Full throttle

Tony De Felice is the son of a humble Italian migrant who arrived in Australia with nothing and went on to found a construction and property empire. A highly successful businessman in his own right who craved the exhilaration of high-octane boat and car racing, De Felice is now embracing a sea change, savouring all life has to offer.

Written by Scott Alle

Romantic. Driven. An obsessive eye for detail. Courage to embrace change.

They’re just some of the characteristics which have enabled Tony De Felice to successfully steer a construction empire in a fruitful new direction. They’re also the reasons he’s an unabashed, unapologetic Ferrari tragic, racing car driver, and the new owner of a superlative yacht from one the world’s best yards.

“It’s all about passion,” he tells me from the ‘man cave’, a kind of oversized garage for stabling at least seven Ferraris in the Melbourne suburb of Bayswater. There’s a delicious irony here, because it was Bayswater where his father and uncle carved out a family fortune built on pure hard work and determination, strictly shunning any kind of show pony excess.

Tony is the first to admit his dad Charlie disapproved of his exotic automotive tastes. “The first Ferrari I bought in Queensland in 1996,” De Felice recalls, “he said ‘sell it, you don’t need it and we’ll buy another factory.’ My reply to that was, ‘How many factories do you need?’ My father was extremely conservative, he wouldn’t have dreamt of doing anything I’ve done.”

Charlie De Felice arrived with his brother Tony in Melbourne fresh from Italy in 1954, and both got jobs on the GMH production line. They also repaired pots and pans and worked for a builder, learning the trade quickly and setting up their own home-building company.

Within 10 years, they were one of Victoria’s largest home builders, riding the post-war housing boom as the city expanded outward in belts. But the brothers stayed hands on all the way through, and when Tony and his four sisters were growing up the De Felice work ethic was strongly impressed on them, which they have all retained – albeit with a different interpretation.

“If you weren’t going to be a lawyer, or solicitor, or another job deemed ‘acceptable’, you were dragged out of school onto the building site,” he explains. “My sisters and I were cleaning factories and mowing lawns. That was the mentality; that’s what we did.”

After studying architectural drafting, the then 17-year-old Tony went straight into the hard slog of the building game as a labourer, cleaning up building sites. “I hated it but it was the best lesson I’ve had in my life,” he remembers.

He struck out on his own, building multimillion dollar homes and then about 10 years ago his father asked Tony to come back to the family business: “He pulled me into the office and said, I can’t do it anymore.” A new strategy overseen by Tony resulted in a company restructure and switch in focus to property development and management. By then the family’s property portfolio had matured well into the hundreds of millions of dollars, through Charlie’s astute purchases which locked up a very large parcel of the evolving suburb of Bayswater.

But the unrelenting hours came at a cost. When his Dad passed away a few years ago, it forced introspection on Tony and his uncle.

They both concluded that a realignment of priorities was in order. “At what stage do you say, Enough is enough?” he rationalised. “It was time me and the kids had some memories and started enjoying. Hence the boat.”

And not just any boat.

For years Tony’s interest in boating and quality craftsmanship had drawn him to boat shows, but he was singularly unimpressed by the dated offerings usually presented.

He kept an eye on Italian boats, admiring their unmistakable panache and styling cues, and familiarising himself with various brands and their differing approaches. “Then Azimut brought out the 95 and straight away I knew, That’s my boat,” he recounts.

For the uninitiated, Azimut is synonymous with Italian flair and elegance; their vessels are luxuriously finished and comfortable to the point of decadence. At just over 28 metres, the 95 raised pilothouse is one of the marque’s showpieces; a completely new boat designed from the hull up.

The 95 can host up to 12 guests in five staterooms; the flybridge has fabulous views from its own bar and barbecue entertaining area, or there’s a spa pool in which to cool off. The lower deck ‘beach club’ features lounges, another bar, gym equipment, surround-sound media entertainment, sun umbrellas, step off for jetskis, and easy access to and from the water.

But M/Y Vicious Rumour, a name shared by Tony’s car-racing team, is very much a family boat. Tony and his fiancée, Elizabeth, along with their combined brood of five children, intend to use it as their base to explore the Mediterranean over the next few years. Her deep blue azure hull will grace harbours and beaches in Sardinia, Corsica, Capri and the French Riviera.

Peter Redford from 5 Star Motor Cruisers, which represents Azimut in Australia, says Tony assiduously applied his extensive building knowledge and experience to the project, resulting in a remarkable vessel that sets new standards, even at a boat-builder that prides itself on its exemplary craft.

“He (Tony) literally hand-picked every piece of furniture,” Peter reveals. “He carefully selected the quality, the style, and made it completely exclusive and original in terms of its furnishings and accessories.”

Tony’s sister Elida – a highly accomplished architect – and Elizabeth were also heavily involved in creating Vicious Rumour’s sumptuous interiors. Those who have been fortunate to be invited aboard have left awed by the quality of the fit-out and finish.

“It’s contemporary, but with classic themes,” Tony enthuses. “We wanted the timber as dark as possible, wider floorboards, we chose all the art ourselves. There are subtle changes so lines flow seamlessly. I wanted to finish the timber with a frame, not a skirting or just a small one. The sink, the taps, the fabrics, mosaics and marbles – all are predominantly Italian.”

Last June and July they attended they attended the Azimut gala in Sardinia, and were invited to the Ferrari Cavalcade, and exclusive road-trip along Puglia’s Mediterranean coastline.

And even among the devotees of the black prancing horse, Tony’s gleaming LaFerrari, in a shade of black designated as ‘Daytona Nero’, will be a head-turner. Described as a ‘hyper-car’ and the ‘supreme road-going Ferrari’, it is special enough to warrant its own definite article. They rarely change hands publicly. Indeed, Ferrari had all buyers sign a contract offering LaFerraris back to the factory at list price if they chose to sell it within the first two years. A 2014 example offered at auction last year fetched close to AU$5 million.

Tony rates it as his favourite among the various examples of Maranello’s finest that he has collected. He told the motoring journalist who he lent it to for a test drive that the 6.3-litre V12 exceeded his attuned expectations. “It is an immense rush, it just surges,” was his approving verdict.

To his everlasting credit, his LaFerrari just doesn’t sit in a climate controlled garage with a cover to protect it from heavy-breathing followers of the cult. He and Elizabeth – who shares his penchant for high-performance Italian marques – have clocked up a few thousands ks on European freeways. Their five-hour run across Germany saw 300km/h on the speedo, though De Felice has managed 342km/h in other, less restrictive, situations.

It’s an enduring love of speed which dates back 30 years to drag-racing boats. At 25, Tony was a state record holder in the notoriously flip-prone sleds, clocking 115m/h (185km/h), over the quarter mile. Since then there’s been circuit racing on land, including some seriously quick laps at the Australian Grand Prix and Bathurst. And he’s aware of the risks involved.

“But you’ve got to have an outlet,” he says. “None of my friends, none of my family were into racing; I just wanted to do it. Passion is the reason you do it. You want to win. You want to prove to yourself that you can do it.”

So far none of the kids – Tiana 21, Joshua 19, Bianca 17, Lara 15 and Katie 13 – have demonstrated a desire to be mixing it on the grid at any racing meet; something he’s a little relieved about. “It’s dangerous” he says wryly. “And it costs a lot of money.”

Tony admits he’s ticking off many of the big items on his bucket list this year. But pre-eminent among them is a family holiday to Sardinia on Vicious Rumour, and the opportunity to savour the moments with those who mean the most to him: “It’s what has driven me to achieve this. I’ve waited most of my life for this family dream.”

There is an Italian saying that translates as ‘No matter where you go or turn, you always end up home.’ It’s a sentiment this prodigal son can now truly appreciate – immersed in the welcoming seas of his homeland.