This year saw the launch of Malta’s first student village at the University of Malta. As CEO of Campus Hub, Christian Vassallo has been working hard to ensure this bold project lives up to the Vassallo Group’s reputation and is a sustainable project of quality set to serve generations of students to come.
For Christian Vassallo, growing up within the family business has been a lifelong lesson in leadership and bringing game-changing business ideas to fruition. Over the years, he has been directly involved with several start-ups within Vassallo Group, including setting up CaterEssence, a leading contract caterer that, pre-COVID-19, was employing some 200 team members doing €10 million worth of business a year.
When the opportunity arose for him to take on the CEO role for Campus Hub, Christian was instantly compelled. “These projects of national significance don’t present themselves every day. I knew it would be a challenge, but I felt confident that my previous experiences had equipped me with all the skills I needed to take on the role,” he explains.
Campus Hub is certainly no everyday venture, not even by Vassallo Group’s formidable standards. Costing in the region of €45 million, the project marks the single-largest investment the Group has ever poured into one project. Christian also believes it’s a project that the Group was uniquely primed to undertake.
Over and above possessing the reputation to secure such funding, Vassallo Group’s diverse portfolio of businesses ensured nearly every phase of the development could be expedited efficiently: “we already had invaluable experience across all the different aspects of developing such a large-scale project, including dealing with architects, providing hospitality services, having access to leading service providers, and so on. The strength of the Group has really come into its own on this project.”
In fact, nearly every resource and expertise within the Group is being leveraged to facilitate Campus Hub. Construction is being overseen by Vassallo Builders, while everything from the concrete to the doors and furnishings is also being supplied by in-house companies.
Excavations for Campus Hub started in Q1 of 2019, with the first phase of construction kicking off later that year in November. Everything was plain sailing until COVID-19 hit just a few months later. While the local construction sector was given an official go-ahead to continue works, Christian’s prime concern was to ensure his team was working safely and responsibly in line with social distancing and quarantine rules.
“When COVID-19 hit, our primary objective was to keep our people and their families safe and healthy, which I’m happy to report we managed successfully. Notwithstanding the challenges, we still managed to cast 800 square metres of the development every week, on average. The team really pulled together to work responsibly, which meant we were able to stay on track,” Christian says.
If anything, the pandemic only spurred Christian and his team on to accelerate certain project milestones. “As soon as we heard the University of Malta was to become a central vaccination centre, we realised more parking spaces were needed on campus. So we accelerated the development of our car park by six months, to cater for around 500 cars. All-in-all, we tried to help out as much as we could.”
CSR is something that Christian has always taken incredibly seriously, long before the term itself became a ubiquitous business buzzword. It’s an attribute he ascribes to growing up within the Vassallo family: “from a young age, it was really ingrained in us that we have a huge social responsibility to our communities. As a Group, we recognise that we have the power to make a positive impact, whether it’s building something like Campus Hub or influencing change on other levels, like dealing with racism at work, creating environments of equality, and encouraging recycling and green awareness. It’s a quality I hope to instil in my children too.”
Further proof of this ardent commitment to CSR can be seen through Campus Hub itself. The development was an opportunity for the Group to prove how, with planning and forethought, construction stakeholders can successfully and significantly reduce pollution and waste at almost every juncture.
“We looked at many different technologies that we could use to improve our processes. We opted to adopt a BubbleDeck system, which makes use of a series of hollow recycled plastic balls that are inserted into the concrete slabs. This plastic itself was partly collected from within the Group and recycled into the process. The actual cost was slightly higher than it would have been otherwise but, all-in-all it has enabled us to reduce our concrete footprint by 40 per cent, while saving over 1.5 million gallons of CO2 from being emitted into the environment.”
Elsewhere in the development, Christian and his team have introduced solar glass – a heavily insulated external building coating to boost energy efficiency all year round – and a large water tank to collect all water drained from air conditioner units for irrigation. Bathrooms have been prefabricated using innovative plug-and-play modular units in Milan and shipped to Malta to save on countless trucks coming to and from the island carrying individual pieces. Trees that were removed from the site will be returned to their natural environment once construction is complete. Finally, a 150-year-old rural building found during works, and which the Group had permission to remove, is being repurposed as a highlight feature within the Hub’s piazza. Thus, Christian is proud of the far-reaching vision of this truly eco-conscious development that is set to transform life around the university.
As all-consuming as Campus Hub has proven to be, Christian is also actively involved in another project he deems to be his “true life’s work”. Building on Vassallo Group’s estimable experience in shaping the local private healthcare sector, Christian helped launch Hand In Hand, Malta’s first Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) intervention centre and school. The centre specialises in supporting children with autism and learning needs at early intervention stage. Today, the centre employs 22 full-time therapists and supports over 60 families.
“Hand In Hand is the most important project I’ve ever played a part in. I feel that we’re doing something special to help more and more kids. With these types of projects, it takes someone crazy enough to make the first move, and I’m happy to be the one pushing the boundaries within this space. This is only the beginning. Our next project will be opening our secondary school,” he says with a genuine note of excitement.
With so many projects requiring his time, energy and focus, Christian says he has come to rely on his team to assist in his role.
“I’m a rugby guy, and rugby has taught me the value of trusting in your team. You’re only as strong as your weakest link, so the team should always move to strengthen and protect one another. I’m happy to let my team shine and I only employ people who I feel are better than me at their jobs. As a leader, I want to enable them, so they only need me in worst-case scenarios. My job is to protect them so they can continue to work without any distractions or unnecessary pressures.”
Now Campus Hub is already in full swing, with the first students having arrived on 1 January 2022. More are expected, with 400 due to live in the residence by the summer.
Students and the public can also look forward to a range of new outlets opening each month within the Hub’s central piazza. Everything from coffee shops and eateries to a pharmacy, fitness centre, and express supermarket will be coming to Campus Hub.
“This has been a huge, rewarding challenge because it’s innovative,” the CEO says, as the project nears completion. “It’s the first time this has been done in Malta, so it was a bold move. However, thanks to the help of the university and the companies within the Group, I’m very confident that we’re launching something special.”
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.
MaltaCEOs 2022 serialisation: For seven years, WES Trade has helped an expansive range of clients internationalise their products and services.
MaltaCEOs 2022 serialisation: Unsurprisingly, given his technical background, Joseph’s approach is very hands-on.
MaltaCEOs 2022 serialisation: CEO Paul Magro counts building successful teams and opening an office in London among his achievement.
MaltaCEOs 2022 serialisation: CEO David Magro is keenly aware of the responsibility his position carries.