From modesty to an industry giant

David’s father, Luigi Barro, came to Australia in 1926 from Arcade (Treviso), a small village not far from Venice in Italy where he had a modest business delivering groceries by horse and cart in the surrounding region.

Like many migrants in those Depression years, his first employment in Australia was labouring on government works constructing channels and aqueducts in Victoria.

However, in 1936, he received an ultimatum from his wife, Amalia, to either come home or she was bringing the family out to join him, which, in due course, she did.

By this time, Luigi had settled in Park Orchards and later purchased a house in North Ringwood, Victoria, which is still their family home.

Ringwood was then a somewhat isolated area but attractive as a centre for orchards and golf courses which encouraged Luigi to become a greenkeeper. David’s mother fell in love with her new country which has ensured a happy and stable Barro family.

David was born in 1921 in Italy’s Veneto region and his early education was in local schools with his secondary education at Our Lady’s, Ringwood. This, of course, involved a sharp learning curve mastering the English language – with Aussie overtones! But, at age 16, father decreed it was time for David to go to work.

It has been said that cement flows in the veins of Mediterranean races and it was no surprise that David signed up for an apprenticeship with the concrete company De Marco Bros. “I thought concrete was a great thing because you put it together in any shape or form, take away the formwork in a few days and it stays exactly as it is,” David explained.

From his earliest days, David had a strong sense of independence and, at the young age of 25, in 1946, formed his own business, the Barro Paving Company, specialising in concrete placing and terrazzo.

This was the foundation stone on which the Barro Group was to build and prosper to become one of Australia’s largest family-controlled companies.

Business was good and the Barro Paving Company was soon the largest concrete contractor in the east of Melbourne. But with their growth came the frustration of not being able to obtain sufficient supplies of cement, sand and aggregate.

Without success, David tried to obtain regular cement supplies from both Tasmania and New South Wales. Even when some was available from NSW, delivery was a lengthy process due to the necessity in those early days for trucks to accommodate the change of rail gauge between the two states at Albury.

In 1959, David was encouraged to go overseas so as to study work practices in other countries, spending three and a half months in the USA and Japan.

In the USA, it was suggested that he make Besser concrete blocks back home, but the shortages of cement and sand would still be there. Mitsui in Japan was keen to become involved in a joint venture. David was impressed with the way contractors in the USA organised projects such as concrete road construction.

In his need to obtain reliable cement supplies, David was the first contractor to import cement from England. He recalls that the company’s logo was a bulldog with a cigar in its mouth. The bulldog analogy is so fitting with the determined Barro approach to business. The cement came in 50kg bags.

In the USA, ready-mixed concrete in  agitators was a significant part of the civil engineering industry. David was determined to be one of the first in Australia, so Pronto Mixed Concrete was born. Suitable capacity trucks were a problem and the initial under-capacity ex-army vehicles was soon replaced with Diamond T trucks – again, the first to be imported into the country.

There was no supply of aggregates in the east of Melbourne, so David obtained them from a quarry north of the city to supply his projects. In those days, the quarries were very small producers and men were breaking stone with sledge hammers and were paid by the “skip” at around two cubic metres each – men working up to 10 hours a day.

Then the winds of change began blowing. Engineer Ray Ross came with big-picture thinking – new people, new crushers, plentiful materials – and David Barro came in around the same time with his first quarry at Montrose and this gave him the stone he needed for his concrete. He bought sand from Pioneer at Springvale. All this put him in a strong position for tenders and contracts for construction in the east of Melbourne. He maintained tight control of the business with detailed weekly and monthly reports for all aspects of the company.

David’s business philosophy is simple. “As the world was marching on, Australia was growing and Melbourne was growing and I was determined to grow with them,” he recalled. “Off we went. From my first quarry came a bit more – more sand pits, more concrete, more quarries, more people, more paving contractors, more construction work, more managers, more office, more staff, more everything!

“Every year you have to grow with it – if the country grows four per cent, you’ve got to be there with it. That’s why we are still here today. We are still growing with supply and demand.”

Since the earliest days, David had been determined to obtain access to reliable supplies of bulk cement – not from others – but through his own company or by joint venture. In the early 1980s, he took the bold step to acquire almost 25km2 of waterfront property in Lorimer Street, Port Melbourne and set up Independent Cement & Lime, a joint venture bulk depot to handle imported cement.

Blast furnace slag is also handled at this site – another first for the industry in Victoria.

This depot is perhaps the most outstanding example of David Barro’s determination to remain independent and control his  company’s destiny. He has refused many offers to sell his interests, but being pragmatic, he is always prepared to joint venture.

David spoke fondly of an old friend and IQA stalwart, Alec Northover. In the early days of Alec’s involvement with the Crushed Stone Association, David’s daughter, Rhonda, assisted Alec with the association’s paperwork for over a decade.

During the interview with David, one could be excused for believing that coming to a strange land with nothing and then building a group of companies involved in all aspects of the building construction industry would have fully occupied his every waking moment.

It took persistent questioning to overcome a modesty barrier to reveal another side of David’s life – that is, his efforts in fundraising for charities and community groups such as the Royal Women’s Hospital, the Royal Children’s Hospital and what was the Spastic Society. He helped establish the Heathmont Bowling Club, was chairman of the large Villagio Vaccari retirement village, served on many not-for-profit boards and was founding president of the Veneto Club, one of the largest Italian clubs in Australia. There could not be a better example of the old clich?, “When you want a job done, give it to a busy man”.

David’s charitable works came from his simple philosophy of life. “You try to do your best and having done so, you feel better for it,” he said. “When you give, you must feel better than when you take.”

In 1985, David’s efforts for the community and industry were recognised when he was bestowed the honour of Officer of the General Division of the Order of Australia (AO).

David can look back with pride in the fact that the Barro Group now has  companies involved in all aspects of concrete production and placing, quarries, builder’s supplies, precast panels, roof tiles, civil engineering, transport, tyres, support  service and maintenance in both Victoria and Queensland.

As of 2007-08, the Barro Group has some 800 employees.

David stood down a few years ago as managing director of the Group, but is still its executive chairman and is at one of his many sites on most days, demonstrating that his age of 87 is no barrier to active involvement in his companies.

It is not unusual for family companies to be split up or sold off because the children of the founder don’t, for whatever reason, have the same desire to maintain the business. Not so with the Barro family, with David’s sons and daughter in critical positions in the company and with the promise of another generation to ensure succession.

And it all started when Luigi Barro said to his son: “David, you are now 16. It’s time to get a job.”

By Doug Prosser

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