The Malta Independent 4 December 2020, Friday

A century of achievement

Noel Grima Tuesday, 6 October 2020, 09:58 Last update: about 3 months ago

1915-2015: 100 years of enterprise. The History of Alf. Mizzi & Sons Ltd

Author: Julian Sammut
Publisher: The Kite Group / 2016
Pages: 416pp

 

The first generation

This is one heavy book - big as a coffee-table volume with glossy pages, lots of pictures and a pleasant display.

It tells the story of one of Malta's foremost companies all the way from its humble beginnings, originating in the Maltese diaspora in Tripoli and now blossoming in companies such as The Point, Midi, The Atrium, Homemate and The Plaza.

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Alternatively one can look at this century of achievement as encapsulated in the life and times of Bertie Mizzi, one of its prime movers who died a short time after the glittering century celebrations.

One must understand where this company came from. Angelo Mizzi was born in Malta in 1857. He studied medicine at the Royal University of Malta and later at the Institute Pasteur in Paris.

Then he moved to Tripoli, got married to a Maltese Tripolina of Maltese (actually Senglean) descent, Eleonora, and set up as the first European doctor in the territory, then still under the Ottomans. He kept his post when the Italians took over from the Ottomans in 1911.

After the death of his wife in 1922, Angelo returned to Malta and took up residence at 18, Strada Zakkarija in Valletta. He remained active as a doctor and acquired The Original English Dispensary round the corner in Strada San Giovanni.

Together with his son Arturo, Angelo began importing pharmaceutical and allied products, foremost among which was Ovaltine.

For the last years of his life (he died in 1937) Angelo moved next door. His grandchildren still remembered him rocking slowly in his chair, a book in his hand and a tasseled fez on his head.

His son Alessandro (Sander) seems to have been quite a character. He set up a printing press, the Mercurius Press, in the basement of the house which printed the Nationalist Party papers, Il-Poplu and The Mid-day Views or any other name they would get when the paper was sued for libel.

Heavyweight Nationalist politicians like Nerik Mizzi and Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici (Il-Gross) could be frequently seen rushing into the kitchen for a plate of pasta or couscous prepared by Kelina, the faithful family cook who had been in Tripoli with the family and followed them to Malta, while they frantically wrote the editorial for the next day's edition.

One other son, Alberto, (Bertu) contested the general elections, first with the Nationalist Party and then with the Malta Labour Party, without any success on both occasions.

On 20 March 1892 in Tripoli, Eleonora gave birth to her fifth child, Alfredo, the Alf still honoured in the Alf Mizzi name. At that time the family formed part of the quite sizeable Maltese community in Libya, living in the Tripoli Medina around the church "of the Maltese" Santa Maria degli Angelo.

The Mizzi boys got their primary education at a school in Tripoli run by the Christian Brothers. But for their secondary education they were sent to the Lyceum in Malta. Their father rented a house for them at 52e, Strada Zekka (Old Mint Street).

After completing his studies at the Lyceum, Alfred returned to Tripoli and joined the Banca d'Italia next door to the Santa Maria degli Angeli church. He then moved back to Malta towards the end of 1914.

On 1 June 1925 he married Mabel Dunbar Vella. The two families lived next door to each other in Strada Zakkarija. Her father, Dr John, was the former vice president of the Bank of Malta.

The Dunbar Vellas were staunch Stricklandjani while the Mizzis were fervent Nazzjonalisti. Those were the hot days of the language question and two sets of invitations had to be made for the wedding, one in Italian and one in English.

The newly-weds took up residence at 344, Strada San Paolo, Valletta, two doors down from the Castille Hotel, later incorporated in The Times printing press.

During the Second World War, as the bombardment of the Grand Harbour and Valletta intensified, Alfred moved the family and the office to his summer house in Balluta.

The first letter to be found in the company's archive is dated 13 September 1915, a letter of introduction to Spettabile Ditta Anonima Manifattura Reggiani e Sonnino, Bergamo about the bleaching of cotton.

As was the custom at the time, Alfred first set up in business as a commission agent. He would visit several clients with his samples, collect the orders and then pass them on overseas to the relevant companies. The profits were not substantial but the risk to the agent inexistent.

Although the company states it was born in 1915, 1917 was Alf. Mizzi's first full year of sales activity. In that post-war time of poverty only 34 sales were registered that year and the following year with fighting intensifying only two sales were made. But when the war ended in 1919, 123 sales were made.

At first the company branched into the haberdashery business and later items of clothing. But by the mid-1920s the company was looking around and established its famous link with Dutch Baby, also establishing the first of its many gift schemes.

Later on, Dutch Baby led to Frisian Flag brand of milk which the company still represents.

The company was also the first representative in Europe of Seikosha clocks, later to become Seiko watches which the company still represents.

Life was slower back then. Many Valletta families had holiday homes, small houses and mezzanini mostly in St Julian's and Sliema where the family would move for the three months of summer. The working men would commute to the capital daily, returning home for lunch.

Alfred Mizzi was a serious man by nature and disposition, extremely conscientious in all he did. He was a deeply religious person, never missing his daily Mass, regularly attending the 9am Mass at St Francis church just round the corner. In the evening the whole family would gather for the Rosary.

After the war Alfred worked very hard to re-establish the business after the stagnant years of the war but in summer of 1948 he suffered a heart attack and thereafter his involvement in the company decreased and slowly became practically inexistent.

However his children took over and the company grew and grew - as we shall see in the next article.

 

The second generation

Alfred Mizzi’s retirement in 1950 paved the way for a new young spirit. Bertie, Tony and Arthur took over the helm of the company bringing with them novel ideas, enthusiasm and determination.

Now was their chance to change things, to steer the company in the direction which they believed was the future.

Malta had just emerged from one of its darkest periods. It was a time of rebuilding also at company level. Old associations with suppliers and exporters – those that had survived – were renewed. The company began to travel to foreign trade fairs, especially the Fiera del Levante held in Bari and the Fiera di Milano.

It was when visiting the latter that Bertie struck up a friendship with Alfredo Lombardi. The company used the Lombardi brand to successfully take on the mighty Knorr Swiss brand then imported by the Vadala family. The penetration of the Maltese market was helped by the massive Lombardi advertising on RAI, then the only television service received in Malta.

It was also helped by the Lombardi truck, like an ice-cream van, which toured the villages. But it was further helped by an innovation created in Italy – the Lombardi gift scheme (1960) which was an immediate winner.

Towards the end of the 1950s the company was keen to re-introduce the Frisian Flag brand from Holland. Thanks to the Dutch connection, in 1960 the company became involved in insurance as representative of the Rotterdam company Assurantie Maatschappij Nieuw Rotterdam. But soon the company realised this line needed more focus and reluctantly it had to let it go.

On a visit to Israel, while chatting in the bar of the famous King David Hotel, Bertie began chatting with a fellow guest who later turned out to be Lord Michael Marks. This chance encounter was to lead to the St Michael stores in Paola, Sliema and Valletta. Later Marks & Spencer outlets would appear in Palace Square Valletta, Bay Street St Julian's and The  Strand, Sliema as well as The Point.

Another product of the Israel visit would be the company's association with the Elite range of products from Nazareth. The company never surpassed Nescafé in sales until the bulk buying scheme turned the market upside down and until the Labour government launched a boycott on trade with Israel.

As the property market started to gain momentum in the early 1960s, Malta Developments Limited was set up, a partnership between Alf. Mizzi & Sons, Mizzi Bros and Captain Philip Toledo. A further link up with some British investors led to the creation of Cenmed – the Central Mediterranean Development Corporation, whose first project was to be the creation of the Santa Marija Estate near Mellieha, 400 villas to be sold for between Stg2,500 and Stg10,000.

This involved negotiating an emphyteusis for 150 years with the Archbishop’s Curia, building permits from the Planning Area Permits Board (PAPB) and the unexpected condition that all infrastructure was to be done by the developer and had to be in place before the actual building of the villas could begin.

The roads down to the sea took three months to be built and in no time at all 117 villas were sold and there was serious interest in a further 100. The original ideas had also included a yacht marina, a supermarket and even a cinema but changes in government policy meant these plans had to be shelved. There is even a PAPB permit for a hotel.

To talk about Alf. Mizzi & Sons Ltd and about Cenmed in particular are impossible without mentioning Bertie (Albert) Mizzi. After some years in which he worked alongside his two brothers in the management of the company, he sort of branched off to travel abroad mainly to trade fairs. Then he focused on property development not just with the Santa Maria Estate but also Regency House in Valletta (Malta’s first shopping arcade), the Europa Hotel in Sliema together with Hunter's Palace, Spinola  Court and Lapsi Estates.

Other initiatives were not so lucky – a development on the slope below the Red Tower in Mellieha had to be abandoned due to the clay ground. A more bitter disappointment faced a real estate venture in the Seychelles where the general manager absconded with a huge sum.

Other ideas were ahead of the times such as Manoel Island and one of the first ideas for the free port, which was to include an oil refinery, a bunkering operation, shipbuilding and pleasure craft construction, aircraft maintenance, etc.

It was shortly before Malta’s Independence in 1964 that the company, through Malta Developments. jumped at an opportunity to buy a huge site in Mellieha Bay from a British developer whose dream to build a hotel was thwarted by ill health. That became the Mellieha Bay Hotel in conjunction with the Thomson Group.

In June 1971 the Maltese electorate chose Dom Mintoff's Labour Party instead of a tired  Nationalist administration led by Giorgio Borg Olivier. One fine day a police despatch rider pulled up outside Bertie's weekend getaway in Gudja and told him Prime Minister Mintoff wished to see him in his office.

Mintoff wanted Bertie to set up Air Malta as the national airline of Malta.

Bertie relished the challenge but realised that working alongside Mintoff would not be an easy ride and that this post would take up much of his time.

After much thought and after speaking with Dr Borg Olivier, who encouraged him to take up the post, Bertie accepted on condition he would not be under contract and was free to leave as and when he pleased, and that he would receive no remuneration.

Thus began a long and successful collaboration which, over a period of 19 years saw Bertie build up an airline from scratch as well as secondary companies such as Medallion Holidays and Flyaway Tours as well as Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza and the Selmun Palace Hotel.

Mintoff quickly realised Bertie's entrepreneurship and capacity for hard work and engaged him to set up one new company after another – Sea Malta (1973), Malta Insurance Brokers (1976), Mediterranean Oilfield Services Company Ltd (Medserv – 1980) and Middle Sea Insurance (1981).

After the 1987 change of government Bertie continued his record of public service by accepting to be chairman of HSBC Bank Malta where he served for 14 years, well into his 80s.

 

The third generation

The advent of the third generation of Mizzi family members coincided with a very low point for the business.

The core business, the importation of foodstuffs, was all but annihilated by a series of centralist government policies. The most damaging was the creation of the infamous Bulk Buying Scheme. The state became the importer of all essential commodities, including tinned milk, cheese, butter, coffee, sugar, canned tuna, corned beef and luncheon meat. These items formed the bulk of the food importation business of Alf. Mizzi & Sons.

The company's representatives were involved in almost daily meetings with government that invariably led to late night, often heated, discussions where sensitive issues such as sourcing and pricing were debated endlessly in the hope of finding common ground.

Invariably, the system prompted feast and famine extremes as the market swung from widespread shortage that brought on hoarding and black-market conditions, to over-saturation of stock of such products as milk, sugar, tuna and so many others where market prices were reduced to below cost as importers rushed to offload excess stock.

The conditions that prevailed ultimately led to the weakening and eventual demise of a number of old established companies that just could not cope with the stresses that were sustained.

The company's representatives stood their ground with the authorities and tried their best to restore some sanity in how distributors organised their approach with government. Very often, however, it transpired that what was being said in confidence was leaked to the authorities almost instantly and therefore any initiative to bring about some rationale for the common good was quashed before it got off the ground.

The discussions were invariably long-drawn and argumentative and became so heated that on one occasion the participants sat through a great storm in an office down by the harbour, unaware of the gravity of what was happening outside, the voices drowning out wind, rain and thunder.

Initially the Mizzi brothers were hopeful that the system would work. Career civil servants like Marcel Pizzuto, Oscar Grech and Costantino Spiteri were tasked to lead committees that handled specific product groups. But government then started to tighten the screws even further, and a certain Joe Zammit, another civil servant took over as head of the system. Things became worse. Zammit was a far from popular figure at the time, with his tyrannical style of enforcement. His “I'm the boss, take it or leave it” attitude earned him the not-so-kind nickname of Ayatollah, after the Iranian religious leader.

A number of importers, vying for a larger share of the market, applied pressure and managed to change the original status in which the share of the distribution was calculated on the average of imports of the previous three or four years. Alf. Mizzi & Sons eventually pulled out of the system which became increasingly unjust.

The Bulk Buying Scheme was not the only control placed on imports. Imported items that were not included in the Bulk Buying Scheme were subjected to import licences. No licences were issued for the importation of items which were either also produced in Malta or else similar to items produced in Malta. Certain cases were borderline.

“I clearly recall one case,” says Julian. “We decided to import a consignment of rag dolls from Greece. In those days, soft toys were no-go as far as importation was concerned, since plush toys were being manufactured in Malta by a Chinese-owned factory. These Greek dolls, called Patapoufs, had soft bean-bag-like bodies with hard plastic heads. Sure enough, they were held at the border by Customs officials.

“In a panic – Christmas was barely one week away – I pleaded my case with Cost Spiteri, a wily civil servant of the old school, who decided to take this matter to the then Minister for Trade, Lino Spiteri. The minister in a Solomon-like judgement, ruled that as the dolls were half-hard and half-soft, then half could be released and sold and half were to be distributed to local orphanages.”

Alf. Mizzi & Sons lost the Elite brand due to a ban on imports from Israel. This ban was introduced to please Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi and other Arab leaders at a time when Prime Minister Mintoff ventured South and East for political allies and cheap oil.

Japan was next in the firing line. At that time Japan was peaking and taking its place as an economic and technological giant by creating innovative products capable of changing the lives of millions of people across the globe. The Maltese government stopped importation from Japan. The reason, or rather excuse, was an unfair trade balance. Alf. Mizzi & Sons lost the sales of Seiko watches and clocks and of cigarette lighters. These were major revenue streams in the non-food side of the business. The food division also lost out on the canned tuna business because of the ban on imports from Japan.

At one point, imports were also stopped from Italy which, together with the UK, was Malta's and Alf. Mizzi & Sons' major trading partner. Fortunately, this was one of Mintoff's brinkmanship moves and before long, relations with Italy were back to normal.

Prior and after the new breed joined, the company suffered two ruinous fires. In the early afternoon of Sunday, 6 July 1980, fire destroyed two parallel stores behind the Wignacourt aqueduct in Santa Venera. All was lost and the fire took almost three days to extinguish properly.

Then on 28 March 1984, a warehouse in Victory Street, Qormi where the company stored its non-food goods, including jeans, footwear and housewares, caught fire. The inventory was valued at around Lm400,000.

In 1981, the company decided to take a small equity in Valletta Biscuit Co. Ltd, later named Consolidated Biscuit Co Ltd.

Earlier, government had tried for some years to lead the initiative to industrialization and one of its earlier ventures was the setting up of a chocolate manufacturing company in partnership with the Chinese government. This was not well received by the Maltese consumers who over the years had developed a taste for the flavour of the British chocolate. The consumer resistance increased even further when all imports of chocolate were suddenly suspended.

This company lacked modern manufacturing techniques and was soon losing money. Government was keen to privatise the company but the Malta Development Corporation insisted that the takeover of Chocolate Products Malta had to be included in the deal. Despite the introduction of a new chocolate line and the introduction of countline bars like Catch and Huskie, Chocolate Products could not survive the influx of international brands once import barriers started to be dismantled and it eventually ceased manufacturing.

During 1985, the Board agreed to move its head office out of 17, Strada Zakkarija to Europa Centre, the ex-NATO Mediterranean Headquarters in Floriana.

During 1986, the Kwiksave Gift Scheme was launched from the old offices at 17 Strada Zakkarija. It later moved to Gattard House and then to Homemate.

When Alec Mizzi joined the Board he focused on securing major brands beginning with La Vache Qui Rit (1984) and then Rowntrees (1986). These were followed by Alberto (1987), Tilda (1988), Agnesi (1988), Remia (1989), Lesieur (1992), Rio Mare (1992), Zott (1992), AiA (1993), McCain (1993), Carapelli (1994), Dujardin (1996) and Meadowlea (1997).

In 1991 the company acquired land on the periphery of the Marsa Industrial Estate where it built its headquarters, moving in during 1994.

The period 1999-2002 was a very difficult time for the company. Its largest client, the Price Club Group started to fall behind in payments and it soon became clear it was insolvent. The company was by far the largest creditor, being owed over Lm900,000. Despite efforts to save it, the company went into voluntary liquidation in 2002.

Two other initiatives which involved Alf. Mizzi but which later had to be relinquished by the company were a 16.6% shareholding in Finco Trust Group, a professional services provider and the setting up of The Malta Independent (Standard Publications) in 1992. Following the lead of L. Farrugia & Sons, Alf. Mizzi pulled out of this venture in 2009.

In 1991, two “Capital” ventures, Capital Insurance Agency Ltd and Capital Services Ltd were launched, later morphing into Atlas Insurance Agency and Capital Pest Control.

In 1992, Alf. Mizzi & Sons acquired Intercomp Ltd, one of its most rewarding investments. It was appointed Authorised Distributor for Malta for Dell Computer Corporation, then for  Hewlett Packard and then for Nokia. System Ltd was formed to manage the HP brand.

The next year, the Board joined forces with Allied Projects Ltd to pursue the takeover of Macpherson Mediterranean Ltd, an established paint manufacturer.

The 1990s saw the company's significant investments in property. In December 1993, the Plaza Shopping Centre in Sliema officially opened its doors on the site of the Plaza Cinema and the nearby Majestic cinema. Being the first of its kind, the project had to overcome numerous logistical challenges.

Then the Tigne Point and Manoel Island mammoth project hove in sight. Alf. Mizzi & Sons joined forces with the Gasan Group, the Mizzi Organisation and building contractors Gatt Brothers, Elbros and Polidano Brothers and Midi was born.

Comparable in size to Mdina and conceived as a holistic lifestyle development, Tigne Point is currently best known for its luxurious seafront apartments. This is complemented by The Point shopping mall, Malta’s largest retail centre and the car-free Piazza Tigne, the largest square in the Sliema district.

The proposed development at Manoel Island will include an exclusive Mediterranean-style marine village overlooking landscaped gardens, shoreline walkways and a picturesque and well-protected yacht marina holding some 350 boats. The masterplan also includes a boutique hotel, a waterfront casino, a host of cultural, leisure and sports facilities, marina-related commercial spaces and a shoreline promenade leading up to the old Lazaretto buildings and the majestic 18th century Fort Manoel which has been fully restored.

The Point is the largest phase within the Tigne Point development. The porticos and other stonework from the colonial-style British barracks were painstakingly dismantled, numbered stone by stone and reconstructed around The Point shopping mall. Today the mall boasts some 150 brands in over 60 units.

Retail activity in Malta in the 1990s was booming. Fully aware of this, in 1998 Alf. Mizzi & Sons decided to set up a DIY centre. This was set up in the former Prosan factory just behind the Farsons Brewery. Homemate opened its doors for business in May 1998.

In November 2006, buoyed by the success of Homemate, Alf. Mizzi & Sons bought a plot of prime property along the Mriehel Bypass and built The Atrium, Malta’s largest home furnishing store which would open its doors on 1 March 2010.

In 2008, Alf. Mizzi & Sons’ ambitious diversification programme branched out into the restaurant business. Kitchen Concepts Ltd was born. Wagamama was brought from London and then Vecchia Napoli took over the ex-Pastamania,  below the Plaza Hotel in Sliema. Next came Caffe Cuba in Piazza Tigne and The Chophouse nearby. Then Gululu, a casual Maltese diner at sea-level in St Julian's followed by other outlets in St Julian’s and at the airport.

Finally, the company has been investing outside Malta – in Romania with the Zacaria Group (residential and logistics centres); in Sicily (residential units with Siculomalti Ltd; in Libya with the Retail International Group; in Croatia plus ventures in Benelux, etc.

To celebrate all the foregoing, the company held two gala celebrations at Manoel Island both in July 2015; it was not too soon Tony, one of the first generation, died in April and Bertie died in early September.

 

One last word must mention the Alfred Mizzi Foundation, which is still doing sterling work for the environment and heritage.

Noel Grima

 


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