and protect its vulnerable residents through a complete lockdown, and a live-in for staff and carers that lasted 10 weeks: “It was like we were preparing to load Noah’s Ark.”
As CEO, his next focus was the Group’s catering and hotel arm, which was being pummelled by the sudden drop in tourism as airports starting closing worldwide.
Possessing the focus to adapt, Pio had to take the difficult decisions to terminate certain subcontractors and let some of the staff go, something that was unheard of during Malta’s busy summer months. The future in this area remains uncertain as hotels close, with the hope of reopening in spring.
The only consolation, if there was any, was the fact that everyone was battling the same ‘enemy’ and the reassurance that as the Maltese proverb goes – b’qatra nerqu u b’żiffa ninxfu (we drown in a drop and dry with a breeze) – the island would quickly get back on its feet.
Thankfully, the banks and government understood the problem and threw a lifebuoy to help some of the most badly hit businesses stay afloat.
For a while, most of the Group was working remotely and although this was initially exciting, the novelty soon started to wane and in summer arrangements were made for people to return in an environment that was safe and comfortable.
In the last quarter of this year, the Group, and the island, was bracing itself for the worst economic hit, and Pio was thankful the Group’s assets were spread over different sectors and that traditionally, the attitude towards investment was one of caution… especially in the real estate sector where overdevelopment was leading to a slowdown even pre-COVID.
“There has to be an adjustment in the market and the companies that survive are those which reassess their ways of doing business… It’s the same as a detox; now is the time for companies to go on a diet and prepare for a big race ahead.”
The projects that kept moving were the University of Malta’s Campus Hub and the Vassallo Business Park in Burmarrad, two of the Group’s biggest projects, which showcase the family’s commitment to the environment, and considerate development.
Was there an opportunity to be seized from all this upheaval?
“Things are going to get tougher before they get better, and during these past months it was a struggle to find a positive element in all that’s happened, here and worldwide. However, I’m an optimist by nature, and this has been an opportunity to look inwards, refocus and consolidate.”
Refocusing is what the Vassallo Group do well, and Pio’s eyes shine as he excitedly speaks about the projects for 2021 – education, and the creation of a private sports school, which is close to Pio’s heart. Sport has always been important throughout his childhood and his dream is to see this school start taking in its first students in three years; in time for the Games of the Small States of Europe. “The government is committed to improving this area, and as a Group, our mission statement is to leave a positive contribution to society and the economy. This also ties in with our focus to provide healthier lifestyles.”
Another area where Pio will be dedicating his energies during his ‘free’ time, is injecting a dose of energy into the Malta Beach Soccer Association. Fusing his two passions – sport and business – his vision is to develop Malta as an international beach soccer destination and grow sports tourism.
Looking ahead at 2021, when the Group marks its 75th anniversary, Pio believes this milestone is an opportunity to go to the next level. Along the years, the Group has diversified and been extremely successful on several levels; the time was now ripe to reboot and start again with renewed energy.
“I love what I do… I was born into this business and it has opened up several opportunities… Leadership isn’t about being the best, but about making others better and I really believe in seeing our team develop and furthering their careers… We are ready to go again!”