21 – 27 February 2001

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A gem of a business idea

Nothing is ever certain in business, but two men were determined to make their dream to go places in the jewellery business a reality. One half of the Vasco duo, Mark Vassallo, tells MIRIAM DUNN how they did it

The name Vasco has not taken long to become synonymous with stylish jewellery and innovative giftware.
But joint director Mark Vassallo is quick to point out that success was not handed to him and his partner, Arthur Cassar, on a plate.
"We really did start with nothing, in fact you could say less than nothing," he says with a smile. "In fact, I had to sell my car to get the venture off the ground!"
Mark explains that what he and Arthur brought with them when they set up the business together six years ago was a wealth of experience in the jewellery trade.
"I was working in the business and my partner was working as a wholesaler, so we both had some strengths in the field," he says. "Arthur had a lot of business contacts abroad, for example, while I had a good network of associates on this end, so we were well balanced in this respect."
But Mark stresses that, although the two men decided to pool their resources, their plans to take up on their own as wholesalers was not without its teething problems.
"When we started out importing jewellery from Italy, it was really a case of trial and error," he explains. "I remember that one of the first consignments we brought over was very expensive, and I was really concerned about whether we'd sell anything!"
Mark still recalls the two entrepreneurs' humble beginnings, which were a far cry from the Naxxar premises they now have and are still expanding on.
"When we first went into the wholesale trade together, we didn't even have an office," he says. "In fact, we used a room in Arthur's house and put our wares in a showcase. In many ways it looked like someone's reception room!"
At this time, Mark explains, he was visiting jewellery shop proprietors in the morning, and making appointments for clients to view their products at Arthur's home in the afternoon.
As their client list increased, Mark and Arthur began expanding their range.
"We concentrated primarily on silverware and frames to begin with, but it wasn't long before we realised we were going to need bigger premises and more manpower," Mark explains. "We had so many customers that I couldn't get round to the shops, so we realised we needed to employ salesmen to help us out. And we also found that our range had increased to the extent that we couldn't put all our goods on display, so we knew we needed to invest in a store."
The two partners knew what their business requirements were – the biggest question, Mark explains, was how to finance them.
"Both of us recognised that we required a bigger property with stores and a showroom, but we had to work out where the money was coming from," he says.
One idea that the two considered was contacting one of their suppliers in Italy and offering them the opportunity to invest in the development.
"Then, while I was in Italy, Arthur saw our current premises," he says. "He knew this place it had great potential, and told me not to do anything until I'd been to see it."
Mark recalls how he was also impressed with the Naxxar building, which comprised shops, offices and stores, but felt sure it wasn't in their budget.
"Arthur told me not to worry – he's always been the go-getter, while I'm the cautious one," he says with a smile. "So I let him make a ridiculous offer and then we left. I couldn't believe it when we got a phone call one week later saying our offer had been accepted!"
This was one and a half years ago and, although pleased their offer had been accepted, Mark and Arthur were faced with the challenge of giving the premises an overhaul.
"The place was a great deal, but it admittedly needed a lot doing to it," he says. "We had to get going because our prime aim was to make sure we were open in time for Christmas."
Mark and Arthur realised their dream in September 1999, when the first part of their shop opened and trade has grown ever since.
However, they have not stood still, and as demand has increased, so have their business aspirations.
"The premises seemed large enough 18 months ago, but we have now expanded to include more gold and diamonds in our range," Mark says. "In line with this, we want to extend an area which we will earmark for high quality jewellery, and where customers spending considerable sums of money will have more space and privacy."
Asked what he believes to be the secret of a successful business, Mark cites "some luck and a good working partnership" as two important factors.
"I think you also have to know your market, or perhaps be prepared to admit you don't know it," he adds. "Even now, I'm sometimes surprised by what does and doesn't sell. Only recently, we had some items of jewellery that we were going to scrap and melt down, and a customer saw some of it on the shelf and bought it!"
Mark also highlights the importance of customer care.
"Word of mouth is the name of the game," he says. "You have to offer a good service and treat people well, so that they will come back and recommend you to their families and friends."
So what's next for Vasco?
"Apart from our refurbishment here, we're also looking to open abroad," Mark replies. "We are considering various options, such as a new outlet overseas, or perhaps selling our name as a franchise, and are carrying out the research necessary for this move."

The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07
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