The Australian - The Deal - - Starting Over -

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

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