In the muddy waters of South American public works projects, a familyowned Italian firm has emerged as one of the biggest regional winners after the Odebrecht graft scandal blew the lid on a widespread net of public-private corruption, taking down businessmen, companies and politicians. Ghella, a firm founded in 1894 and involved with huge projects like the Trans-Siberian Railroad and the Kowloon Railway Tunnel in Hong Kong, have built a presence in Argentina, thanks in large part to its proximity to the President Mauricio Macri’s father, contractor and developer Franco Macri.
The company first opened offices in Buenos Aires in March 2006, two years before winning the bid for the Sarmiento railroad tunnel alongside Odebrecht, Franco Macri’s Iesca, and Spanish firm Comsa. In the interim, Ghella acquired 50 percent of ODS, the holding company that owned Iesca, at the same time as Franco passed the control of the company to Angelo Calcaterra, his nephew (and the president’s cousin).
Ghella’s strength has always been in underground tunnels, from constructing subways and metros to hydraulic works, and the company is currently headed by Lorenzo Ghella, an economist that belongs to the family’s fifth generation. Another key attribute of the firm appears to be the generation of business relationship. Across the continent, Ghella has worked on projects alongside Brazilian firm Odebrecht, such as in Colombia’s Ruta del Sol and São Paulo’s metro system.
In Argentina, Ghella went after the Sarmiento railway underground tunnelling project, bidding for which was opened by Néstor Kirchner in 2006. In 2008, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner awarded the project to the four-company consortium after signing a US$889-million contract. Twelve months later, and without going through any further bidding processes, that contract was extended to include all three stages of the construction project, with the price tag rising to US$3.4 billion. It looked like good business for everyone involved, so much so that the whole process is now under investigation for possible graft and bribery, with reports indicating contracts may have been boosted by costs of 30 percent more than were needed.
Ghella also went after another project which is closely associated with the Macri clan. In 2008, the family-owned company won the bid to build the underground tunnel for the Arroyo Maldonado, responsible for much of the flooding in the City of Buenos Aires. It beat out Odebrecht to the deal and signed a contract for approximately US$150 million with thenmayor of Buenos Aires City, Mauricio Macri.
This week, Ghella secured an even more dominant position, pushing out the embattled Odebrecht from the Sarmiento project and assuming its share, taking the Italian firm’s stake in the new consortium from 37 percent to 71 percent.
The partners in the project have also changed, with Iesca officially rebranded as Sacde after it was acquired for an undisclosed amount by Marcelo Mindlin, owner of energy powerhouse Pampa Energia, electricity company Edenor, and Petrobras’ Argentine assets, among other holdings.