In a workshop off Devil’s Tower Road some years ago, Tom Scott, an engineer with Toyota Gibraltar Stockholdings [TGS], pondered a challenge. He had been tasked with taking a factory-model Toyota off-road vehicle and making it bullet and blast proof, suitable for work in some of the world’s most inhospitable and dangerous places.
Together with his team, he took the car apart and rebuilt it, adding over a tonne of thick glass and steel plating. This was no simple conversion. Doors had to be modified to allow for thicker windows, suspensions had to be strengthened to cope with the extra weight. But three years of work paid off. They have a promotional DVD at TGS now that shows one of these armoured vehicles being put to the test, sprayed with gunfire and subjected to a pounding that would do for most vehicles. The armoured car emerges battered but intact, solid enough – in a real situation – to save the lives of anyone inside.
George Bassadone, the chairman of TGS, proudly recounts the story to illustrate the range of skills and know-how that his business boasts in-house, much of it drawn from what he describes as the local Gibraltar gene pool. “We’ve got a lot of talented individuals here, and diverse talents,” he told B2B in a recent, rare interview. “Tom basically hand-built the first armoured prototype. There are plenty of people here on the team whose job I couldn’t even begin to do.”
The story of how Mr Bassadone transformed a small family car dealership into a multinational company is a story that hinges on this human factor. Over three decades and starting from scratch, Mr Bassadone put together a team of experienced professionals and created a business that is now the world leader in a demanding, unusual niche market. Under his stewardship, the company grew to take the lion’s share of the market for supply of project vehicles to relief operations and non-governmental aid organisations around the globe. From Asia to Africa, relief workers use Toyota vehicles supplied and equipped by TGS to bring help to communities devastated by war and natural disasters.
TGS provides a bespoke service to its many clients, tailoring vehicles to highly-specific needs. The company converts factory vehicles into ambulances, equips them with tyres for operations in sandy environments, or fits them with specialist communication kits. Some of the work is unusual and includes a Toyota land cruiser pick up which TGS fitted out with generators to be used by an oil company for steam cleaning out in the desert.
“It says a lot about the adaptability of our team that they can work round the challenge and come with a one-off design like that,” Mr Bassadone said.
And all from a modest set of offices and workshops on Devil’s Tower Road.
It all started with a phone call from Denmark in 1985. By that time Mr Bassadone had been working in the family business for eleven years, the last seven of them taking a prominent role in the company following the death of his father. The call was from a Danish Car Trader, who wanted to buy five right-hand drive Toyota vehicles for Africa. This was at a time when unauthorised distributors were setting up channels for distribution of vehicles, and Mr. Bassadone smelt a rat. He suspected that the vehicles were really destined for the UK market but, amused by what he thought was an elaborate cover story about aid work in Africa, agreed to supply them to the Danish company. As a precaution, he alerted the UK Toyota distributor.
“But of course, the vehicles never arrived [in the UK],” he said. “They truly went over to Africa, and that was the start of the trading relationship with the Danes.”
By 1989 Toyota, recognising that this was an important sector, asked Mr Bassadone to sell directly to the end customers and, in effect, cut out the middle man. Mr Bassadone set up Bassadone Project Vehicles, the forerunner to the present company, and got to work. Travelling widely, he fostered relationships with UN bodies and NGOs around the world, brought in experienced people to help guide the business. This was not like setting up an ordinary car dealership, for which there was an established process, a route map. This was a step into the unknown, from establishing the contacts to understanding their needs and setting up processes that met those requirements. Take language, for example. Knowing the importance of being able to communicate in one’s indigenous tongue, Mr Bassadone brought in French and German speakers, Danes and Dutchmen who knew the aid business and could talk freely with potential clients. “One of the incredible things about TGS is that there was no model to follow,” Mr Bassadone said. “Here was a business that had no guidelines.
By 1996, the business had received a full sanction from Toyota and became TGS, its present incarnation, a fully authorised company active in many areas of the car trade but specialising in the provision of customised project vehicles. “Gibraltar has really become a touch place,” Mr Bassadone said. “In the case of an emergency, the phones ring to the Rock. We’ve been doing the job for 20 years and we’ve become a blue chip partner for relief organisations, an implementing partner. The client has a trust in our performance. We have a trust in them. At the end of the day, we’ve tailored ourselves for their requirements.”
For years they have cropped up all over Gibraltar, rows of white Toyota four-wheel drive vehicles parked in neat rows in the most unlikely places. These are the factory models, the raw material which the TGS team transforms for work out in the field.
Until recently the cars were shipped in to Gibraltar on car carriers sailing directly from Japan. They were offloaded here and stocked piled, ready to be converted and shipped to the final destination depending on client needs. Space has always been a frustrating constraint for Mr Bassadone and his team, who have had little choice but to base parts of the business outside the Rock. The armoured conversions, for example, are now subcontracted and carried out in plants in Spain and Poland.
The car carriers now call at the port of Sagunt north of Valencia, where TGS is able to hold a substantial stock of vehicles. Cars are trucked down to Gibraltar to be converted and fitted with accessories, then trucked out again to Spanish or Portuguese ports for onward transport. On occasion, depending on the urgency, they have even been shipped by air using giant Russian Antonov freighters flying out of Málaga airport. It is a complex logistics operation that has Gibraltar as its hub, the centre point on which all else hinges. It works at speed sometimes. Recently, TGS shipped 21 ambulances in 21 days, a formidable achievement that further consolidated the company’s reputation for reliability under pressure. In the world of relief work, TGS has put the Rock firmly on the map. The vehicles shipped through this logistics chain end up in the four corners of the world. Africa is always a main contender, but they end up anywhere where there’s a problem. TGS, for example, was the first agency to get vehicles to Asia after the devastating tsunami.
For TGS, bad news on the TV screen means good news for business, but the company plays a crucial, positive role in that equation. “At the end of the day, I look at it from the point of view that our operation here supports the hardship that is created by natural disasters,” Mr. Bassadone said. “We’re not responsible for the natural disasters, but we help alleviate the pain.”
Eventually, TGS hopes to bring the Japanese car carriers back to the Rock, to find ways exploiting minimal available space for the good of both the business and Gibraltar as a whole. The company currently employs over 200 people on the Rock.
Close associates of Mr. Bassadone said he never stands still, something that he admitted with little hesitation. He said he was driven by a sense of personal duty to the legacy left to him by his father and grandfather. His was an upbringing infused with the entrepreneurial spirit of his predecessors, one that he embraced with vigour. “Both my father and my grandfather were in business,” he said. “I was born into a business environment. There’s a sense of duty to expand and take the business forward for the next generation.”
This is a success story, but there have been difficult times over the years too. A low point, he said, were painful shareholder wrangles that damaged relations with other members of the Bassadone family. “That was a very difficult time, a very testing time,” he said. “Business mixed with family is an explosive situation.”
George Bassadone’s style is to lead from the front, to put in as many, or more, hours than his staff, to inspire with ideas and to boost confidence and self belief. His company is covered in his fingerprints from top to bottom, but it is not only about him. “I believe my role is to give inspiration, to coax people along, but above all to allow them to develop, and in that development contribute to the company,” he said.
He wants to wind down in the coming years, take a step back into an advisory role and let others continue the frontline work. He has a daughter and two sons, one of whom, George, works at his side. “It’s a pretty tough environment but we’re in a strong financial position and of course, 2009 will happily come to an end on the 31st of December. We’re looking forward to an invigorated 2010.”
But challenges aside, Mr Bassadone insisted that he was genuinely thinking of retirement. “A lot of people tease me by not believing that I’m capable of running out of steam,” he said. “But I’m convinced I will run out of steam. I’m planning my retirement in about four to five years time.” (As he said this, Ernest Felipes, Mr. Bassadone’s business development manager, laughed and looked unconvinced. “He said that five years ago,” Mr Felipes said, smiling.)
But across the table from him, the TGS chairman insisted it was true. And once again, he returned to a theme that ran throughout the conversation.
“One of the real values in successful businesses, one which is off balance sheet, is the human factor, the people who are working in that team,” he said.
“One of things that we’ve done over is we’ve pushed people to their own extremes. I enjoy doing that. I enjoy pushing myself, and others.”