A serial entrepreneur and a man of ideas and vision who has had the ear of Prime Ministers and politicians, Albert Poggio has led a fascinating life and, although he is to officially retire at the end of June, he will continue with the political lobbying in the UK on behalf of Gibraltar.
Albert says that he is extremely grateful to Chief Minister Fabian Picardo and Deputy Chief Minister Dr Joseph Garcia for allowing him to carry on doing this.
For someone who has had such an impact on the lives of Gibraltarians, it is surprising to learn that Albert was not born here but in a refugee camp in Ballymena, Northern Ireland where his parents Sally and Ernest had been evacuated to during World War II, returning to Gibraltar in 1948. However, it was precisely this experience that was the catalyst for his future efforts to unite Gibraltarian expatriates.
More recently, Albert made his first return visit to Northern Ireland on an official trip to Ballymena as a representative of the Gibraltar government. “I was given a VIP welcome and the Belfast Telegraph covered my visit with the headline ‘Local Boy Does Good’,” he laughs as he says this.
Albert left Northern Ireland, aged two, and was repatriated back to Gibraltar in 1948 where he stayed until the age of 12. “We then came to London on the pretext that we were going on holiday, but my mother obviously had an idea of settling here and we stayed,” Albert recalls. “I spent four years without going back to Gibraltar whilst I finished my schooling and it was only when I started going to college that I came back for all my holidays, and that is when my relationship with Gibraltar really started to develop.”
Having completed an electrical engineering course at the City of London Polytechnic, Albert pursued a career with an electrical engineering company. It was 1967 and Albert decided he wanted to gather as many expat Gibraltarians together as he could to celebrate the day of the Gibraltar sovereignty referendum. “I didn’t know where to start, but an uncle of mine suggested that many Gibraltarian’s who had come over during the war had settled in the Fulham area, so I spent several weeks knocking on doors looking for Gibraltarian families,” he says “and that way I managed to collect names and once I engaged with one family, they would recommend two or three others.”
Albert organised a dance that was held at Hammersmith Town Hall on the same day as the referendum. “I had to persuade the Town Council to let us use the venue on a Sunday which was not something they would easily do,” he recalls “and then I had a struggle to get them to let me fly the Gibraltar flag on the top of the building.”
“Two and a half thousand people turned up to celebrate that famous referendum when 99.64% of people in Gibraltar voted to remain under British sovereignty.”
Chief Minister Sir Joshua Hassan was, for obvious reasons, unable to come to London, but he sent his eldest daughter, Lola, along to represent him at the event.
The Gibraltar Group was formed when Albert realised that a lot of people emigrating from Gibraltar to live in London during the border closure needed help with finding accommodation and jobs. “I also looked after people coming to London for medical treatment and from that came the sponsored patient initiative which plays such a big part in my life today in the form of Calpe House,” he states.
“During the course of the last 25 years, Calpe House in Bayswater has housed between 6-7,000 patients,” Albert says proudly. “That building has reached the end of its life and we need to move on, so we have bought a new building in Norfolk Square, two minutes’ walk from St. Mary’s Hospital, and are now in the process of refurbishment.” Now, as vice-chairman of the Calpe House Charitable Trust, Albert is fully involved in the campaign to raise £6 million for the refurbishments. “We don’t pretend that we are going to be able to raise what we need in a year’s time, but it will be ongoing and although it has been hugely successful so far, there is a lot more to be done. Shortly a corporate appeal will be launched. I am overwhelmed at the way the community has come together in supporting this Appeal.”
In true entrepreneurial spirit, Albert was also instrumental in the establishment of charter flights between the UK and Gibraltar when he realised that people felt trapped by the blockade that was put into place in 1967.
“They couldn’t get to Spain and the only option was to go to Morocco for a weekend,” he says, “and it also allowed those who had settled in London to take trips back home.”
Quite an achievement for a young man but it was also, as with much of Albert’s life, about being in the right place at the right time! “As a student I used to do all kinds of odd jobs at the weekend to earn money,” he states “anything from selling ice creams to car cleaning.” One of his weekend co-workers worked for a travel company who a few years later was given the option to buy the business from the lady owner. “He asked me if I wanted to go into business with him, but I turned the offer down and that was the biggest mistake of my life,” Albert says, continuing “because my friend, Neil Scott, became the Chairman of the biggest charter operation in the UK – ‘Owners Abroad’.”
When Albert encountered a problem three days before the first flight was due to take off, all seats having been sold at £15 return with a company called British Eagle, Neil took the shy young Albert to meet the MD of Monarch Airlines. “British Airways had put pressure on British Eagle to cancel our flight under the pretext that we had infringed one of the rules governing association travel,” Albert says “but it was actually because British Airways saw the initiation of charter flights to Gibraltar as a threat to the regular service.” Albert explained his dilemma to the MD of Monarch and he said “we don’t do any business with British Airways, we do not fear them and so we will fly you”, which they did and the flights continued to be operated for many years by Monarch and later by British Airtours.
Albert remembers landing in Gibraltar on the first flight and being thrust into a press conference. “I was not ready for any kind of public life then,” he comments, “but I was taken under the wing of some of the great characters of the day such as Slim Simpson, Henry Ramagge and Manolo Mascarenhas and they introduced me to what I call ‘the man’s drink’ – whiskey! They also guided me through my early years on how to deal with the media.”
Continuing with the ‘alcohol’ theme, Albert relates a story about the Governor at the time, Sir Varyl Begg who invited him to visit the Convent on one of his visits to Gibraltar. “That was an enormous thing for me, to go to the Convent and meet a man of the stature of Sir Varyl Begg who was an Admiral of the Fleet – a rank that does not exist today,” he says. Asked what he would like to drink, Albert said that he would have a coffee, to which the Governor said “don’t be silly man – you won’t have a coffee, you are going to have a Pink Gin”. Albert chuckles as he recalls how awful the Pink Gin was but how he had to drink it! “Sir Varyl was a great man and we became huge friends to the extent that when my father became ill in Gibraltar he, or his wife Lady Begg, would visit my father on a weekly basis and then phone me on his secured line to report on his progress.”
During his short career in electrical engineering, Albert was called in to see the MD of the company who told him that they had applied for a contract in Gibraltar and that they wanted him to accompany the sales director on a visit so that he could introduce him to people there. “We stayed at the Rock hotel when Jimmy Bossino was General Manager,” Albert says. Jimmy asked Albert to help in procuring some spare parts for a boiler that had been ordered from a company in London, which he duly did and dispatched to The Rock Hotel. Realising that there was a need for that kind of service, Albert started to introduce himself as a procurement agent in Gibraltar. “I was prepared to buy whatever was needed in London, from fresh meat to coffins, and deliver them to Manston Airport in Kent,” he states. “I would then fly with the goods down to Gibraltar, deliver them to the appropriate customer and, most importantly, take orders for the following week.
That was the start of a very thriving business which later became part of Pegasus Air Services.” Albert goes on to say that it was exhilarating and challenging but also very profitable, so much so that he was able to give up any thoughts of an engineering career working for someone else to run his own business. The business grew quickly but Albert knew that it wouldn’t be long before there would be other buying agents offering the same service and he looked to find a way to diversify. He took on a colleague from his engineering days and together they started selling engineering services to places like Malta and Cyprus. “That company turned out to be another great success for me and I ended up being one of the biggest industrial electrical suppliers in the Middle East, working mainly in Saudi Arabia and Dubai, and also in the Far East where I opened up an office in Hong Kong,” Albert says.
Realising that he needed to have an American arm to his business Albert contacted Sir Robert Peliza, a former Chief Minister of Gibraltar now living in London, whom he had always admired as a visionary man and whom he regarded as a mentor.
“I asked Bob to research the possibility of opening an office in America, which he did and we eventually opened a small office, ironically enough in one of the Twin Towers, from where we started looking for American business for our UK clients.”
One of the contracts that developed entailed buying equipment, chartering a plane and shipping it to Pakistan from New York in a two week fixed programme. With a naïve faith that only a young man could have, Albert accepted the contract but had no idea where he was going to source the equipment from. Once again drawing on past contacts, Albert flew to Philadelphia and introduced himself to someone who said he could help fulfil the contract, Mr. Amoroso, who eventually managed to procure everything that was needed.
However, the non-transferrable letter of credit that had been given to Albert was not acceptable as payment for a man who had only known him for three days and the deal seemed to be off. At a breakfast meeting the next morning Albert put a proposal forward. “What if you open a bank account here in New York and I deposit that letter of credit and authorise your Chairman as the only signatory to the account – that means you will owe me the profit to my company, but I am prepared to trust you with it.” Mr. Amoroso agreed to the deal straight away but yet more obstacles stood in Albert’s way. The answer was the same at all the banks they approached; the formalities needed to open an account required permissions and licences that would take a long time to obtain. Mr. Amoroso phoned the Chairman of his company in Philadelphia, who asked to speak to Albert and said: “I only heard your name two days ago but I have followed your antics with interest for the last few days and I have come to the conclusion that anybody who is as determined as you are to do this business must be an honest person, therefore I have decided to offer you an open account.”
Albert went on to fulfil the contract and to meet the Chairman who had given him a chance. “We hit it off but he was a much older man than I was and he had two sons – one was in the film industry, the other a doctor” Albert says. “He had this huge business employing 350 people and no one to leave it to and he wanted to retire and, because I became like a son to him, we eventually agreed a way of me buying into that business so that I could become his partner.”
Yet another success story born of circumstance, Albert went on to become Chairman of the Westex Group Inc., opening up facilities in London, Hong Kong and Gibraltar.
To be continued in the next edition.