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Obituary: Carlo Salteri 1920-2010

"Laying foundations of modern Australia "

Laying foundations of modern Australia

Peter FitzSimons

October 22, 2010, Sydney Morning Herald

Carlo Salteri ... his engineering companies Transfield and Tenix constructed major projects in Australia's postwar period. Photo: Narelle Autio

Carlo Salteri, 1920-2010.

Carlo Salteri, the co-founder of Transfield and founder of Tenix, had a couple of sips of fine champagne early on the day he died. It was appropriate, for he had lived an extraordinarily full life, making his mark in two nations, raising a fine family and leaving his signature on the bottom right-hand corner of many famous engineering projects, including the Sydney Harbour Tunnel and Brisbane's Gateway Bridge.

Salteri was the oldest of four brothers of a well-heeled family, born in Milan on October 23, 1920. His banker father, Guiseppe, believed in discipline and his stay-at-home mother, Flavia, imposed it rigidly.

Whenever young Carlo wavered from the line of strictest rectitude, "Mammina" called: "Carlo, prendermi la frusta!" (Carlo, get me the whip to beat you): once if he had been naughty, twice if anything was broken and three times if he had told a lie or blasphemed. Kinder was his maternal grandfather, a famous engineer who, once when they were discussing what Carlo might do with his life, took from his wallet a small coin - five centimes of a lire.

"Remember," the old man said, "to make a million you have to start from this" Carlo kept the coin for the rest of his life, a constant inspiration for his subsequent engineering career, which prospered to the point that, forget lire, a mere million dollars would be little more than the equivalent of loose change down the back of his couch.

After beginning an engineering degree at Milano's Politecnico in 1940, Salteri was able to get one year's brilliantly accomplished study completed before being called up by the Italian army. There he prospered as a junior artillery officer until near the end of the war, when he refused to fire upon Italian partisans and was immediately imprisoned as a "traitor". Another Italian soldier with aspirations to be an engineer, who had spent many years as a POW, was Franco Belgiorno and six years later the two met at Rome Airport for the first time. The engineering company they worked for, SAE, had won a tender to build electrical power lines in faraway Australia and - in the company of 25 Italian workers and one priest - Carlo was to run it with Franco as his second-in-command.

From August 21, 1951, when the two men landed at Sydney airport, an entirely new world opened before them and, after five frantic and successful years of building, they jointly decided to leave SAE and form their own Australian company.

While Salteri was on a brief visit back to Milan, Belgiorno-Nettis - as he now called himself, noting that the Australian natives were absurdly impressed by double-barrelled names - put through the paperwork to form the new company. Transfield was born.

Their business, with its office in North Sydney and industrial site at Seven Hills, did indeed prosper. In a series of enormous engineering projects - most of which would have bankrupted their company had they failed - the company quickly grew in size, revenue and prestige, as bridges, tunnels, dams, hydro-electric and coal power stations, oil rigs, concert halls, sugar mills and power lines were constructed across the country.

Within the company, Belgiorno-Nettis proved to be a wonderful networker, marketeer and business visionary, while Salteri was a far more hands-on engineer, out on site, making it happen, come what may. On time, on budget. As a Transfield publicity blurb accurately summated on the occasion of the company's 25th anniversary in 1981, "Mr Belgiorno-Nettis dreamed the dreams and Mr Salteri made them come true" Among the many Italian workers for Transfield, Carlo was known as a "pignioro maledeto", a fiend for fine detail, though loved for his humility and humanity.

By 1980, Transfield had 3000 employees and an annual turnover of $350 million and Salteri was never busier, something that contributed to the breakdown of his marriage to his childhood sweetheart and mother of his four children, Renata. In 1981, he began cohabiting with another woman, who he had first met when she had taken a minor temporary job with Transfield in October of 1963, Roslyn Cameron-Smith. They married in February 1986, shortly before Transfield grew to the point of being the biggest engineering firm in south-east Asia and - after winning the tender to build six frigates for the Australian government - the largest defence company in Australia.

But in May of 1995, things became tense between the co-chairmen of Transfield as they sat on opposing sides of the boardroom table, each flanked by two sons. When Belgiorno-Nettis proposed that he henceforth be formally recognised as "The Founding Chairman" of the company, Salteri vehemently disagreed as, in his strong view, they had been in it together from the start, irrespective of whose signature was on the paperwork.

When, finally, Belgiorno-Nettis questioned the honesty of Salteri's recollections, the patriarch of the Salteris got up and walked out the door, followed immediately by his sons, Paul and Robert. After that tumultuous meeting, the two long-time partners would in effect never talk freely again. After long negotiations, Transfield, valued at $733.2 million, was split in two. The Belgiorno-Nettis family kept the name "Transfield" and the construction side of the business, while the Salteris got the company's North Sydney headquarters and the defence operations, which they then renamed Tenix.

For the last decade of his life, Salteri would go into the office three days a week as a consultant but spend the rest of his time with Roslyn, reading, travelling, seeing his grandchildren or doing such things as attending symphony concerts at the Opera House. He was made a Grande Ufficiale in 1999 by the Italian government - the rough equivalent of a knighthood - and was appointed as a Companion of the Order of Australia on Australia Day, 2002.

When, writing a private family biography for him in 2006, I asked him how he would like to be remembered, he replied: "Uomo de familia, ingegnere". Family man, engineer. To which I would add: a proud Italian who also became a great Australian.

Carlo Salteri is survived by Roslyn, his children Paul, Mary, Adriana and Robert and their partners, 11 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Renata died in 1991.

There will be a memorial service at 11am Thursday, October 28, at the Parkside Auditorium, Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre, Darling Harbour.

Owner/SourceSydney Morning Herald
Date22 Oct 2010
Linked toCarlo Salteri, AC (Death)

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