As a member of one of Malta’s largest and best-known family businesses, Pio Vassallo has never worked outside of Vassallo Group – but there is no doubt that he adequately prepared for his time within it.
“While I was studying in the UK, I would spend summers as a barman in one of our hotels,” he says. “I can’t remember not working within the Group and have had a summer ‘job’ here since I was about 10. I tried everything: store-keeper, accounts clerk, working in the design office… and I relished every one of those opportunities to learn the ropes.”
One of his most formative periods was the summer before he went to university, when he took a gap year and worked on the Radisson Baypoint project, which was still under construction back then. “It was a fantastic experience,” he smiles. “I didn’t know what I wanted to study at university at the time, so that inspired me to read for a degree in construction management and engineering. University was another fantastic time in my life, and it changed me. Before that I was very shy and reserved, but it taught me how to live independently, to believe in myself and how to compete on an international level. I also realised then that, us Maltese are very good at what we do, and that gave me the confidence to return to Malta and start getting increasingly involved in the business.”
But much of Pio’s corporate acumen was imbued in him even earlier, when he would accompany his father on site visits as a child. “I think that made me target-oriented from day one,” he says. “I remember my father building the business. I recall him buying his first hotel – the Bugibba Holiday Complex – and receiving the first guests myself along with my sister Natalie, who is now CEO of one of our companies, CareMalta. We were so excited.”
In the years that followed, Pio continued to work through the company ranks – from Assistant Project Manager, to Director of Operations in the construction sector. “At the time our Managing Director was a non-family member, Joe Schranz, who I had so much respect for; we’re still friends to this day and he’s now one of our clients.”
When Joe decided to move to build his own business, Zaren seized the opportunity to appoint Pio Managing Director for the Group’s construction arm – one of its largest and most challenging sectors. “I was young but bursting with energy,” Pio says, smiling at the memory. “It wasn’t easy, especially as I was managing people who were much older and more experienced than I was. But, over time, I gained experience and it got easier, especially as I began to form my own team along the way.”
He was then appointed CEO of the entire Group in February 2018, making him one of the youngest top-level CEOs on the island. Even now, he highlights one of his biggest satisfactions as the progress of those working for the Group. “I aim to inspire them to become the people they never thought they could be,” he says. “In fact, so many of our team have grown through the ranks and developed their careers in ways they probably didn’t think were possible. Witnessing and encouraging that is easily my favourite part of the job.”
Pio says he operates the business according to the ethos that ‘people will not remember what you told them but will remember how you made them feel’. As CEO of the Group he of course knows he has ultimate responsibility for the performance of the company, but chooses to focus the majority of his attention on the team. “Our results can only be positive if our people are positive,” he says. “If you know your people, you know your business.”
“I recently started CEO coaching, as I believe it is vital to invest in yourself as well as others. It has been a revelation and taught me the difference between being a leader and a manager: as a manager you direct, but as a leader you coach.”
Pio cites his mission as being the ‘servant leader’ to his team – someone who serves his people rather than is served by them. “It’s all about reversing the power triangle,” he says. “I strive to inspire a high level of confidence and positivity within the organisation, as well as in our relationship with customers and stakeholders.”
But even when considering that fact, finding the right people to join the organisation is among the top challenges that Pio faces when looking at the company’s growth strategy for the years to come. “It’s tough finding the people we need,” he says. “And I know most businesses in Malta are experiencing that currently. The economy is doing well, tourism is growing, and there are opportunities across all sectors, but we need good people to be able to capitalise on them.
“Beyond that, the sustainability of construction on the island is also a big challenge for us. From our point of view – and although we are very involved in construction and real estate – we must focus on buildings that are environmentally friendly and not controversial in their approach. As a Group, we want to add value with what we do, not detract.”
With that in mind, Pio says the Group hopes to offset its impact by trying to balance things out. “We plant trees, grow beautiful gardens in our buildings, opt for electric cars, and explore innovative ways of being environmentally-friendly. As business leaders we need to be socially responsible and CSR is integral to our strategy for the future. After all, we operate within the environment so we need to look after our environment and leave it as a better place for our children.”
Pio aims to keep ensuring that the Group stays at the forefront of all the sectors it operates within, and beyond. “I also hope to build another sector into our portfolio and to make it our fifth pillar. I admit, though, that I don’t know what it is yet! I would like it to be something that’s dedicated to giving back to Malta. It is important to me that we never stop being grateful for the success we have achieved. The legacy we can leave behind will be our showcase for that.”
MaltaChamber.org.mt is proud to be serialising MaltaCEOs 2019, a high-profile publication consisting of 50 in-depth interviews with leading CEOs in Malta. Celebrating the most influential business minds in the country, two different interviews will be featured on this business news portal week by week. MaltaCEOs was created by Content House Group in collaboration with the Malta Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise & Industry.