Viroc International is one of Malta’s oldest and foremost trading companies, with nearly ten decades of experience in a wide array of sectors. As the third generation of his family at the helm, Managing Director Mark Vassallo Cesareo knows all about maintaining that rick business legacy while driving the company onwards to new heights.

Before Mark Vassallo Cesareo even knew what the word ‘businessman’ meant, he knew his father was one, and he knew he wanted to be one too. “I’d watch my father get up for work, put on his suit, take his briefcase and leave for the office,” he says. “And I didn’t yet know what his work entailed but I knew he was respected by people, and I really admired that.”

Today, serving as Managing Director of Viroc International, he is – just as he aimed as a child – following in the footsteps of his father Attilio, who passed away in 2013 after 55 years leading the company his own father, Iro, founded back in 1924. Having grown and diversified steadily over the decades, Viroc continues to distinguish itself by working on major national projects in defence, energy and telecommunications, among several others.

It also remains a steadfastly family endeavour, with Mark’s brother and sister also occupying key roles in the business, the former leading the architecture studio and real estate portfolio, and the latter all logistic affairs.

“I want to ensure I keep the name of my family and business intact,” Mark says of carrying that proud history forward into the next generation. “We represent important companies around the world, and I see my role as one of relationship-building and relationship-keeping. I’m the glue between our principals and our clients: ensuring each is happy with the other and happy with us.”

Mark has been involved with the family business since his university days, when he would spend his summers working in different departments – from warehousing to stocktaking and accounting – understanding the importance of every role that made up the business.

“You can’t just wake up one day and decide to run a business like this; you have to understand the ins and outs of how it works from every aspect,” he says. After he graduated, he took on more and more responsibility, preparing himself for the role he occupies today. “Four years of university were great, but my real university commenced the day I started working side-by-side with my father.”

Since then, the projects Mark has been involved in are too numerous to mention, but a couple stick out in his memory. The first was when, in his early days, he took on and assisted a very important UK company in the energy sector called Lucy Electric. “Before us, they had very limited presence or success in Malta,” Mark explains. “However, together, we managed to build up a fantastic portfolio and created excellent relationships with various entities and clients. Today, together with our principals, we can boast of being the leading suppliers of secondary distribution equipment on the island.” 

The one that stands out in Mark’s mind, however, is the major contract Viroc took on for the supply of three new helicopters to the Armed Forces of Malta. Mark looks back on this with pride, not only for the national significance of the endeavour but also because it was the last project he worked on with his father.

“It took years and years of grinding,” he says, recalling long nights at the office and countless tos and fros. But before it was completed, his father grew ill and Mark was “thrown in the deep end” to get it over the line. “I managed to get a signed copy of the contract home to him, shortly before he passed. For me, that project helps his legacy live on. Even now, every time I see one of those helicopters flying past, I remember his hard work and efforts.”

When he first took over as Managing Director, Mark admits that finding a balance between his desire to continue his father’s legacy and to forge his own path wasn’t always easy. “I felt like I had very big shoes to fill,” he says. “I wanted to keep hold of everything good I had learned from him, while incorporating everything I had learned from my own experiences. I had to keep his wisdom and his approach, but also needed to bring it into a more modern context, trying to blend the old with the new, and taking the best from each.”

In a way, this philosophy is simply a continuation of the approach he believes has kept the family business successful for nearly 100 years. “The key has been our ability to adapt and change with the times, while always maintaining the respect of our principals and the industry at large. You can’t afford one false move or you’ll lose your reputation. But you’d be surprised how small the world is: if you’re respected by a major institution, word gets around.”

His approach to leadership, however, Mark credits directly to his father. “Respect, integrity and honesty are the three pillars he handed down to me. He always taught me that, whatever you do, you should do it well, but even more importantly, you should do it with integrity. That’s the advice I give others today: whatever you do, make sure you can walk the streets with your head held high and sleep soundly at the end of the day.”

Mark describes himself as a people-person and cherishes the fact that his role involves plenty of travelling, meeting new people, building and strengthening relationships. “There’s always a work context, but today many of my principals have become some of my best friends,” he says. He also loves the variety of a job that could entail walking through a massive shipyard or helicopter production line one day, and an underground substation in Leicester Square the next.

Admittedly, when the pandemic struck, that all became a lot harder. Physical meetings with contacts overseas became impossible, while ongoing projects were hampered by long delays in transporting materials or personnel. “This year has largely been about making sure the projects kept running smoothly, mitigating the issues brought about by COVID-19,” Mark says. “More than ever, I had to be the bridge between the problems abroad and the issues here, trying to find common ground, resolve issues and help everybody find a compromise.”

Now, Mark is gearing up for what comes next. The pandemic meant a number of projects he had been anticipating in 2021 evaporated, as budgets were reallocated elsewhere to stem the crisis. But he believes the next year could see a resurgence of projects as plans get back on track. “I think there’s renewed enthusiasm and I’m looking at the next year with optimism,” he says. “I’ve already seen business opportunities skyrocket: in the last two months more requests have come in than in the previous nine.”

Foremost on the agenda is the completion of the largest project in the company’s history: the design and construction of a new offshore patrol vessel for the Armed Forces of Malta, being built by Viroc’s long standing principals, Cantiere Navale Vittoria. The project, the largest contract ever issued by the Army, has been in the works for the last few years and, having weathered the COVID-19 storm, is a point of pride for Mark. “Our projects have always been linked with important milestones for the country,” he says. “Just as the helicopters brought the air wing into a modern era, this patrol boat will be the flagship vessel of the Armed Forces and will serve the country for the next 30 or 40 years.”

And more could be on the horizon. Historically, the company has always been active overseas, and while it has regularly bid for projects abroad, Mark says it is now exploring the possibilities of physically investing and expanding beyond Malta more actively. “The world’s your oyster, as they say. There are so many opportunities out there, and I think now could be the time.”

But he is quick to clarify that he continues to see Malta as his main market, one he knows inside out and one that is a constant source of excitement and pride. “My objective has always been to be the leading defence contractor on the island,” he says when asked of his goals for the years ahead. “In other sectors too, I want to be continually involved in projects of national importance, as I always have been. My aim is to continue being successful in strategic projects of national importance for this country,” he adds.

This article is part of the serialisation of 50 interviews featured in MaltaCEOs 2022 – an annual high-end publication bringing together some of the country’s most influential business leaders.

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