Frank Costa OAM became the managing director of Costa’s Pty Ltd at the tender age of 21. In the past 45 years, he has transformed the Geelong-based family business into Australia’s largest wholesaler of fresh fruit and vegetables.
In 1997 Costa received a Medal of the Order of Australia for his services to youth and the community. Two years later, he was elected president of Geelong Football Club — the only provincial team in the Australian Football League — a position he still holds.
Business is in my blood. My grandfather and two uncles migrated to Australia from Italy about 1900 and opened a fruit shop in Geelong. When my uncles were old enough to run the business themselves, my grandfather went back to Italy and that’s when my father was born. In 1926, when my father was 16, he came out here and worked with his two older brothers — there were 21 years between him and the next brother. He opened his own shop in Warrnambool, then returned to Geelong and opened a shop. He then bought out my mother’s uncle, whose started his fruit retail business back in 1888.
I learnt the value of a dollar early. When I was 11 and my younger brother Adrian was nine — I was the eldest of five boys — we sold newspapers on opposite corners in the main street of Geelong. That was a tremendous education for both of us. We learnt the value of servicing customers well, making sure you were there on time and that you looked after the shop-keepers around you and you had enough to supply the demand. If you did it well, you’d get a tip and repeat business. By the time I was 12, I had three lads working for me. If Geelong won in the football on a Saturday
afternoon, everybody wanted to buy a paper that night, so I'd double my order; if Geelong lost, the whole town was melancholy, so I'd halve my order. I got to understand what the commercial world was about at an early age.
I was a good student and really enjoyed school. I regret not going further with my studies but in those days it was all about getting started in the business. I went to St Mary’s Technical School in Geelong until Year 9, then 1 went to the junior tech in Year 10 and then I did a year of bookkeeping/accounting at the Gordon Institute.
I had a dilemma about my future. The paper shop offered me a job in the shop itself after school and weekends. My parents were against it. They told me, ‘When your finished selling papers, you have to work in the (fruit) shop.’ Old Mr Henderson, who owned the paper shop, must have seen some potential in me because he said to me, ‘Tell your parents that if you do work here, when you turn 21, we will give you a partnership in the business.’ My parents didn’t share my enthusiasm about the offer. They said, ‘No, no, no, you're working here, son.’ But, by the same token, if I wanted to do something else when I finished my schooling, like become an accountant, that was fine by them.
I got a feel for commerce working in the shop weekends and on school holidays. It whet my appetite for building a business, so I decided that I wanted to be in the fresh produce industry. Technology would never out-date it. I felt that if I got myself up and going in the industry, I'd have a bright future.
My mother was a great motivator. She encouraged me to use initiative and pursue my ambitions. She kept saying, ‘If you work hard enough and save, you can own your own business, provide for a family one day and do things in better style than you otherwise mightn’t.’ The difference between my parents was that my mother was a more ambitious and driven person. In her eyes, whatever you were doing wasn’t good enough — you should be able to do it better tomorrow and better the next day. Dad was a smart fellow and a good businessman — I picked up a lot of clues from him — but Mum
was my role model.
I always wanted to better myself. When I was 21 and my brother Adrian was 19, we bought 50 percent of our father’s business and the whole lot two years later. It had been a strictly retail business to that point, but we started wholesaling straight away. We saw an opportunity to service the shops, schools, hospitals, restaurants, etc. It was good timing because we were well established when Coles and Woolworths entered the supermarket
industry, so we started supplying them.
You must embrace technology and change. There are now better cooling systems, methods of transportation and handling the product, better understanding of plant development and how we can produce better products at certain times of the year. With the influx of all the ethnics at the end of World War II, we’re eating a lot of different foods now and that has resulted in a wider range of fruit and vegetables being available in Australia, virtually all year round. Fresh fruit and vegetables used to take up about half of a supermarket’s food order compared to the meat department, but now it is bigger. There has been enormous growth in theconsumption of fresh produce, so we’ve been lucky there.
Working with family is a challenge, but the benefits far exceed anything else. There’s loyalty, trust and the honesty factor is enormous, unless there’s a black sheep among you. It’s pretty hard to match anywhere. The younger brothers were always quite willing to accept leadership from the elder brother — if he had the ability. Thank God I had a bit of ability. Sure, we’ve had a few blues behind closed doors but we’ve always made sure that when we leave the room we are one. That level of unity is important in any business, whether it’s a family business, a public company or even a football club. Once you develop factions within an organisation, it doesn’t take long to fall apart. Apart from my brothers, we have daughters, nephews, nieces and sons-in-law working for us — 16 or 17 in all.
We almost went broke twice. We were right on the edge both times when I got my ambitions mixed up with my ability. The first time was in 1970-71. We’d bought out our main competition in 1969 and more than doubled the business, but didn’t double the management team. We were in trouble within 12 months and had to work our backsides off to get back on track. I think it made us a better organisation. The last time was in the early 80s when we developed a big property complex at Corio, on the Melbourne side of Geelong. I increased our overhead enormously and that took a bit of fighting back to get over. A retired management specialist, Ted Ashcroft, helped us break the company up into separate divisions and measure their performance on a weekly basis so we could see where attention was needed. We became really systemised. Both times, it brought home strongly that the most important asset in any organisation is its people.
I've dealt with tragedy. Unfortunately, Adrian and his wife were killed in a car accident, a head-on collision, in April 1972. It was shocking. It hit us hard and it was very tough to cope with. We were very close, as are all of the brothers. Also, he was a very talented man and he was the marketing man in the business. It was a huge blow personally and from a business perspective. The other three brothers were coming along well, getting more experience, so we all put our shoulders to the grindstone. Adrian’s son — he had four children — Simon Costa, has risen to the position of chief operating officer in our company and is heading for the position of CEO.
I am a very positive person — the glass is half-full, not half-empty. I believe that if you approach any challenge with that attitude and you have good people with you — you can’t have all the skills yourself — you can virtually accomplish anything.
Health is the most important asset anyone can have — the older I get, the more I realise that. It’s not much good having money in the bank if you’re sick in bed or in hospital. The best way to preserve your health is to put the right food in your body, and any doctor will tell you that you need fruit and vegetables in your diet.
I feel genuinely proud to not only provide a service to people but also contribute to healthy living.
I love potatoes and peas — I’m pretty old-fashioned in that regard. I love spuds anyway you serve them — mashed, baked, boiled, fried like chips. Most people don’t realise the food value of the potato — it’s probably got more vitamins and nutrients than anything else you eat. It’s what you put on it that does the damage. In terms of fruits, I can’t go past a ripe, juicy nectarine.
I have eight daughters and that’s thanks to my wonderful wife, Shirley. I always worked long hours and Shirley always had everything 100 percent under control on the home front. Whenever I came home, Daddy was always the hero — it’s great when eight girls and your wife dote on you like that. I might have struggled if Shirley wasn’t so understanding and supportive.
I never want to retire. Hopefully, I'll step back into the position of executive chairman and use my knowledge to support the management team for many years to come. I see great opportunities in building our business. I’ve been all over the world and I feel very fortunate to have been born in Geelong because as a great place to raise a family, it’s got no peer.
I played football at school but I wasn’t allowed to play at weekends because I was working. I would never have made league football though — I was miles too slow. If I was good enough to play, I would have paid the club for the privilege. Being president of Geelong Football Club is an enormous privilege. It also recharges the batteries. You’ve got to go into it without any ego and the attitude that you are just a caretaker — the club belongs to its members. My club has been around since 1859 and thousands of people have worked very hard to keep it going. You have the responsibility of leaving that club in better condition than you found it. The same principal applies in business.
From the 2004 book, The Book of Success, published by Slattery Media. Re-published with the approval of Slattery Media.