THE GHELLA FAMILY’S FIRST CONSTRUCTION PROJECT
Domenico Ghella, the family’s progenitor, was born in Noviglio, near Milan, in 1837. As early as 1850, still only 13 years old, he left for Marseille where he found work as a miner. As a young man he was filled with initiative and a spirit of adventure. He remained in France until 1867, the year he learned of the construction of the Suez Canal in Egypt, a project that would change the history of the world and – if he seized the opportunity – his own. Determined, courageous and farsighted, like any “explorer”, he never thought twice about leaving. With his small company he participated as a subcontractor in the realization of this great undertaking. Only three years later Domenico was in Istanbul, Turkey, digging the tunnel for the Pera-Galata funicular. In 1877, at the age of 40 and after a life of hard work, he finally returned to Italy, to work on the Novi-Acqui-Ovada railway line.
Domenico enjoyed his work. He was a natural adventurer. He couldn’t have been more right about Egypt: this experience seasoned his adventurous spirit, a mix of entrepreneurship and technique that he would infuse into the future Società Ghella. The same spirit still inspires the choices made by our company.
THE BIRTH OF THE SOCIETÀ GHELLA E FIGLI
Alongside Domenico was his son, Adolfo, born in 1877, in Colleretto Castelnuovo, a town in the province of Turin. Following in his father’s footsteps, Adolfo spent his summers on building sites. Like his father, from his earliest years he demonstrated a great passion for hard work. In 1894 Domenico founded the Società Ghella e figli. By this time he had jobs in India and Persia, and was involved in the construction of part of the Trans-Siberian railway in Russia. However, at the end of the same year his father passed away. Adolfo inherited two thousand lira that afforded him the possibility to finish his two years of study and earn his diploma as a surveyor from the Istituto di Pinerolo. Soon after he embarked on a journey to visit the works built by his father in Turkey and Egypt. He was intent on learning and improving excavation techniques, his first passion, but he wanted to be prepared.
To this day, at Ghella we believe that practical experience is the best way to truly learn and grow. However, a theoretical foundation is fundamental to focusing our efforts, confronting the unexpected and improving faster.
In 1901 Adolfo set sail for Australia. Here he reinvited himself as a lumberjack, shepherd, miner, and gold digger. He crossed the continent on foot and horseback, without becoming involved in any building works. He did however learn English, and this experience enriched his understanding of people. After three years he returned to Italy where he began working on the Sempione railway toward Switzerland. In 1905 he set off for Tonkin, a territory in French Indochina, where a French company was designing and building a daring railway line. He was assigned a section of the railway. After the latest pestilence caused by tropical diseases, such as malaria, which caused the death of thousands of local laborers, the company suspended all work. The survivors returned to Europe and Italy. Adolfo soon set off for Hong Kong, on his own.
At Ghella, the example set by Adolfo stands to this day: the cultural wealth represented by our collaborators is considered a highly valuable resource. For the possibility to apply one’s knowledge to future situations still unknown to us, and unpredictable. It is always important to learn, even when we fail to understand any immediate or future usefulness.
At this time an English company was building a complex railway in Hong Kong, whose works were lagging behind due to particularly difficult excavations. Adolfo Ghella travelled to the site every day, forging personal relationships with the director of works, who offered him the contract to build the well as piecework. Adolfo reorganized the work site, surrounded himself with new staff, and drew on all the experience gained as a young boy working with his father, refined in successive projects, and things were soon back on track. He received his due recognition and his first financial success. In 1909 he was awarded the harbor project in Kowloon. These successes were followed by long years of profitable work on the Canton railway that advanced toward China, where he was also awarded the construction of the dam on the West River.
Resourcefulness, determination, experience, reliable methods and the right dose of courage. Values that continue to describe us perfectly.
In the wake of the Boxer Rebellion, Adolfo returned to Italy where he married Domenica, with whom he would spend the rest of his life. Domenica was the daughter of Giovanni Bertoglio, Adolfo’s companion in a thousand adventures. It was thanks to Giovanni, a prolific writer of letters and postcards from around the globe, that we have managed to faithfully reconstruct the dates of so many trips and construction sites. In 1912 Domenico Ghella was born, Adolfo and Domenica’s first child. The following year Adolfo returned to China for a brief period. Ghella was by now an internationally recognized company. Adolfo decided to return to Italy, though traveling via the American Continent. His arrival in San Francisco was even noted in the local press. He made it home just in time for the birth of his second child, Giovanni.
To this day, at Ghella being an explorer (also) means constantly searching for new “lands” to be explored and understood. This is what Adolfo chose to do when he landed in the Americas, precisely at the time of the company’s greatest international expansion.
IN THE RUSSIA OF THE TSARS
The time had come to return to Russia. Adolfo established himself in Tbilisi, with his family. Here he built a section of the railway between Kars and Erzurum. In 1915 he was caught out by the war: he sent his family back to Italy before traveling to Moscow in an attempt to convince his client to continue the job, though without success. Supported by the Italian Embassy, he obtained partial payment for his work, and a few fiduciary commissions, which kept him largely at the service of the Embassy. Between 1917 and 1919 Adolfo witnessed the fall of the Tsars, after which he returned to his native Piedmont. Lacking employment, he set off immediately for the Caspian Sea. However, in Baku the Bolsheviks occupied his ship while it was docked in the harbor. Though the harbor was mined, on a stormy night Adolfo Ghella ordered the ship to depart and after this daring escape managed to return to Italy.
He was penniless (as he had been 20 years earlier) and in a situation that would have disheartened many. But not Adolfo Ghella, who made every attempt to restart his life, certain of his skills, and now fluent in Russian, as well as English, French and Chinese. A lesson in courage, above all else, that would indelibly mark the spirit of his company and, during the most difficult moments, prove highly useful.
In 1924 Adolfo Ghella was forced to start over for the third time. He had lost everything during the Bolshevik Revolution. Everything but his technical experience and extraordinary determination. In fact, upon returning to Italy, between 1924 and 1934 he completed numerous projects of high-end engineering. He built projects that now form the base of the railway network linking the cities of Southern Italy. He participated in, and won, the tender for a tunnel in the region of Abruzzo, for the Sagittario hydroelectric plant. Between 1927 and 1933 he was awarded various sections of rail lines built for the Ferrovie Calabro-Lucane. In 1934 he moved to Rome and, the same year, was awarded other rail and road works in Italy. Between 1930 and 1940 he built 130 km of railway lines in Southern Italy for the Ferrovie dello Stato. Every one of his jobs concluded successfully.
The fact that Ghella is a solid company today is due precisely to the fact that the lesson of its founders is deeply ingrained in its entrepreneurial spirit: consistently doing one’s best, without fear of failure and, above all, learning from difficult situations.
In Rome, the società Adolfo Ghella e Figli was assigned the construction of the most difficult part of the city’s subway: the section between Via Cavour, San Pietro in Vincoli and the Colosseum. A true masterpiece of audacity, tenacity, and skill. Inaugurated to serve the Esposizione Universale, it was suspended in 1940 by the outbreak of the Second World War. Its tunnels were converted into air raid shelters for up to 50,000 people. Between 1939 and 1940 Adolfo built fortifications along the French border. From 1942 to 1944 he built the penstock for the hydroelectric plant at Bressanone. The year 1944 saw the arrival of Giandomenico Ghella, Giovanni’s first born. His birth marked the beginning of the fourth generation of Ghellas in the world of construction. He is currently President of the Gruppo Ghella S.p.A. In 1945, after years of suspension, work restarted across Italy. Adolfo Ghella became known as the “tunnelling genius” after half a century of uninterrupted work.
Earning a nickname signifies having built a solid and shared reputation. Ghella’s reputation, now as then, is founded not only on punctuality, reliability, and competence, but also on the special ability to confront, and overcome, the most complex challenges.
THE 3RD GENERATION
Giovanni and Domenico began relieving their father Adolfo of the heaviest work. That same year they completed the entrance to the tunnel beneath the Apennines along the Florence-Bologna motorway, which had been destroyed during the war. This was also the year that works on the subway in Rome resumed, near the Giovanni Lanza station.
Italy was in a state of ferment. Ghella was constantly acquiring new work: hydroelectric plants, railways, motorways, structural reinforcement works, all highly technical and with a distinctive approach to what was underground. From north of the Alps to the Calabrian Apennines, Ghella was building the new backbone of Italy.
In 1951 Enrico Ghella was born, brother to Giandomenico, Marina and Manuela. The last of the four siblings of the fourth generation, and now CEO of the group.
Many entrepreneurial projects emerge from a passion, often from a dream. This is particularly true in the case of family businesses, such as Ghella, which boasts a strong relation between the values of its founders, the family, and the values that drive the company.
Between 1954 and 1958 Ghella was at work in Canada, building the wharfs at Port-Cartier harbor and works to improve the navigability of the St. Lawrence River. These Canadian projects were directed by Giovanni Ghella. They were built by CANIT CONSTRUCTION, controlled by Ghella and its partner ing. Salvatore Randaccio, as listed in the Giornale di Sicilia in an article published on May 3, 1958: “Seaway, la più grande via d’acqua” (Seaway, the Largest Waterway). The work consisted in the realization of two locks at Beauharnois. Adolfo Ghella died on May 1, 1955, fully aware of having transferred his passion for work to future generations. In 1957, a 13-year-old Giandomenico Ghella visited his father Giovanni on the site of the Canadian jobs to build the Seaway’s two locks. This was the same year of the construction, by Icos (an American company of the Gruppo Ghella) of the foundations of the World Trade Center in New York. Back in Italy, between 1962 and 1966, Ghella was involved in the construction of a dam on the Cixerri River, in Sardinia.
This was the high point for the family company, but also the beginning of its most difficult period. It would take all the know-how and passion of the earliest days to start over once again.
A PASSING CRISIS
The company was now in receivership, with the consequent suspension of several important jobs. This was followed by many difficult years marked by limited resources and even more limited finances.
What remained unchanged was the trust of clients and other companies in Ghella’s ability to build tunnels. In 1967 there was a turning point: with great dedication the two brothers Giandomenico and Enrico started out with subconsulting works. If Ghella S.p.A. is now a solid group with a controlled growth, it is certainly thanks to what can today be remembered as an exemplary business lesson. In 1968 Ghella was a subcontractor to one of Italy’s leading building contractors involved in the construction of a tunnel that was part of the Peschiera Aqueduct at Moricone (Rome). Ghella was one of the first construction companies to invest in technology: the TBM, tunnel boring machine.
There was more than tenacity in this return from the brink. Believing in new technologies, precisely at a time of difficulty, demonstrates a faith in innovation that, then as now, guides the choices made by the company.
The 1970s saw a new partner for Ghella: Domenico Nigro, highly trusted by Giovanni Ghella and with a vast wealth of experience. It was a partnership that functioned immediately. Among many works, the construction in Rome of the tunnels linking Piazza di Spagna with the Villa Borghese parking structure are certainly among the most recognizable. However, above all for the fourth generation the time had come to try their hand abroad, as tradition would have it. In 1977 the company acquired its first job in Venezuela, the Tachira regional aqueduct built for INOS (Instituto Naciónal de Obras Sanitarias). In 1979, in Caracas, works began on Line 1 of the city’s subway. Giandomenico’s son Lorenzo Ghella was born in 1980. His arrival marked the start of the fifth generation of highly specialized tunneling experts. Today Lorenzo is Vice President of the Group. The company boasts many works realized in parallel in Italy and Venezuela.
Thanks to these farsighted investments in technological advancement Ghella has remained a pioneer in mechanical tunneling. While a General Contractor by definition, we are miners by passion.
THE EXPANSION INTO CENTRAL AMERICA
The 1990s were the years of the new economy. The way of doing business changed, as the focus shifted to investments in foreign markets, internationalization, and the sustainable development of local economies.
Ghella, bolstered by its longstanding international vocation, was a pioneer of this new economic model.
For years the company had been growing in Central and South America, thanks to its technical know-how and a typically Italian focus on quality. In 1991 Ghella began working in the Dominican Republic, followed by Guatemala in 1994, a country seeking a return to normalcy after the civil war of the 1980s. The company was also active in Venezuela, Honduras, Haiti, and Costa Rica, primarily in the construction of hospitals. However, in the rest of the world Ghella consolidated its specialization in high-end engineering works, above all underground, with a focus on new technologies. Ghella became a true “testbed” for an entire generation of technicians, surveyors, and miners.
During a crucial moment in its history, Ghella wagered on two of its cardinal values, which continue to define it today: people and innovation.
In 2005, almost 150 years after the first work completed by the company’s progenitor Domenico, Ghella returned to France to make an important contribution to the high-speed rail line between Turin and Lyon. In 2007, in Italy, Ghella realized a section of Turin’s Line 1 subway, the country’s first automated subway. Ghella’s next job was the new Line 5 subway in Milan. In Venezuela the company was involved in the construction of the Line 2 subway in Valencia. In 2008 Ghella received its first commission in Argentina. In Buenos Aires the company was involved in the important Maldonado project: 14 km of tunnels. Also in 2008 Ghella worked in Brazil for the first time, building an important tunnel as part of a 5 km-long methane pipeline. This marked the beginnings of a new business adventure intent on expanding into the field of renewable energies. Italy was the perfect country in which to invest in the realization and management of photovoltaic farms. Ghella began building some 25 fields in Central and South America.
By betting on renewable energies, and in particular photovoltaics, Ghella moved away from its core business, while remaining faithful to its vision: leaving a better world for future generations.
A RETURN TO AUSTRALIA AFTER 110 YEARS
After exactly 110 years, Ghella returned to Australia with an important motorway project, in the city of Brisbane. A new success and source of great pride for the company, the work received numerous awards. The most important, assigned in 2013, was for the “Best Tunneling Project in the World”.
Greece was next, where Ghella was involved in the works to extend the Athens Line 3 subway from Haidari to Piraeus. Then came the Hanoi subway in Vietnam (in partnership with the Hyundai group) and high-speed railway tunnels in Norway.
Most importantly there is Lorenzo, Giandomenico’s son and the fifth generation of a business dynasty with deep roots, capable each time of renewing itself with the same passion and vision born with Domenico, some 150 years ago.
In 2015, Ghella returns to Brazil to create Line 2 of the São Paolo metro.
The company reinforces its presence in Argentina with work involving the construction of drainage tunnels for the waters of the Riachuelo River in Buenos Aires, and with 40km of tunnels below the current Sarmiento railway: a mammoth task.
Norway is a promising new market. This time the challenge lies in managing 4 TBMs simultaneously during an excavation that spans 40km. It is the most important railway construction ever to be built in the country.
In Vietnam, in the capital of Hanoi, their work is under way to build a new metro line: Line 3.
In Costa Rica, a hydroelectric power plant has been built that will bring light to more than twenty-three thousand families.
Being awarded the contract for the new Sydney metro in Australia only goes to confirm the quality of the Ghella brand. The construction sees the operation of 5 TBMs under what is one of the world's most prestigious bays.
In 2016, the company is awarded the contract to build the Brenner Base Tunnels in Italy totalling 60Km via the use of 3 TBMs.
In the United Arab Emirates Ghella is exporting its experience in the field of energy conservation gained here in Italy, creating a 16km2 photovoltaic plant aimed at energy independence for Dubai’s Expo 2020.
The future is yet to be written.