Franco Silvestri conquers markets throughout the continent with his construction business
By Antonio Maglio
In 1953 Franco Silvestri was 24 years old when he met up with his sister Nora in Sydney, Nova Scotia. He came from Brittoli, in the Italian province of Pescara, where he had held small jobs of no consequence. Then he had gone to Rome where he worked at the lounge of the Hotel Mediterraneo, but even there prospects weren't exactly bright. As a result, he decided to emigrate, like tens of thousands of Italians before him, who in those years looked abroad for something Italy couldn't give them.
"For us," remembers Franco Silvestri, who seven years ago was awarded the Knighthood of the Republic of Italy, "a place was like any other. Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, Argentina, Canada. What did we know about these countries? They were 'abroad', which meant away from home, but you could 'make it' there. I came to Canada because my sister was here, in Nova Scotia, and she made the paperwork for the 'recall', as it was called. I arrived, and the following day I received a chilling shock."
Why, Mr. Silvestri?
"You know, Nova Scotia is a mining town; people spend their life underground. My uncle who was with my sister had come many years before and had worked in a mine for a long time. He had already retired at the time. I remember him coughing continuously because of silicosis. When he first saw me he chatted for some time, then he said 'Franco, you're strong and smart; I think that in a couple of years you'll get a job above.' He meant above the surface, not under it, where he had lost his health. Do you understand?"
What was your reaction?
"I was frightened. So, I thought, I have to spend two years underground? Me, accustomed to our sun? And what's more, in a place worse than Brittoli? To cut it short, within one week I had moved to Hamilton."
Did you choose Hamilton because the weather in the Niagara Peninsula was better and you could work above ground?
"Do you really think our choices were dictated by landscape or weather? All places were good for us then, as long as there was a job, and since I had heard that in Hamilton industries were hiring carpenters I came here. What I was looking for, as all immigrants at the time, was a job in a factory because it meant a sure paycheck; not like the countryside, where farmers were starving a lot. I also liked staying in Hamilton because there were many Italians and I wasn't that homesick. After a while I got hired by Ford, which in Oakville had, and it still has, a car assembly plant. At last I returned to Hamilton to work in a steel company mill. My career as a hired worker ended in 1967."
When you became an entrepreneur, right?
"More or less yes, because I had 'rehearsed' while working at the steel mill."
What do you mean 'rehearsed'?
"I had heard that the construction industry was profitable. Therefore, with the money that I had saved while working in the factory, I bought a lot of land and I built a house on it during the weekends."
"What I could do I did myself, what I couldn't, I contracted away. When the house was finished I sold it and made a nice profit which I reinvested to build another couple of houses, which in turn made a nice profit. Thus in 1967 I resigned from the steel mill and devoted myself to construction, and by the end of 1968 I had built about one hundred houses."
Don't tell me this business stood solely on the profits from a couple of sales...
"Of course not, banks always financed me, as they still do. But in all these years banks never gave me a problem, and this is due to fairness, which was my best security. This is not just my opinion, it is what bank directors say. And then I always was a hard worker: even today, at 70, I'm working from sunrise to sunset and with the help of my children and my son-in-law we have hundreds of open sites in the Peninsula, in Florida and Texas. These are the foundations of Silvestri Investments."
With all this work, did you find time for your family?
"Making a family was my first thought as soon as I saw some light. In Brittoli I had a girlfriend, Lea, whom in 1955 I invited here and married. We had three children: Itala, who's now 40, Paolo, 37, and Daniele, 36, who's getting married soon. Over 700 people will be invited to his wedding. And I have seven grandchildren: Alessia, Bianca and Giuliano, Itala's children; and Franco, Lea Anna, Gianluca and Paolo jr., children of Paolo. My strength lies in my sons, and my son-in-law, Giulio Trulli, Itala's husband. My activity in Canada and the United States has been portioned out to them."
Your interests now have expanded to the Southern U.S. What is the reason for this choice that has become prevalent among your activities?
"First of all, it must be clarified that we still work in Canada, especially in the Niagara Peninsula where we've built no less than 2,000 houses. In regards to the States, let me explain. In the mid-Seventies my company was in full swing, but I was looking for new outlets because I didn't want to restrict my activities to Canada alone; in case of a crisis I would have been swept away. So I went to Florida, to see whether it was possible to do something there."
What did you find there?
"In Orlando and around it I found several unfinished condos, due to the fact that the builders ran into financial problems. I bought them and in two or three years I finished about 1,000 flats that were immediately sold. More or less, it went like that when I was working at the steel mill: with my first big work I obtained the possibility to make more and to diversify my activity."
What do you mean by diversify?
"While up to that moment we had been pure builders, after the Florida experiment we realized we could also make good business by buying land, dividing it up and building houses over it, either directly or contracting them out. I tested this method in Florida where I bought 300 hectares of land, which I divided up. Then, in 1985, during the U.S. recession, I went to Houston, Texas, where I bought a little bit of everything: undivided land, abandoned houses, vacant flats, which I transformed either into luxury residences or mid-range houses. It really was a big business. I bought vacant or unfinished houses for $20,000, I finished or restored them, and resold them for $75,000 to $80,000. From houses I moved to commercial malls: in Texas alone I bought 18. I took care of myself, that's clear, but I also helped the Texas economy during a period when nobody was willing to invest a cent there. This is so true that out of gratitude the Houston mayor organized the 'Franco Silvestri Day', awarded me a diploma and many honours. In those years, a study by the University of Houston placed Silvestri Investments in tenth place among 1,200 U.S. companies."
You told me you've portioned out the areas where Silvestri Investments is operating among your sons and your son-in-law. How?
"My son Paolo looks after the Canadian area, Daniele tends to Texas investments (he's living in Houston, in fact), and my son-in-law Giulio Trulli cares for the operations in Florida."
What about you?
"I'm 'dancing' among them all. We currently operate about 100 companies, one per each project we launch and all of them must be maintained; the more we are, the better we can look after them."
Why a company per project?
"This way if a project goes wrong, it affects only the corresponding company and not the whole structure. Is that clear?"
I understand. What is the current turnover of Silvestri Investments?
"About 30 million dollars per year. A nice figure, but I'm especially proud of the honours from the Houston mayor, the consideration and trust shown by the banks, and the Knighthood of the Republic of Italy awarded me on recommendation by the Hamilton Consulate and by General Alfio Pagano, military attaché at our Embassy in Ottawa. Among other things I helped organize the Associazione Combattenti e Reduci (Italian Veterans Association) in Hamilton. Then there's something else I'm proud of."
"The house I built for me and my wife; where we've been living for four years. Before telling you of my home I must warn you that, as you will surely know, a house for an Italian is the crowning achievement of his dreams. And when I was a boy I dreamt a lot about becoming successful and owning a nice house. Now I have it and it's really nice. Even The Spectator, Hamilton's daily newspaper, wrote a piece on it, entitled 'Franco Silvestri's home is really his castle'."
What's noteworthy about this house, Mr. Silvestri?
"It's big: 3,100 square metres."
The Spectator was right, then.
"Of course it was. There are 120 inner doors, 42 outer doors, 11 bathrooms all made of Italian marble, 116 windows, 11 fireplaces also of Italian marble, six bedrooms, two ballrooms that can accommodate 130 people each, and a dining room for 36 guests, in addition to heating and air conditioning systems. But that's not all: surrounding it there are 171 acres of land."
And you still work though you could simply enjoy this richness?
"From sunrise to sunset, and I never tire. You know why? Because I work above: above ground, under the sun. We Italians recharge our batteries on sunlight."