As chairman of Gibunco Group, which started out in 1965 as an underwater engineering and ship repair company, but has since diversified into petroleum, shipping and property development, John Bassadone has witnessed, and been part of, Gibraltar’s transformation into the thriving jurisdiction of today. He spoke to The Report Company about how he got started in business, the opportunities Gibraltar represents to investors, and how he would like outsiders to view his homeland.
The Report Company: What were the milestones along Gibunco’s development?
John Bassadone: I had just turned 15. My father said to me, “John, put your diving suit on, we’re going to start a diving company.” That was the very early beginning. I was diving, cleaning ships, help keeping ships afloat, and it was something I wasn’t too keen on doing. In those days, it was purely basic diving. There was me, two local divers and one Moroccan diving on huge tankers with huge barnacles. It was a case of literally breaking the barnacles as best as you could.
As business started to increase, the first thing I did was to find some hydraulic brushes on the market, which were a big help, but I was keen on finding the proper equipment. There was something that had been developed by Exxon called SCAMP, the submerged cleaning and maintenance platform, so I requested to become a member of the network and have that sort of equipment in Gibraltar, and we succeeded in that. We were constantly reporting back to the SCAMP set up with ideas on how it could be improved. One day, Exxon said that they were going to move out of the SCAMP system, and because we had contributed a lot to it, they came to me and offered to let me buy it. I called my bank and they were quite cautious, but I did a trip around the world anyway to value all the assets.
I met with a company called Seaward Marine, with a total of seven shareholders, all ex-US Navy, and they agreed for us to buy SCAMP together. All they wanted was the US navy contract and I could do the rest of the worldwide operations, so that’s what we did. That was great because I had a shareholder there with me so the financing became much easier, and they would pay all the royalties on the work they did, which was substantial.
That was a good start. All of a sudden, we were doing business with other operators worldwide and that gave us that perspective of international business. With time, we went into the bunkering business, starting with Peninsula, then with the Spanish oil company Cepsa, setting up Cepsa Gibraltar Limited on a 50:50 basis.
Our entry point was that we have got a worldwide location for underwater hull cleaning, we’re now in the business of selling the fuel to ship owners, so at the end of the day, it’s the same customers but two different departments, one is hull cleaning and the other is fuel. That’s how we started finding our feet. With the help of Cepsa and all the bunkering, we had good rates so we were able to generate very good income from all that setup.
We then diversified here in Gibraltar when Joe Bossano came into power, with the idea of building low cost housing at a time when Gibraltar was 95 percent government housing. What gave me most satisfaction in that project was how we got together a good team of people who were very localised in the sense of knowing a lot of people and groups of prospective owners and sitting them down and educating them about looking after the properties, which was all completely new for these people.
TRC: How much extra housing was added?
JB: One of the developments was close to 700 apartments, the other was another more than 600.
TRC: Where is Gibunco present today?
JB: We are present in all the main ports in the world, and the Canary Islands and Algeciras in Spain. We have strong offices in places like Singapore and Panama where most of our customers are going to be calling through.
“We like to do what we can do best. We don’t go into fringes looking to start something new. What we’re good at, we excel at it, and we improve on it”Tweet This
TRC: What areas of business are you currently focussing on?
JB: We like to do what we can do best. We don’t go into fringes looking to start something new. What we’re good at, we excel at it, and we improve on it. In property, we’re doing Midtown which is a massive project for Gibraltar. We’re involved there as shareholders because we’ve got the background of what we’ve done before and we’ve got an excellent staff there. We did Kings Wharf which was very successful..
TRC: Do you see much competition from the Tangier-Med port?
JB: I think it’s important to let them get a start on it. I’m not sure how happy ship owners are about calling into Arab countries at the moment. People see little Gibraltar, it’s a British port, and it’s good for all nationalities of ship owners.
We have the port of Algeciras and the port of Gibraltar. The port of Gibraltar has always been an excellent service port. Algeciras is a port that moves millions of people across the Strait.
TRC: You were recently appointed an OBE for services to business in Gibraltar on the Queen’s birthday honours list. Was this a surprise?
JB: I was totally surprised. I thought you had to apply for an OBE; I thought you had to write in. I got this call eight weeks before the Queen’s birthday, and I didn’t even tell my wife.
TRC: To what extent are you an ambassador for the Gibraltar brand in your dealings around the world?
JB: It’s our home town, and while we don’t market it directly, we explain what Gibraltar’s all about. The Gibraltar brand is first of all the Britishness of the place. Then the English education, the fair play, we’re not Spain, we’re not Portugal, it’s the English system. Even if my mother was Spanish and I was born in London, my father was always a very strong Gibraltarian.
I enjoy travelling to Spain on holidays, because it’s a great place, putting politics aside. The Spanish government when they attack little Gibraltar, they do it for the Spanish market; it’s for the Spanish electorate as a distraction to their problems in Spain. They don’t really want Gibraltar and they’ll never get it anyway; our economy represents quite an important income to the neighbouring area.
“We are present in all the main ports in the world, and the Canary Islands and Algeciras in Spain. We have strong offices in places like Singapore and Panama where most of our customers are going to be calling through”Tweet This