Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Grollo, Luigi Arturo (1909–1994)

by Ilma Martinuzzi O'Brien

This article was published online in 2018

Luigi Arturo Grollo (1909–1994), builder, was born on 9 August 1909 at Cusignana, a village near Arcade, Treviso, Italy, youngest of seven children of Giovanni Grollo, farmer, and his wife Giovanna, née Zanatta. During his childhood, Treviso was a World War I battleground. Civilian relatives were killed and for more than a year the Grollo family was forced to evacuate its home to the town of Postioma. The decisive Piave River battle (1918), which precipitated the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was fought a short distance from Cusignana. Despite the Italian victory, living conditions after the war remained poor. Luigi left school at eleven to work on his father’s farm. In 1924 he spent six months in a labouring job, dyke building near the Austrian border.

At the age of eighteen Grollo followed an older brother to Australia, arriving in Melbourne on 24 July 1928 aboard the Principe d’Udine. He spent the next ten years seeking employment in country Victoria, southern New South Wales, and South Australia. He found a variety of jobs in the bush, digging irrigation canals, quarrying, timber felling, farm labouring, fruit picking, road building, tobacco farming, and mining. As work was difficult to find and of short duration, he often lived in a tent and cooked over an open fire. His workmates were usually other itinerant Italian immigrants. He later recalled: ‘Sometimes we had to steal chickens, or scrounge food at the Victoria Markets, but we survived’ (Pascoe 1988, 76).

By 1938 Grollo had settled in Carlton, Melbourne, where he found employment as a plasterer with a cement flooring company. He was five feet ten inches (178 cm) tall with a strong build, brown hair, and brown eyes. On 7 June 1941 he married twenty-year-old Emma Girardi, a factory hand, at Sacred Heart Church, Carlton. Born at Cusignana, Emma had arrived in Australia with her mother in 1937; her uncle had travelled to Australia with Luigi in 1928. Carlton was the centre of Italian community life in Melbourne and offered relative comfort after bush life, with shops, businesses, and social activities serving the significant number of Italian residents. The Grollos lived at 622 Swanston Street and had two sons, Bruno (b. 1942) and Rino (b. 1947). Luigi was naturalised on 3 November 1947.

Grollo flourished in the prosperous years after World War II. In 1948, while employed as a plasterer during the week, he established his own business subcontracting as a concreter on the weekends. Emma kept the books and managed the finances. Luigi soon established a reputation for efficiency and reliability, and by 1952 the business had grown sufficiently for him to cease his paid employment and begin hiring workers. In 1954 the family moved to Thornbury. When Bruno joined the company in 1958, Grollo had thirty-five men, divided into teams, constructing mainly concrete paths and fireplace foundations. By 1963 the workforce had expanded to 128, and Rino joined the company in 1965.

In the early 1960s Bruno had encouraged his father to expand into larger projects. While the original firm, L. Grollo & Co. Pty Ltd, continued doing paving and house slabs, the Grollos created two more private companies: Conpor Pty Ltd, for projects such as swimming pools, sewerage projects, and the Mount Buller storage dam; and Grollo Building and Engineering Pty Ltd, to focus on big contracts. Construction of the Reserve Bank building in Collins Street nearly bankrupted the family, but by the end of the decade the Grollos were regularly engaged as sub-contractors to major companies, constructing the concrete cores for new buildings.

By this time the modus operandi of the Grollo enterprise and its relations with its employees were firmly established. The family company was built on a network of relatives and friends from Treviso and previous work companions of other backgrounds, many of whom felt and received great loyalty and remained with the company for decades. Luigi Grollo’s approach to industrial relations resulted in maximum productivity and timely completion; it was based on job security, prompt and over-award payments, generous allowances and incentives, rapid resolution of industrial disputes, and friendly dealings with trade unions. He had a reputation for being firm but fair and he identified with his employees. These core values of the Grollo business would endure until the 1980s.

After suffering a heart attack in 1968, Grollo decided to leave the business in the care of his sons, who increasingly sought part-ownership of the buildings they constructed, creating a substantial property portfolio. In 1969 Luigi visited one of his brothers in Argentina then returned to Italy. In his retirement he travelled extensively but maintained a keen interest in new Grollo projects such as the Rialto Towers (1982–86), encouraging his sons to take the financial risks associated with large undertakings. His final years were devoted to family, travel, his garden, hobby farming, and winemaking. Predeceased by his wife (d. 1986) and survived by his sons, Grollo died at East Melbourne on 27 December 1994. After a funeral at Holy Spirit Church, Thornbury, he was buried in Preston cemetery. At the time of his death, the Grollo companies were reported to be worth more than $350 million.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Grollo, Diana Ruzzene. Cooper’s Creek Gippsland: The Trevisani. Thornbury, Vic.: Mure, 2004
  • National Archives of Australia. A435, 1947/4/2969
  • National Archives of Australia. A714, 71/22279
  • National Archives of Australia. B6531, Naturalised/1946–1947/Italian/Grollo Luigi
  • Neales, Sue. ‘Grollo: Tenacious to End.’ Age (Melbourne), 30 December 1994, 2
  • Pascoe, Robert. The Recollections of Luigi Grollo. Northland, Vic.: Grollo Australia, 1988
  • Pascoe, Robert. We Work with Grollo. Northland, Vic.: Grollo Australia, 1992
  • Randazzo, Nino. ‘Empire Builder Thrived on Hard Graft.’ Australian, 13 January 1995, 17

Additional Resources

Citation details

Ilma Martinuzzi O'Brien, 'Grollo, Luigi Arturo (1909–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/grollo-luigi-arturo-21320/text31722, published online 2018, accessed online 21 March 2019.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2019