An old black and white photo of a group of port workers hangs in Antoine Vella’s office. Amongst those workers is Emmanuel Vella, flanked by a young ten year old boy. The photo recalls a protest at the harbour. However, to Antoine, it is more significant because that young boy is his father, Joseph Mary, who everyone calls Ġużi.
When containers started coming to Malta but there were no suitable vehicles with which to carry them, Ġużi, together with his brother Bastjan, were the ones entrusted with the arduous job of travelling overseas to buy vehicles, mostly from the UK. There were few fork lifters at the time and merchandise had to be carried using makeshift rollers, which made it a very laborious job.
“We knew that if we wanted to grow, we had to invest in proper vehicles. I remember how excited we were the first time we set off to the UK! We were young and had no idea what to expect on the way. Don’t forget at the time we did not even have the luxury of today’s means of communication. We had young families at home, and it was a risk. But we went, eager to take our business forward,” recalls Ġużi.
In the UK, they acquired three flat carriers and a truck before setting back on their way to Malta overland – Ġużi in the driving seat and Bastjan guiding the way.
“There was no GPS at the time, so we had to rely on a map and Bastjan’s navigation abilities. The weather was not very kind to us either and the roads were covered with snow. It was our first experience driving on snow-covered roads. Not coming from an EU country also meant navigating the great deal of paperwork and bureaucracy including the T-document that we needed to provide as a guarantee at Dover in the UK.”
Ġużi believes that the bureaucratic headaches that had to be constantly dealt with were one of the many reasons by Express Trailers had supported Malta’s EU membership from the outset.
“Just like our father had seen huge opportunities with Malta’s Independence in the 60’s, we too recognised the immense opportunities that EU membership would bring to our country, and we knew that if we adapted ourselves to the new political and economic scenario, membership would work to our advantage. After all, resilience and adapting to new realities were always in our blood and have always been the qualities that enabled us to successfully carry on.”
Their judgement proved them right. With increasing economic activity, a growth in tourism and the birth of many new sectors, Malta started becoming increasingly interconnected but due to its limited natural resources, it was increasingly relying on imports and exports.
“Malta had to finally accept that in order to survive and thrive, it had to open up to international trade and this is what we eventually chose to do at Express Trailers. Today, if we had to look back, we know that it was through EU membership that Malta found its rightful place,” says Ġużi.
Ġużi however recalls the earlier years which were quite hard. He remembers the company’s first premises in Watermill Street in Qormi – more of a makeshift office which his brothers had built themselves to save money and resources, which at the time were tight.
“But even if times were hard, our pride in the fleet which was growing, was always there. We used to hand-wash the vehicles ourselves, scrubbing them with a mixture of diesel and petrol to remove the heavy dust. There was nothing like today’s power wash systems so washing a vehicle took us hours. But we are known for the pride we take in our fleet and this pride is coming from there.”
“In 1976, roll-on roll-off trailers were introduced to the Maltese market. Malta was going through constant economic change; new markets were being tapped. It was at that time that I encouraged my brothers to expand our operations into the international transportation to and from Europe. For this purpose, we set up a company called Vella Brothers (Malta) Limited, which name was eventually changed to Vella Brothers Limited. We invested in a new Ford Transcontinental and some trailers to start up the international operation. I was always entrusted with the collection of the equipment from abroad and driving them to Malta. In 1978, Express Trailers Limited was set up to take over the international transport operation”.
“We’re talking the 1980’s here which was also a time when the export sector was robust due to the buoyant textile industry. We invested heavily to be able to transport hanging garments and at one point, we had more export than import business.”
Express Trailers used to travel through Reggio Calabria with its textiles cargo since most of its markets were across Germany, Belgium and Italy.
“It was a long way up and security back then was a big issue. Sometimes, trucks would be stopped and the merchandise stolen so we used to send two drivers with one vehicle so that there would be no need to stop till they reached their final destination and we introduced security devices to monitor the vehicles. Once, one of the vehicles got hijacked. I remember receiving a desperate call for help from our stranded drivers. We were truly worried for their safety. Eventually the truck was found, but the merchandise was never retrieved.”
We ask Gużi about his earlier recollections of Express Trailers as a company and he cannot help not telling us one of the more curious fun facts which concerns the company’s logo and why Express Trailers chose its ‘orange’ colour which is today such a distinct aspect of its brand.
“Funnily enough, the idea for the Express logo came from a toy truck I had bought for my son, Antoine. I remember he had liked that truck so much and even I did! What I liked most about it was the motif printed on its sides. At the time, we were looking at upgrading our image and we had been discussing how our company logo could look. It suddenly dawned on me that the motif on this toy truck could easily be our company’s new logo!”
Ġużi managed to persuade his other brothers to adopt Antoine’s toy truck motif as the company’s logo. It stands to this day and the toy truck remains one of the company’s most prized possessions too!
What about the ‘Express Orange’?
“The company’s orange colour too was my idea. For some reason, I have always felt drawn to this colour in fact, if I think hard enough, I know that it always fascinated me, from a very young age. In fact, when I was still a child, I had a bicycle which I ended up painting orange and which I rode for hours on end!”
Ġużi continues “very few people know that our company’s original colours were red and green. One day however, I bought cans of orange paint and painted one of the trucks orange – much to my father’s, and brothers’ shock. They made me promise them to revert it to the original colours if the feedback to our new image was to be negative. Luckily, people loved the new look, so we took a collective decision to keep this orange colour.”
This newly found focus on such a visible colour by Express Trailers seems to have led to the setting of a long-lasting trend because according to Ġużi, today all stevedores have adopted their own colour for their vehicles.
“But every time I encounter one of our orange vehicles on the road, I am immediately taken to my younger days and to Antoine’s toy truck.”
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