It began with a quiet, convivial drink in the luxury of the Sunseeker stand at the 2008 Club Marine Mandurah Boat Show and ended with the hungry roar of an impossibly over-powered Lamborghini Gallardo as I was flung around Perth’s Barbagallo Raceway at injury-defying speeds.
I had met Alf Barbagallo on a few occasions at various boat shows and functions over the years, and found myself being invited to have a chat with the quietly-spoken Western Australian business icon at last year’s Mandurah show. Alf’s son, Troy joined us as we enjoyed a cool drink amid the sumptuous luxury of the Sunseeker stand. Around us lay millions of dollars worth of lavish boats, gleaming and rocking gently under the sweltering WA sun. We caught up again once or twice at other boating events and along the way I managed to gain an insight into the very private life of one of Australia’s most successful boating identities.
Alf Barbagallo is plainly a man who likes to win and appreciates what it takes to be first past the post, both at work and play. He is also a man who has a taste for fine machines and high performance. A look at his business portfolio is enlightening. On the marine front, he is Mr Sunseeker Australia, having imported the luxurious British-built cruisers for the past 10 years, with more than 200 of the multimillion dollar craft now gracing our shores. In fact, Barbagallo has been such a success for the marque Downunder that Sunseeker International has awarded Sunseeker Australia the accolade of Worldwide Distributor of the Year for the last four consecutive years. The award is based on ‘best in world’ customer service and overall sales.
Barbagallo says he was drawn to the high-end UK brand after doing a lot of research into luxury international boat builders. “I looked into Sunseeker, its background and the people who ran the company,” he said. “In the end, we decided that it fit in perfectly with our other brands, when it came down to performance and finish.” The Barbagallo Group is the official Sunseeker importer for Australia and New Zealand.
Reflecting its chief’s taste for exotica, the Barbagallo Group’s portfolio includes such iconic road-going thoroughbreds as Ferrari, Aston Martin, Jaguar, Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Lamborghini and Lotus. Other Group automotive brands include Citroen, Continental, Fiat, Ssangyong, Volvo, Land Rover, Audi and VW. The Group also sells Protector inflatable boats.
POWER AND PASSION
A clear pattern emerges when you delve into the Barbagallo background. Power, passion, performance and prestige are all intrinsic parts of the Alf Barbagallo story. In fact, according to the always impeccably dressed businessman, the letter ‘P’ has played an important part in his success. The Barbagallo formula for success in any endeavour equates to: “the six Ps – prior planning and preparation prevents poor performance. It comes down to hard work and commitment. The harder you work, the luckier you get,” he says.
Leaving school at the tender age of 14, Barbagallo wasn’t exactly academically destined for a life in big business. But from humble beginnings as a motor mechanic in Perth, Alf, together with his brother and partner, Tony, has gone on to become one of Australia’s most successful businessmen. While his parents were opposed to his initial choice of career, believing he could do better for himself, Barbagallo’s taste for speed and performance saw him irresistibly drawn to the world of cars. Beginning with an initial early foray into selling secondhand cars from a small car lot in Perth in 1966, he has gone on to establish a veritable importing and distribution empire that now employs more than 240 people working at various dealerships around the WA capital.
Explaining his passion for fast cars, Barbagallo said: “I’ve always loved cars, probably due to my brother, Tony. He loved cars as a boy and it just rubbed off on me.”
He has also made his mark on the country’s racetracks, his fiercely competitive nature resulting in a long and rich history of competition on the nation’s speed way tracks, culminating in numerous championships and including being inducted into the Australian Speedway Hall of Fame. In WA for years Barbagallo dominated speedway competition in the brutal sprintcar class, where big V8 engines and bumpy dirt tracks sometimes resulted in spectacular crashes.
The tie-up with Sunseeker is perhaps not so surprising as the British marque has a solid racing pedigree, too, with its founder and designer, Don Shead spearheading the design of many Formula One offshore racing boats. Indeed, the design of modern Sunseeker hulls can be traced directly back to Shead’s early racing craft.
LUXURY AND STYLE
It would seem that working for the Barbagallo Group has its advantages, because there are always plenty of enthusiastic, smiling people on the Sunseeker stand at boat shows on both the west and east coasts. There is an intangible air of relaxation, coupled with luxury and style, that pervades Sunseeker Australia’s stand. Invariably Alf is there, barely noticeable as he hovers discreetly in the background, quietly meeting and greeting current and potential owners.
Those around him and who have bought boats from Alf Barbagallo say he is a driven, though generous man whose success is based on his commitment to excellence and ensuring that customers are satisfied and keep coming back for more. Barbagallo says the focus on customers and customer satisfaction has resulted in success on the business front, but has also been a source of enjoyment for himself and his staff. While many use terms like ‘customer satisfaction’ as mere platitudes, one gets the impression that in Barbagallo’s case there is a genuine enjoyment gained from his involvement with both Sunseeker and the people who own the boats.
“The best thing about the Sunseeker brand from my point of view is that we have an almost family relationship with our customers,” he explains. Citing the annual Port Geographe Rendezvous weekend get-together hosted by Barbagallo and staff south-west of Perth, he says events like this foster a closer relationship with and between Sunseeker customers.
“It’s a very social relationship for us and we know most of the owners personally,” he says. “Our owners bring their families and friends along with them and when we all get together it’s really like a big family gathering. Owners meet other owners and everyone gets to know each other and have fun together.”
Speaking of owners, Paul Basso, of Seacrest Homes, is a convert to the Sunseeker lifestyle and says he was sold over by the Barbagallo approach to customer service. “From my initial enquiry to the final delivery, the entire process was handled with such a professional attitude by Alf and his dedicated team that it made my experience pleasurable and seamless,” he said.
An Aussie success story … Alf Barbagallo can afford to relax a little as he presides over his business empire.
“Alf’s extensive knowledge of the Sunseeker range made it easy to make some modifications to suit my personal requirements,” he added.
“Alf is a man of incredible energy and inspiration,” says friend and Sunseeker owner, Adam Zorzi. “His passion for the products that he sells can be seen in everything that he does, be it selling a new Sunseeker, or taking a call about how to get the best out of a Ferrari from a client who’s out on a racetrack. His clients’ happiness and satisfaction always comes first, because in his market he sees and understands the bigger picture.”
The Port Geographe gathering is the only organised Sunseeker owner event at present, but Barbagallo says plans call for the establishment of similar events on the east coast in the near future. On the automotive front, Alf arranges informal bimonthly get-togethers for owners of his premium performance cars at his own racetrack, Barbagallo Raceway, north of Perth. This was where I found myself a few days after the Mandurah show, hurtling around the track in the half-million dollar Lamborghini Gallardo fire-breather. It was one of several classics in the Barbagallo personal stable and as I sat firmly strapped into the passenger seat, a former racer friend of Alf’s demonstrated more than adequately what the Italian thoroughbred was capable of, as we thundered from one corner to the next.
While presiding over his multi-million dollar business empire takes up much of his time, Barbagallo says boating gives him a recreational outlet that allows him to relax and unwind, although those close to him say business matters are never far from his mind.
“Just being on a boat anywhere is a great thing,” he says. “Relaxing on the back deck with a nice glass of wine and good company, and spending time with family and friends, is what boating is all about to me. That’s why we really enjoy the Port Geographe Rendezvous so much. It’s a way of combining business and pleasure.”
At an age when many in similar circumstances would be content to sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labours, Barbagallo remains a man driven to achieve, albeit nowadays with support from his family and offspring. Barbagallo says: “I have a great family and without them the success of our business would not be possible.” His brother, Tony and nephews Vince Barbagallo and Ben Tropiano play a large part in the success of the automotive side of the business today, as does son Troy, 37, who is intimately involved in the family business. In addition to his role at the Barbagallo Group, Troy has also branched out into publishing, launching Box Magazine in 2003. Aimed unashamedly at the well-heeled and well-off, the quarterly, subscription-only magazine is actually a clever device for raising funds for many children’s charities, including Camp Quality, the Leukaemia Foundation and the Starlight Foundation.
Alf Barbagallo has achieved a lot since he donned that first set of overalls at the age of 14. The son of Italian market gardeners has every right to enjoy life in the slow lane, sit back and savour the fruits of his efforts. But as I roared down the back straight in his impossibly fast Lamborghini, it occurred to me that he wasn’t showing any signs of slowing down any time soon.