Natalie Briffa Farrugia may have taken on the role immortalised in the company’s annals by her father, Zaren, but she has placed his big shoes high up on a shelf. As the Vassallo Group’s chairperson for the modern era, she is much more comfortable wearing her own. “It is impossible to replicate what my dad did and I have no intention of trying. He was the founder. The be-all and end-all. My aim will be to ensure our people live up to the roles they have been empowered to perform.”

Her quietly assured presence contrasts sharply with the hustle and bustle of the University of Malta’s vibrant Campus Hub – where this interview took place – but the premises, built and managed by the Group, are a glowing reflection of the present and future. “We are a very well structured organisation, so I’m concentrating on being forward-looking and ensuring each company’s risk appetite is aligned with the Group as a whole. This is more and more important the bigger we grow.

The company’s success no longer boils down to one person but on everyone fulfilling their potential.” She expresses surprise “at how much I’m enjoying my new position” given that practically her entire working life to date was dedicated to the care sector, though an element of this may be down to the diversity she experiences through person to person contact. Marking out another difference from her father, she says with a sense of steely determination that she “is not an email person” but one who has always “loved the human element”.

While that approach is clearly reaping dividends, Natalie is also a realist who freely acknowledges the “hard times” caused by the Covid pandemic and war in Ukraine. “There have obviously been repercussions. On the property side, no one imagined that certain office tenants would suddenly downscale – taking one floor instead of four, for example – while staff turnover and burnout has been another issue especially in the hospitality, construction and care sectors where our colleagues were stretched to the absolute limit.”

However, her make-up ensures she will not shy away from difficulties. Quite the contrary, she is quick to point out the great feats performed during this period – such as setting up a care facility within just three days and moving office life online – and insists that in a climate of increased costs people need to continue challenging themselves to rethink how they operate. “Instead of raising prices for example, we should look at how to better monitor our consumption and wastage. I know this is possible because we have practised such a philosophy in the care sector for years.”

Natalie is also swift to recognise that opportunities present themselves in times of flux. “I see scope for exponential growth in all areas of the Group. The Campus Hub – a novel concept that brings together the academic and entrepreneurial worlds – is a  prime example when you see all the potential here and it is now up to my siblings and I to develop these new concepts.” She is mindful, however, that whatever direction the company takes, it must embrace a caring approach to the environment and refers to a famous line often quoted by her father – ‘ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country’ – to make her point.

“It shouldn’t be about maximum gain or the businessman ‘winning’ but about how we can contribute to the environment and the country at large. I don’t believe I’m being utopian when I say that I see this as the perfect scenario for businesses to flourish because I’m a strong believer in the win-win scenario. It’s up to us to change things for the better.”

The Group will seek to continue that mission as a tightly-knit family concern, with each of the siblings – who have all been shareholders since the age of 18 – heavily involved. She is diplomatic when asked about the pros and cons of working with her brothers and sister, but at the same time candid: “I told a family business conference that groups like ours need to have a ‘family room’ where certain issues are thrashed out. Emotions can get in the way obviously, but that can also be an advantage.”

A competitive streak is a quality all of them share, and Natalie herself intends to continue indulging in physical challenges for good causes by raising money for a set of young twins with Zellweger Syndrome, a serious but rare genetic disorder. Last year her exploits involved running from Marsaxlokk to Ghajn Tuffieћa, swimming to Gozo and then pounding concrete again to finish at Ta’ Pinu Sanctuary. The next effort will have the same destination but this time setting off from Valletta.

“I always need a target and once that’s established I work towards achieving it.” One achievement she did notch up last summer was avoiding talking to her dad about work during their family holiday. “I believe in working hard but place a lot of emphasis on work-life balance, so not having this conversation – even more challenging this year because he hasn’t been around – was special. Away from the office I see myself as just a daughter, a mother to my daughters and my husband’s wife.” As if to prove the point, at the end of the interview she dashed off for an important appointment… to pick up her children from swimming lessons.