Terence Mirabelli speaks to Stephen Cordina, a self-made entrepreneur who owns a successful business producing fragrances, oils and cosmetics.
“I want to be normal,” wrote Stephen Cordina on his classroom’s blackboard, when his teacher asked pupils what they wanted to become when they grew up.
Meet him today, and you wouldn’t think there’s anything abnormal with Malta’s leading aromatherapist. But it wasn’t always like that.
From an early age he was judged difficult by teachers, who did not understand why young Stephen had a tough time learning to read and write.
“I was considered illiterate and an idiot,” he says.
This led to him being bullied, and the distress made him develop a stutter – now gone. “I had very low self-esteem at the time and by the age of 12 had thought of suicide twice,” says the now 38-year-old Mr Cordina.
To defend himself from the bullying he took up Spirit Combat, a martial art, and won several championships in the process. This doggedness to overcome obstacles has been the driving force throughout his life.
At the age of five, on his first trip to Malta from his home village of Sannat, he “fell in love with the glamour of Valletta” and the scents of the vegetable market and the perfumes women wore.
“Going to Valletta with my mother and missing school wasn’t a big issue for me,” he explains. “I didn’t feel I was missing much.”
In Gozo, he helped pick the vegetables his disciplinarian father, a police sergeant, grew in his fields. “I grew to love the smell of fresh vegetables.”
This was also his initiation to the world of trade. After village festas young Stephen would collect the powder from petards and fireworks that had failed to ignite and make his own firecrackers for sale. “I could tell what colour the fireworks were from their smell.” This enterprise lasted a couple of years, until he was discovered and reported to his parents.
“I was not aware my sense of smell was so acute; I disregarded it, but it was my way of dealing with life. I was also intrigued by the [faith] healer Frenċ tal-Għarb, who was renowned for his knowledge of medicinal herbs, and I too developed an interest in the properties of plants. So much so that I told my mother, as she got older and started suffering from arthritis, ‘I’m going to study medicine and I’ll heal you’.”
At 15 Cordina enrolled for a pre-vocational healthcare course but dropped out after six months because he could not keep up, “and I became a waiter”.
As a junior at the Hotel Ta’ Ċenċ he began by clearing plates and was then taught about wines and was soon able to distinguish them by smell.
Waitering was combined with working for Xlendi Pleasure Cruises. “I wanted to become a sea captain and came to Malta to do an advance commercial yacht master course at Mcast but had to give it up before I even started,” he explains. “Because I couldn’t read or write properly and the maths and physics I needed were beyond me.”
And it wasn’t just the maths that was the problem. He was also unable to write orders in the hotel’s restaurant. “The manager told me to get my eyes tested, and when I did, my vision was perfect.”
The optometrist carried out further tests and diagnosed Mr Cordina as being dyslexic. “It was not until I was 20 that I learned what my problem was.”
It took them a long time to accept my business plan
With special support and instructions Mr Cordina was able to improve his reading and writing skills. His eureka moment came the day he walked into a bookshop and came across a book on herbal therapy.
“I didn’t know the subject existed,” he declares, “and it was the first book I read properly”. It also coincided with him seeing an advert for an aromatherapy, reflexology and massage course by Birkirkara-based Clinical Health Services. “I was accepted for the course even though I had no GCSEs.”
He took the six-month course and then went for a three-year diploma course. For the first year he commuted daily from Gozo, but then moved to Malta and juggled his day between attending the course, waitering in the evening and massaging clients in their homes.
Leaving Gozo also helped him emotionally. His family did not accept that Mr Cordina is gay and relocating to Malta allowed him “to no longer live a lie”.
During his diploma course he began blending his own oils and fragrances, in many instances creating new formulae. “I know instinctively what ingredients will work and what proportions to mix,” he says.
However, he still finds it hard to write down his recipes – “I do all the calculations in my mind and speak out the recipes,” he explains, “and my financial director writes down the quantities, volumes and numbers”.
Today, his eight employees use this book to manufacture the 30 or so products in the Stephen Cordina range.
“I also have my own sketchbook with my recipes written in my own shorthand – that no one else can understand; it also contains ideas for products I want to create,” he adds. Rewind to 2002 when Mr Cordina moved to London to continue his diploma course, and where he also worked for a TV production company for three years. Moreover, he also found the time to run his own aromatherapy and reflexology practice.
When he qualified, he moved to Switzerland and got an internship with a company in Bern that manufactured hygienic products for hospitals. His sense of smell was used to assist formulate “pleasant smelling products”.
In Bern Mr Cordina was accredited as an aromatherapist by the Swiss Federation of Therapists, allowing him to open a practice.
During his stint in Switzerland he also helped his then partner mix cooking oils at his deep-fried foods company – “with my sense of smell and knowledge of oils I could recommend what was best for frying, but I didn’t find this very enjoyable, as my interest lay in skincare,” Mr Cordina explains.
At the age of 27 he returned to Malta and opened an aromatherapy and reflexology clinic in Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq. He also applied for the ETC’s Ibda Negozju Tiegħek programme that helped start-ups and assisted them financially six months after they were up and running.
Meanwhile, Malta Enterprise was sceptical about Cordina’s proposal to open a cosmetics and perfume factory on the islands. “It took them a long time to accept my business plan,” he says.
Eventually, he was allocated a factory at the Kordin Industrial Estate in late 2009. And that’s when Stephen Cordina Aromatherapy really took off.
Up until then most of his current product line were still formulae and concepts in his recipe book. “I did produce some items in Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq, such as linen, room sprays and body lotions, but it was on a small scale.”
The following year scented candles and soap began to be produced at the Kordin plant. Then, in quick succession, new lines were introduced – diffusers, lotions, shaving oils, bath salts, shampoos and shower gels and most are available in various sizes.
“I hold six Maltese patents for products that I’m planning,” he says, “and these include a honey-based shampoo and a skincare range”.
Products aren’t cheap, primarily because the raw materials are sourced internationally, yet the market has responded with relish. The Stephen Cordina brand is now a local favourite, to the extent that in 2017 the President commissioned a bespoke range of fragrances for San Anton Palace – these are also presented to visiting dignitaries staying at the palace.
The range is also exported and can be bought in most western and central European countries. Volumes aren’t large, “except in the Czech Republic and Slovakia”.
Back home, Cordina is planning to expand his factory in Kordin and intends opening a flagship store in Valletta later this year – not bad going for someone who was thought illiterate and an idiot not that very long ago.
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