Belgiorno-Nettis wasn’t exactly born with a silver shovel in his mouth, but you suspect a well-worn hard hat was resting somewhere in the nursery. In 1954, his Italian parents Franco and Amina had yet to amass what would become a vast fortune off the back of the nation’s post-war regeneration. Here was a pioneering migrant family of bulldozers, concrete mixers and steel by day, but also one enlivened by art shows, fine dining and community building by night.
The family, synonymous with Transfield, have put in place the robust sinews of our cities and built the supply lines taking power to factories and homes. The iconic company, started by Franco and Carlo Salteri in 1956, which has morphed and multiplied over six decades, built the Sydney Harbour Tunnel, Melbourne’s City Link toll road, hydro-electric and coal-fired power stations, concert halls, oil rigs, sugar mills and the Anzac class frigates.
An architect by training, Belgiorno-Nettis has absorbed his father’s romantic variations on infrastructure – that ubiquitous grey-ugly word, no matter how you polish it. The engineer as hero, fusing Italian artistry with Australian can-do, is the telltale Belgiorno-Nettis flourish.
“My father saw no distinction between the artist and the engineer in as much as both are trying to manifest their ideas and feelings,” says the second of three sons of the late magnate, bon vivant and arts enthusiast. Long-time friends and business associates see parts of Franco in the three boys. Well-rounded and a bit dreamy, Luca is the son with the supplest mind.
In his low-lit office at a revamped timber wharf on Sydney Harbour’s Walsh Bay, the fair and trim Belgiorno-Nettis is effusive with his hands yet pin-point deliberate in voice; he strains to find the right adornment to a thought, pauses to search for a reference from academic works and leavens his pitch with humour and warmth.
On this morning, just within reach is a white mug he’s been drinking coffee from, decorated with the crushing, corporate truism: “A rich man’s jokes are always funny”. It’s a piss take on the stereotype, of course, but also a nudge that beneath this man’s understated elegance and easy courtesy there is serious financial grunt. Still, there’s a sense of an ending in the workers’ area outside his office – sparsely populated, subdued, a mini-city of document boxes piling up on desks. Belgiorno-Nettis is in the middle of a personal and business transition, a reinvention and disruption, which is at the core of modern commerce.
The founding families went their separate ways in 1995. Transfield Services, the operations and maintenance part of the empire, was floated in 2001. At the time there was also a highly public split in the family, with eldest son Marco, who changed his surname to Belgiorno-Zegna, referencing his mother’s maiden name, going his own way.
Last September, the Belgiorno-Nettis family sold its remaining stake in the listed company, which, among several large-scale industrial and resources projects, runs the immigration detention centre in Nauru. The Transfield name is receding into the background; the trademark is shuffling back to the family’s sole control, while the listed venture will present a new name to shareholders. Transfield Holdings is essentially a cashbox for joint projects between Luca and younger brother Guido, who are each establishing a portfolio of interests. The family’s wealth was estimated at $564 million in last year’s BRW Rich List, a tumble from pre-GFC levels when they were paper billionaires.
According to Belgiorno-Nettis, his father saw the Transfield businesses as “both a castle and a cage”. “So we virtually had no options as young boys,” says the only son who did not go straight from university into the burgeoning construction and engineering company. He says there’s no such obligation on the next generation, including Luca’s own son and daughter, both at university, with the empire now likely to become a series of forts and outposts. Selling the construction arm and closing the fabrication business were traumatic events for Franco, who died in 2006. “Guido and I are very happy with what’s been achieved since we took over,” says Luca, citing successful investments in property group Charter Hall, student-housing developer Campus Living Villages, the Perisher ski fields (which the family, like James Packer, has recently sold out of) and Novatec, an industrialscale solar utility in Spain.
Despite its ups and downs, Belgiorno-Nettis maintains Transfield Services has been a good business for the family. “Our father, like many fathers of his generation, may have wished us to shoot the lights out and be in the billions,” he says. “I don’t think he’d be disappointed.”
Now is a good time, he says, to take some cash off the table. “I’ve never had financial investments outside of Transfield,” says Belgiorno-Nettis. “I’m in the fortunate position of no longer needing to do things I don’t want to do.
“I don’t need to, but I actually want to do business. From a wealth perspective I’m more than comfortable, but doing business is as much about feeling worthwhile – making a contribution – in Adam Smith’s conception of it.”
His main target for new ventures is in information technology, the “disruptive space” as he calls it. “It’s plain that every business needs to be tech savvy or connected, whatever you want to call it, or they’ll be run out of town. No exceptions. I’m especially