When Bethesda businessman Franklin C. Salisbury said last year during a court proceeding, "My forte in life is the establishment of enterprises," he wasn't just speaking about the National Foundation for Cancer Research, of which he is executive director.

Salisbury, 73, said he has operated at various times a Cleveland candy company, a Brazilian-American export-import company, a firm that manufactured portable gasoline pumps in Hong Kong, a company that makes insulation tubing, a corporation that purchased 200 acres of West Virginia land as a haven against an atomic attack, several direct-mail fund-raising firms, and a company whose purpose was to replace water buffaloes with tractors in Southeast Asia.

But it is the research foundation that has given Salisbury a newfound status. He has traveled from his high-rise office at 7315 Wisconsin Ave. around the world to make speeches and visit laboratories doing foundation-sponsored work. In early March, he and his wife, Tamara, received the 1983 "Quantum Biology" award at a Florida symposium that the NFCR sponsored along with several other organizations. He traveled as a guest of the Nobel Foundation to the 1982 Nobel Prize ceremonies in Stockholm, and recently returned from a trip to China, according to a foundation board member.

Richard Allen, a Rockville accountant who was the foundation's first comptroller, says, "He likes the prestige of being the executive director of the National Foundation for Cancer Research."

Salisbury's salary is in line with the executive directors' salaries of other larger, national, nonprofit organizations doing scientific research. Salisbury, who managed a $14 million budget for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 1982, made $82,326, not including benefits. The director of the American Lung Association, overseeing a 1981-82 budget of $70 million, made $91,000. The director of the American Cancer Society, managing a budget of $170 million, was paid $129,000.

Salisbury's wife, Tamara, a former federal government cancer researcher, made $63,193 as the foundation's deputy director in 1981-82, and also serves on the board of directors. And the couple's five children have received a total of $20,000 over the foundation's 10 years, including $15,000 that went to a son, John, for a year's work as a publicist.

Franklin Salisbury began the NFCR essentially as a Mom-and-Pop operation in a small Bethesda office, without ever having to go to the trouble of building ties in local communities. The board of directors consists mostly of Salisbury's old business associates and neighbors.

Salisbury founded his cancer research organization originally as the Bethesda National Foundation, near Fund Management Inc., a fund-raising firm in which he was a partner. (He later helped found another firm, Fund Management Lists Inc., to own and rent lists for direct-mail fund-raising.)

The nonprofit foundation became a client of his fund-raising company. After the foundation changed its name to the National Foundation for Cancer Research, Salisbury hired another firm, the Virginia-based Response Development Corp., to take over the fund-raising.

That firm has aggressively used mailing techniques, like a cancer sweepstakes, not traditionally associated with charities, to solicit millions of dollars in funds each year.

"The only problem I think the foundation ran into was the fact that Frank is a very creative man," says board member Martha Corcoran Sager, a former Salisbury neighbor in Wesley Heights. "He said the Catholic Church has raffles to raise money; well, why don't we have a raffle and raise money for cancer. It's perfectly legal. There's absolutely nothing about it that's incorrect."

Foundation press spokesman Gerald Snyder adds, "I think he [Salisbury] believes sincerely in what he is doing, but the idea of a businessman linking up with a scientist to work outside of the establishment may have caused some resentment."