Australian Biography

Franco Belgiorno-Nettis - full interview transcript

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In thinking about management and your idea of taking care of people, have you at any stage during the period of Transfield, for example during the 1980s, when everybody else was doing it, had to retrench people, had to put people off?

We never retrenched people, but I must admit in the last year or so due to the current situation in Australia, it has been painful to us to reduce personnel in Western Australia, also in New South Wales, in South Australia. While we're expanding, as we are doing in many other areas of the Pacific, and we cannot transfer personnel simply because, first of all, Australians will not be easy type of people going overseas unless they are managers. And the managers, you know, these are type of national, they are paid very much, in fact to me these executives ... are paid incredible amount of money. To have one of our expatriates — this word looks to me, a sort of colonial term, expatriates — it costs to us easily $300,000 to $400,000 a year, but when you talk about personnel we use normally overseas. We use local labour. In Australia, instead due to this depressed market, we have been compelled, that is really tragic, so we had, for instance, until the 1990s, somewhere about 6000 people, 8000 people, in our labour force, now I think we are down to 6000. So it has to me been pretty sad, and I receive occasionally from these people some letters — how, what happens —and it is very difficult to explain to people when they are retrenched the reason, why him not somebody else, so it is a sort of serious human problem to explain to people and to justify retrenchment; it is a pity.

What are some of the other principles on which you have based the management of the company? What do you think has been the secret of the success of the company?

Don't expect any ... in a nutshell, there are so many aspects. First of all you should be able to know the subject. I mean you must have a basic, particularly in our profession, basic knowledge of the subject, engineering background, and I think that is a essential, that an executive level of manager should have very good technical knowledge and be also familiar with the up-to-date technology, up-to-date equipment, system, method. The question of training the personnel, teaching what are the essentials for that particular project, the question of giving clear instruction, timely instruction, never let the people to get starved of information, or starving of data, or equipment. Just as you need in the war period, it is a major crime not to have enough ammunition for the soldier, so the question of let's call it, supply on our side, must be timely. So is the importance of programs, in order that the people know in time what to do, do properly, because the correction sometimes is more expensive than to do things properly. Create the team work, the question of the team work is another very essential element and I found that if you give it the concept of urgency, it helps particularly on field work, when you are isolated, to give you the idea that the job is urgent.

Of course, provided that certain basics of safety measures have been taken, and safety has been a constant problem since the beginning of any operation, and I would say now is much more critical than it was probably 20 years ago, when you could count in the, say, the project of Snowy Mountains [Hydro-electric] Authority, I talk about a big project, that is the Snowy Mountains Scheme, where the number of dead were normally considered a fraction percentage of the link of the tunnel and now, for instance, we have built the [Sydney] Harbour Tunnel and we didn't have an accident. Another aspect of course is a question of maintaining good industrial relation. I mean the industrial relations are the essential element for stability of the operation, to give a continuity of work, and make sure that every day, I would say, the foreman, particularly, know exactly the kind of program they expect them to do for the following day. And so the managers, and so the big people in the office that are supposed to be the guiding element of the project that is being done on site. Now I could explain, infinitum, but there is a tremendous amount of personal, I would say, presence at stake for the success of any operation.

Of all the major engineering feats that Transfield has been involved in, is there any one that you feel particularly proud of?

There's really so much, vast field, that we have covered at Transfield, possibly due to my amphibious, amphibious attitude from the civil to the electrical to the mechanical, and to also aspects of architecture because we have also part of architecture to some of our subsidiary.

The Harbour Tunnel, the ship?

Certainly the Harbour Tunnel has been a great project, with a great success, lot of controversial on the beginning, satisfaction on the end, but you talk about transmission lines. To me, transmission lines put Transfield ... it is really the very core of the history of the company. When you are building along hundreds and hundreds of mile, repetitive work, in inaccessible country, and you have this team of people working with method, continuity, efficiency and result — and some of the first transmission lines that we built and it was 220 kV line in South Australia, where we did also the testing. A transmission line is a repetitive kind of task, different task, different conditions, but mainly you've got repetition of the same kind of tower and you test this kind of tower, so the testing itself is also quite an important engineering feature. Transfield had the first testing station in Australia and understand now we still have the first testing, so that people from Indonesia, or from Malaysia or from New Zealand, and also from whatever, Australia, of course they send the towers to us to test for them. It means to subject the structure to the critical loads, because this is a very important type of engineering feature where you cannot afford to spend more than what is necessary — because if you spend four times, should have been 10 tonnes, is 12 tonnes, then you multiply by one potential losses that you make. So we had the first testing station that was built early in '58, and of course it has been upgraded constantly, you understand we are upgrading ...

Was there any other project that you felt very strongly about?

Well, without going to the very complex engineering aspect of the construction in the shipyard, that's when we were doing another frigate for the navy in Williamstown ...

That's a very interesting thing for an ex-prisoner of war of the English to be doing?

Yes, to build a naval ship for the ex-enemy, remarkable, but you see that the friendly relationship I have personally with the navy personnel, with the Minister for Defence, you could see with time, the maturity of events changing aspects of relationship.

Now, one project to me that is extremely important in the history of Transfield, has been the construction of the semi-submersible oil rig in West Australia. These of course are very huge complexes for the exploration of petrol and we built this in West Australia. We didn't have any shipyard — it's a very wide tall system, the project was done at a loss at the time, I quoted about $19 million and we spent $22 million. It was a loss but it was a tremendous amount of feature, a great success, I would say, for a company like us, to build a semi-submersible oil rig that practically made us two submarines with a tall system and oil facilities on top. You could see them working many parts of the world.

In what circumstances is building something at a loss, a success?

Well, it is part of the risks — any contractor will also forecast certain results and there are so many variables. First of all you can make a mistake in tendering, that is so easy. Second, you have all other people putting spanners in the system. We had at the time ...

I am suppose I am asking you why you are proud of it when you made a loss of it?

Because it was very complex and we were able to put together different kind of technology and, I would say, just as a ship, with all the complexity of the operation for piping system, driving system, and we were to build on the sand, just on the open, we didn't have a shipyard. It is difficult for me to explain. Briefly I had [that] the whole thing eventually went in the water, it was floating, and eventually it had been operating and is now operating in the North Sea. Now that was just a very important project, but I could mention dozen and dozens, certainly practically all the oil rigs built in Australia and all the power stations and, I would say, probably 80 percent of transmission lines and bridges and tunnels and dams, you name them, big plants for steel, for aluminium, for iron ore, I mean, I know Australia more than the average Australian, moving from all sorts of places, from the North Gulf to south in Tasmania, to New Zealand, to all states; it is remarkable.

Can you describe to me the sense of satisfaction you personally feel when you travel around and look at the fruits of your labour?

Yes, certainly, you have a tremendous sense of being proud and all that. To be able, eventually, to conceive initially a little company that ... hope will be able to survive doing a little job, because my aim at the time was just a little company and you can see how many things become much bigger that any dream if you allow the vision to move.

If you allow ... could you say that again? Things work out if you allow the ... ?

... if you allow any vision to move forward.

You talk about movement, about the importance of movement. Could you tell us what you mean by that?

Well, you must be able to transfer your own enthusiasm, your own idea, to other people, because the management is really that — you are not doing the job yourself — you transfer your idea on the action of other people. This is, basically, it is called job manager [but] he doesn't do the job, he organises other people to do it. So if you could create that kind of atmosphere, that is a vision, and eventually you see the result and you realise that that result very often is greater, bigger, of what you had in the first case imagined.

So when you set out, your vision was for a small prosperous company but gradually the activity overtook the vision and enlarged it. At what point did you realise that you were going to become so big?

Well, certainly the size of the company has dramatically increased in the last seven or eight years. And I must give credit to the intervention of the younger generation. I talk about the son of Salteri and the son [Paul], and my son, particularly, Marco. Of course the other brothers are in the system, but these two people, they have been able to widen the scope of the company. They have been more articulated than what the old generation was, with better contacts, possibly the fresh energy, and I'm pretty convinced that as we are now, the management of the system is in good hands. I hope I'm not wrong?

How many countries are you operating in at the moment?

I don't know the number really, could be a dozen or so. We've been trying to get work [in] Kuwait, we're doing some work in Kuwait, we're doing some work in Israel, some of course in New Zealand is part of it, the rim of the Pacific, we have still now a workshop in the United States, in China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos. I've been there just recently. We've been working in New Guinea and l lost count of it but sometime I must read through our pamphlet in which area we are working, or where we are opening a new kind of frontline.

Now I'd like to switch and have you tell us a little bit about your involvement in the other great area of your life, apart from engineering, and that is the area of the arts. You have been a great patron of the arts in Australia. Could you tell me the story of how that began and why you got involved in promoting the arts in Australia?

Well, I think that if I had the formal education in the art world — talk about the basic training of artists, since I indulge in painting, particularly in doing sculpture — I am not surprised that I could be a reasonably good sculptor or painter. I could have made a living out of it.

Where did it start for you personally, your activity in art?

As a kid first of all, my father was always attempting I think more for saving, I mean, if we do a calendar in the house, he would certainly try to copy from a postcard and try to do something and I would try to copy or sometime be pushed by him. Look, do that, if you can't do that, I do it. He would probably do it better than me, or vice versa. Since the very beginning, I would say, when I was probably a kid ... my father would certainly assist me. Subsequently at school, I talk about the Leaving, it was also another period when I had a good chance of painting. I think, then, when I went to concentration camp, there I had a much better chance of spending time with the artists of the area and I did some painting and I did some drawing and some figurative and landscape, quite interesting. I was trying to understand the life of the artists and I have been very much intrigued, fascinated, by the ability of these people to create from what appeared to be sort of an informal landscape, to create some element that was completely different. So the ability, the creativity, of artist to me has always been a very fascinating element. And this possibly has given to me the chance of continuing to draw and to paint whenever I could. And in the early '60s, there has been a breakthrough when I decided to open the competition for Transfield, which I called the Transfield Prize.

That gave me the chance of extending for about 13 years, the Transfield Prize, it was one of the leading art prizes in the country. By then Transfield was very well known, not only as a company but also as a promoter of art, and I made a lot of friends. I could understand a lot of national art, because the art prize was mainly Australian, but from all over the country, so I met most of Australia's great artists that eventually became a great name. We discovered some of the people that were unknown at the time: Fred Williams was one of those, for instance, where the critics, I think, made the choice. I was never in charge of the — no I couldn't be really — so that gave me the chance of meeting also curators, writers, critics and that is part of the ... that is for the gregarious, sometimes not necessarily compact of the art world that [I] eventually had to understand and deal further on with the Biennale [of Sydney].

And tell me how the biennale came into being? ... [interruption] ...

Well, the biennale is definitely the premium international exhibition in Australia since 13 [years] and in the ninth edition, this year's has been the ninth edition, and I have asked them [on] the Board to give me some data. We have been able to exhibit up to ... works of 800 artists in this period, for 45 nations, an average of 80 artists every session. This has allowed not only artists coming from overseas but also for Australia, artists that were unknown, or be known to overseas.

Why did you do it?

Well, there is here a bit of a nostalgic relationship with Venice, because the first biennale in the world was Venice in 1884 [1895], I think, and if you go and see at the Giardini Venice, these incredible theatrical performers and gradually we see them, we are creating something similar, these kind of relationships with international art world. Venice has been my inspiration and I go practically every year to have a look what happens and Australia now is much better known than what it was then, so we've, I think, not only broken down this isolation in Australia, but we have allowed [at] every session artists, critics, writers, visitors plus most of other performers in action in many parts of Sydney [to become] well-known all over the world. This is certainly a great contributing element to the art of Australia for the rest of the world.

What do you think is the real importance of art in the life of a nation?

Well, certainly, art is one aspect of the culture that makes alive, makes alive the tissue of a community to vibrate and you must have in a community interest in that kind of layer of activity, to make life interesting and possible. There are many aspects of course of the arts and I just concentrating on the visual aspects.

Are you interested in any of the other art forms?

Well, certainly less, I'm not a great acknowledger of the theatrical play or literature or music, even if I have in the family a lot of addicts in this area, since I like them. But my particular inclination is toward the visual and that also has aspect — a sideline is architecture, for instance. Another one I also like to consider as a sort of by-product is design. I have been interested in design, part of the council [Australia Council of the Arts] activity in Australia, but that is another aspect of living, there is so much interest. And you can see what happened in Australia, the change of attitude, the change of capacity of what happens here in the last 40 years. The basic tremendous change in the tissue in the Australian community is that government institutions have given support to the art and the artists.

Apart from your role as an engineering entrepreneur, you've made another very great contribution to Australian life while you've been living here and that is in the area of the arts, the visual arts, particularly. Can you tell us why you got involved in that, why you think it’s important to the country and what you actually have done?

Art is also a good business ... and even in my office we have plenty of paintings. It is good for the staff, it is good for the executive, it is good for the customer. But for the artist themself [it] is a creative element in the humankind. I mean, humans have got this different capacity compared with those other living creatures, this creativity. And the history of mankind has just been pinpointed by the development of the art in every community. I have been very fortunate to have contacts in Italy first, and eventually here, much greater, I would say, but probably it is an instinct that come back — could be from the Italian type of generation or the Renaissance — of the history of, particularly Italy, that so much has contributed to art in the world and I have been in a way a sort of little messenger, a little ambassador for Australia. So I've been extremely genuine, interested and proud, and having tremendous pleasure myself in fostering the art during my career in engineering through the Transfield Prize and the biennale.

In a new country, a comparatively new country like Australia, what do you think is the importance of art in the life of the nation? What contribution do you think it makes?

Well, certainly it is the tissue in the community that is gradually evolved and developed and Australia has this millennium of art, even primitive, for the Aboriginal [culture] we talk about 40,000 years and now, gradually, even in one of the latest exhibitions in Venice, through the Australian pavilion, that I had something to do with at that time, has been also original work by Aboriginal [artists] — very, very well received in Europe. So Australia is known now through this kind of medium that were not possible until probably a few years ago.

So Australian art, of course, one of the big ways in which it gets displayed abroad now is through the pavilion at the Venice Biennale. You were connected with that?

Well, I had the good luck, let's put it that way, of suggesting the construction of the pavilion in Venice. It probably has been the last chance for any nation to have a pavilion in Venice, so Australia has been gradually acknowledged as one of the last pavilion and I don't think anyone else will start. With the pavilion that I had to justify as only temporary and eventually they told me that if you succeed in getting a temporary pavilion in Italy, anything that is temporary becomes permanent. And [the] pavilion ... that now is a great piece of Australian architecture being designed by local architect, displays every two years works of leading artists, and Australians by such are better known overseas.

Now the biennale that you have supported over the years is also an important part of Australian art life. What do you think is the particular contribution that the biennale has made and are you ... what' s been your connection with it?

In Australia it is a focus for the presence here of international artists and also there is the possibility of showing Australian artists to the rest of the world. So it is a tremendous amount of possibility of this contact, of this isolated continent, which is Australia. And the Australian art in the last 30 years, I would say, has developed to a tremendous space, and not only in visual art but also in ballet, in play, in music, in craftsmen, and now Australia is also expected to make some money out of the art. That is just incredible, in addition to the balance of payment to the country.

Now if art is good business as you say, why is it that so few other companies have supported the arts in the way that Transfield has?

Well they are doing, they are doing, I could see, certainly we were pioneers. Transfield has been pioneer in this area but I could see also that other company are doing that and you would be surprised that in many boardroom, gradually, a very traditional type of painting that you were seeing exhibited, cows, pastures, etc, modern architecture ...

... the Queen ...

... the Queen, whatever, now things are moving tremendously. The maturity of Australian art in the world and I very well recognise that you could see, even reading a magazine in Europe, in America and in Asia, Australia is very well-respected

Do you think businesses get a lot of value out of being sponsors and supporters of the arts?

Oh definitely, and taking an example of some Italian company that have been a promoter of art, more or less this kind of patronage, it was traditional of Italian signori in the Renaissance. Now Australians are realising that is an important message, I mean, no doubt about that, the very well-recognised presence of Transfield is also given to the role played by the company in promoting art and assisting in many aspects visual arts in the country.

[end of tape]

Proceed to Tape 6