Total Success: Grollo built to last by Ruth Ostrow
TOTAL Success is a six-week Inquirer series — complemented by unique videos — written and directed by Ruth Ostrow. It showcases six of Australia’s most influential and charismatic business leaders talking about deeply personal subjects such as death, love and God. This week, construction boss Bruno Grollo talks about his search for health and longevity.
BRUNO Grollo, until recently the powerhouse behind the private construction giant Grocon, has always been hailed as one of the toughest, shrewdest operators in the ruthless world of construction.
The 72-year-old, who with brother Rino built some of the tallest buildings in the country — the iconic Rialto and Eureka Tower as well as the prestigious 101 Collins Street — has a fierce reputation for being the man who tamed the unruly building unions in the turbulent 1980s.
But, in a rare and surprisingly candid interview at his Melbourne home Casa del Matto — House of the Madman — Grollo has revealed the extent to which his secret of success was based on taming his own soul. “I think Consciousness is everything!” he declares, opening up about his beliefs; his devotion to his former “guru” Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (of Beatles fame); and his meditation practice.
Famed for achieving peace with the trade unions, he says his spiritual leanings held him in good stead through his turbulent, entrepreneurial years when those around him crashed and burned. “There is only one commandment in the Bible that I think we need in this world to survive and that’s ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’.”
He never begrudged providing his men with beanies and onsite showers, reduced working hours, and comforts that earned him the respect of workers and the unions. “When you start as a concreter, as I did in my dad’s business, at 15, then you are equal to your men. You have a different relationship with them.”
By the 90s, he was providing them with “meditation mats” not “hard-hats”; opening a Transcendental Meditation centre in Melbourne, which drew those around into his spiritual world. “The Maharishi said consciousness is everything. It’s the closest thing to what God might be, your consciousness, mine, the dog, the cat, the flowers, the trees,” he says with burning conviction.
He once told me: “You work so that you can gain security and material wealth, but money never made me happy … I never felt the way I did at 18. Meditation is the closest thing to the euphoria of youth I have discovered.”
Today, Grollo is a wellness fanatic. Having tamed the unions and his mind, he says his most exciting new challenge is to tame his ailing body, using the same single-minded passion that drove Grocon.
“My biggest goal now is staying alive. I’m trying to live long enough to see the success of gene, nano and stem-cell therapies which will keep us alive. This is cutting-edge biology and those young and healthy enough to be around will be able to live indefinitely.” He is certainly rich enough to be among the first few recipients, his and his family’s interests worth a cool $740 million, according to Forbes magazine’s Australia’s 50 Richest list.
But living forever is a hell of an ambition for a man who has more than his fair share of ailments, including leukaemia, melanomas and prostate cancer. His spine is also out of whack. Like Google executive Ray Kurzweil, who takes 150 vitamins a day to cheat death, Grollo takes 100 tablets; consuming them by the handful. He employs a team of professionals in his home to research every product on the market, every new bit of science on anti-ageing and longevity. Today, they have discovered research about a compound that looks promising for cancer.
“Look at the sunshine, the sky, the trees, the flowers … why the hell would I want to leave all this?” he says. Without the pills and vitamins, he says he wouldn’t be here. “I should be dead … I smoked too much and I ate too much and I drunk too much.”
Grollo takes me around his lavish Melbourne castle in the working-class suburb of Thornbury; rather than dwelling on his wine and car collections, he enthusiastically shows me around his temple of health. He has thousands of vitamins in a cooled room and pulls down jars or containers to explain in detail why they are beneficial.
He lectures me on vitamin D and tells me I will “dry up” without certain hormone replacements. He shows me his “cuddle chemical” oxytocin, which he insists will boost my sex life. My partner, who is filming, laughs audibly as Grollo gives us a few “for later”.
Adjoining is an entire gymnasium as big as a regular gym, with treadmills, state-of-the art contraptions, oxygen machines. Each day, Grollo hangs upside down like a bat on a machine that tilts backwards. He admits, laughing, that he is indeed “a madman”.
A clever, successful “madman” though. From his gym, he can see his garage filled with a collection of beautiful cars, some vintage, including his father’s first car, magnificently restored. He can also see his sweeping gardens, which are lovingly tended by his wife, Pierena. His first wife, Dina, died of illness in 2001 at 58 and he still keeps a room in her honour. The gardens are dominated by a giant Roman-style fountain.
He says he is glad to be out of the industry. Stress did him in more than the smokes and drinking. “Buildings are hard work, they’re stressful, they are draining. They’re hard to put up. I’d had enough. I got out.” But he says he couldn’t help his driving ambition at the time.
His egoism in wanting to build the biggest buildings, and love of money, came from growing up in a struggling immigrant family. His dad, Luigi, who started Grocon after arriving from Italy in the late 30s, was a concreter. “I was pretty poor when I was young and we didn’t have much to eat. I was desperado to make some money.”
He admits that before his spiritual epiphany he wasn’t all “love ’n’ light”. He had to be tough, dealing with the notorious BLF (Builders Labourers Federation) that wreaked havoc on developers in the 70s and 80s. Federal secretary Norm Gallagher was ultimately jailed for accepting industry bribes.
But Grollo was famed for keeping a long, successful peace with the unions, ironic in view of the troubles his son and successor Daniel, now executive chairman of Grocon, is having with the CFMEU. “Trial by fire,” agrees Bruno of his son’s tribulations, and adds, “I can’t stand dealing with the unions any more … I got sick and tired of it.”
Bruno also had a few legal stoushes back in the day, including a case brought against Rino and him in the 90s for tax evasion. After a lengthy battle, the Grollos won. While Bruno still retains various property interests, in 2012 he officially passed full ownership of Grocon — now an $800m-a-year, international megastar — to Daniel. (Bruno and Rino had already split their interests in 2000.) It was a move pundits applauded as a perfect example of succession for private families.
Despite his success, instead of “trading up” Grollo spent 40 years in his beloved suburb of Thornbury, buying the houses around him to extend his living space for himself, and previously his mother and family. But his once-humble abode is now adorned with marble walls and chandeliers. He grins.
Despite his quest for wellbeing, spirituality and meaning, he likes his trappings of wealth. He also still likes his indulgence, travelling the world and eating with gusto. He is Italian, after all: “Everything in moderation.”
I watch him down a huge handful of vitamins with a glass of wine. He sees no contradiction. “That’s about trying to stay alive (he indicates the vitamins) “and that (he waves the glass in salute) is about enjoying life.”