In 1810, a young man recently-arrived from Liverpool took the first steps into a commercial venture
that would span 200 years and evolve into one of Gibraltar’s household business names.
The story of MH Bland, a family company that has now diversified from its core shipping interests to include the tourism sector, is one of dogged determination.
Marcus Henry Bland, the company’s founder, started with modest means, setting up a shipping agency in his home in Irish Town, which was then the business heart of Gibraltar and a hive of trade and commerce.
The company grew despite stiff competition and passed to his son Marcus Hill who, in December 1840, went into partnership with Charles Middleton and John Mackintosh to establish the firm of Middleton Mackintosh & Bland.
It was a time of great change and the partners sought growth in the opportunities arising from new technology. The development of steam engines, coupled to the rising trade volumes as a result of Gibraltar’s strategic location, allowed them to tap new areas of activity and expand.
The death of its founders some years later dealt the company a blow, but one that would revitalise the venture rather than cripple it.
Marcus Hill died in Liverpool in July 1856 and passed on his interest in the company to his sons Horatio and John who, as a result of the subsequent deaths of Middleton and Mackintosh in the early 1860’s, gained control of the company. In September 1865 the goodwill and trade of Middleton Mackintosh & Bland was taken over by MH Bland & Co.
The company developed as a ship agent, ship owner and coal merchant and played an important role in the development of the port of Tangier, on the Moroccan coast.
Even in those early days, the company’s vision was regional, seeking to build on the Strait of Gibraltar’s unique role as a crossroads for maritime trade. But the company’s rapid expansion was not without its challenges.
In December 1882 Horatio died of heart disease and control of the company passed to his brother John. Then ill health forced John to step down and, in 1887, he left the running of the business to Joseph Gaggero, who had joined the staff as a clerk in the 1860’s.
Joseph’s grandfather had arrived from Genoa early in the 19th century and had been born in the same building where Middleton Mackintosh & Bland had offices. It was a coincidence that had set his future career in motion.
John Bland died without heirs in June 1891 and later that year arrangements were put in place to permit Joseph and his brother Emmanuel to purchase the company for the sum of £28,474.
A limited company was formed in London as there was no local company register at the time and on 23rd December, 1891, during the first board meeting of MH Bland & Co Ltd, Joseph Gaggero was appointed Managing Director and his brother Emanuel as Director.
Over the next 18 years, the two brothers took the company into new territory. They increased the size of the company’s fleet of ships from four to 12 vessels, and sought new trade flows between North Africa, Spain and the United Kingdom.
In November 1911, Joseph died and due to Emanuel’s poor health, the management of the company passed to his youngest brother Avelino, who had previously moved to London to become a prominent merchant there.
Then came 1914 and World War I. It was a traumatic year for both company and family. Trade flourished as a result of France and Spain taking over Moroccan affairs, but war clouds loomed and Avelino’s death on 2nd August 1914 could not have come at a worse moment.
A hurried meeting of the board took place and it was decided to appoint 17 year old George, Joseph’s son, to the position of Managing Director. It was a daunting responsibility for one so young. War broke out on 4th August 1914, two days after George’s appointment.
Together, George and his brother Charles, who had joined the company a short while afterwards, steered the company through the Great War, the great depression of the 1930’s and the tumultuous years of World War II. By now the company was active in numerous business sectors ranging from salvage and ship repair to the timber trade, an ice making factory and aviation, in addition to its existing shipping interests.
The company played a prominent role in the development of the Rock and, in 1941, George received a knighthood for his services to Gibraltar.
By 1946, George and Charles had decided to divide the business in what was to be the first re-organisation of family interests.
George retained the shipping and aviation interests and would seek new opportunities in shipping, tourism and aviation in the region and beyond.
Following the family tradition, Sir George’s sons, Joseph and John, subsequently joined the business in due course.
In 1962, the company invested in an innovative project that would create, in the decades to come, one of Gibraltar’s main landmark tourist attractions.
The building of a Cable Car to the top of the Rock represented a major commitment to the development of Gibraltar’s fledgling tourist industry. It opened for business four years later but by 1969, the closure of the frontier threatened its survival.
Yet throughout and in spite of the prevailing trading conditions, the company continued to evolve. Symbolic of the Gibraltarian spirit at the time, the ferry, Mons Calpe, built to specification in 1954, resolutely provided an invaluable maritime link with Morocco.
Sir George retired from what had by then been rebranded Bland Ltd in 1970 and passed away on 4th September 1978.
After having brought the company through the closed frontier years, in 1986 Joseph and John decided to divide the business in what became the second re-organisation of family interests.
Joseph retained the family’s interest in aviation, its travel agencies and its hotel under the name Bland Ltd, while John retained shipping interests and the Cable Car under the original name MH Bland & Co Ltd.
Under the guidance of John and subsequently his sons Johnnie and George, who took over the running of the business when John retired in 1997, MH Bland has forged ahead.
The company has refocused its energy into its core sectors of tourism and maritime activities and through an ambitious programme of investment, Johnnie and George have successfully steered what has become the MH Bland Group into the 21st century.
Building on the tradition of seeking regional opportunities, port agency offices have been opened in Algeciras and Ceuta, thus bringing to fruition the “Three ports, one team” concept and taking advantage of the growth of the bunkering business in the region.
In a bid to rationalise port services, various operators and assets were purchased in 1990. Now, under a single banner of MH Bland Marine Services Ltd and in harness with the port agency network, MH Bland offers an integrated range of services to an extensive local and international client base. Tugs, barges, supply vessels and other specialised equipment have all been purchased or built to suit local requirements.
Since the re-opening of the frontier in 1986, the potential of the Cable Car has been unleashed and the facility has undergone a series of refurbishments and upgrades becoming along the way Gibraltar’s premier tourist attraction.
In order to accommodate the needs of a burgeoning international cruise industry intent on revolutionising their shore excursions programmes, a local coach company, Calypso Tours Ltd was purchased in 1992 and in the subsequent years has modernised as well as tripled its capacity to satisfy demand.
MH Bland Travel Services bridges the two sectors of shipping and tourism by specialising in the sales of cruise holidays while offering the services of a fully fledged travel agency to the leisure and business traveller. More recently in 2007, Eco Tourism Ltd, operating under the trade name of Dolphin World, has been brought into the Group, offering excursions into the Bay to experience the delights of seeing dolphins in their natural environment.
As they look towards celebrating their 200th anniversary over the course of 2010, the current fourth generation and their dynamic young team look with pride at the achievements of the past and with excitement to the future.