Obituary: Stephen Forgacs


Born: September 30, 1935.

Died: July 24, 2012.

Funeral: Christ Church Cathedral, Newcastle, August 3, 2012.

HUNGARY was in turmoil and facing a revolution when Stephen Forgacs and his girlfriend fled for their lives.

It was 1956, and Mr Forgacs, then 20, had been working as a fitter and turner in an engineering factory in Ganz Wagon, near Budapest.

The factory was surrounded by Russian soldiers armed with AK-47s and workers were expected to complete 12-hour shifts with only a 10-minute break for lunch. A dozen delegates from an embryonic union were attempting to increase lunch to 20minutes, but there would be no extension.

For the first time in Mr Forgacs’s time at the company, all the machinery was turned off and delegates were told to meet outside in a group. A van was backed into the grounds, a rear cover lifted and the Russians fired on the delegates with machine guns.

With the start of the revolution, Russian tanks would roll through suburban streets and, not knowing who or where the enemy was, they would stop, aim their weapons at random homes and fire, killing all inside.

Hungarians fled for the border en masse and 14,000 were killed and 200,000 injured.

Mr Forgacs and his girlfriend, who was soon to be his wife, Gizelle, then 19, fled in the clothes they were wearing and had to run to avoid gunfire, hand in hand, to the Austrian-Hungarian border.

In an Austrian refugee camp Mr Forgacs had a simple but defining choice to make: Canada or Australia.

He lined up behind those bound for Australia and eventually the pair made it onto a ship heading for their new home.

From Bonegilla refugee camp, near Albury, Mr Forgacs hitchhiked to Newcastle, an industrial town, trying to get work to feed his wife and young daughter, Pam.

His first job was at BHP and he later joined Ullman Engineering as a machinist.

In 1962 he bought Ullman’s and went on to build his empire, Forgacs Engineering, a business that is now one of Australia’s largest privately owned shipbuilding, repair and heavy engineering companies; a company that trades internationally and is a major supplier to the Australian Defence Force and has its headquarters in Newcastle.

Forgacs employs 1250 people at seven industrial sites and shipyards in NSW and Queensland.

Mr Forgacs acquired some of Australia’s most sought-after marine sites and infrastructure in the 1980s and 1990s on his way to creating an international company run from the Port of Newcastle.

About 65per cent of Forgacs’ work is now for the Australian Navy, notably the air warfare destroyer block build contract, on which Forgacs employs 700 people in Newcastle. The company refits cruise liners at its Brisbane dock, manufactures mining truck bodies in Gladstone and rail locomotive underframes in Newcastle.

Often considered a non-conformist by his peers, Mr Forgacs was an individual with strong conviction and principles. He subscribed to the KISS principle: keep it simple, stupid. His approach to business was never complicated, and this simplicity led to impressive growth and national importance.

He saw opportunities where others failed.

He operated the Newcastle floating dock and in 1999 bought the Brisbane Cairncross Dockyard.

In 2010 Mr Forgacs was named manufacturer of the year at the Hunter Manufacturing Awards, but he never sought recognition and eschewed the limelight.

While he contributed so much to Newcastle and to Australia he was always a proud Hungarian and a strong advocate for his country of birth and its people.

Mr Forgacs and his wife Gizelle had nothing when they came to Australia, except energy and a burning desire to improve their lives.

Over the years Mr Forgacs ensured many Hungarians who came to Australia had a better start than he did.

One of Mr Forgacs’s last requests of his treating doctor was to make him better so he could go back to work.

He maintained his dignity and quiet resignation to the end.

‘‘The key is to balance best worker conditions and international business competitiveness,’’ Mr Forgacs used to say.

When Forgacs took over Newcastle Shipyard and Floating Dock in 1987 several unions represented workers.

Mr Forgacs negotiated with them to create a one-union site, which he considered the most efficient way to work.

He never forgot his early days as a tradesman. His mantra was: ‘‘Nothing works like hard work but everyone needs an opportunity.’’

This commitment is evidenced by Forgacs now employing 120 apprentices, about 10percent of its workforce.

In accordance with his wishes, the company is now taking a business-as-usual approach, driving forward to continue the significant growth of recent years, including projects such as building the 44 air warfare destroyer modules at Newcastle and Tomago for the defence force.

Mr Forgacs died of melanoma-related cancer and his funeral was attended by Hunter business leaders, politicians, friends and family who mingled with 100 Forgacs manufacturing employees after the service.

He is survived by Gizelle, his three children Pam Farragher, Elizabeth Burgess and Stephen Peter Forgacs, and their children.

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