Photos: Louisa Jones
From impoverished migrants running a humble grocer to Australia’s largest horticultural company, the Costa family has cemented its place in Geelong history.
Frank Costa speaks to Luke Voogt about the family’s journey facing down Melbourne’s ‘Mafia’, managing massive supply chains and saving Geelong Football Club from disaster.
Business and produce runs in the Costas’ blood – a quality not lost on the family’s prolific son Frank.
“I love business and I love working with people,” the 79-year-old says.
For about 200 years the Costas grew vines on the Italian island of Salina. Both Frank’s grandparents migrated from the island to Australia in the late 1800s.
His mother’s side of the family established Geelong Covent Garden – the produce store where the Costas’ fortunes began – while his grandfather on his father’s side returned to the island in 1895.
In 1909 his grandmother Anna unexpectedly gave birth at age 43 to their last child Antonino in Salina.
“I was lucky he was conceived too or I wouldn’t be here either,” Frank says.
In 1926 a 16-year-old ‘Nino’, later Tony, would join his older brothers Mick and Joe in Geelong, who had migrated to support the family.
In the mid-1930s he married Mary Picone, and he and Joe purchased the Geelong Covent Garden. In 1938 Mary gave birth to Francis – later shortened to Frank.
When the store was struggling it was Mary’s investigation that returned it to prosperity.
She left Frank in-pram in the shopfront and “could hardly see” for cigarette smoke when she confronted a bunch of card-playing, wine-drinking Italians grocers in the kitchen.
“She had a shocking temper my mother,” Frank says.
“She just walked over to the table and she grabbed the rug that the cards and everything was on and just ripped it up.”
Frank sold newspapers at age 11, recruiting three boys off the waiting list to take advantage of pubs sales while he protected his “good corner”.
“I started to learn the value of getting the best kids,” he says.
At age 12 Frank returned to working at the store, finishing at 10pm most nights. He says the long hours after school “conditioned” him for the years ahead.
“You have to be prepared to work hard if you want to be successful.”
In 1955 Tony returned to Salina and 17-year-old Frank and younger brother Adrian were determined to beat their father’s figures in his absence.
“And we did,” Franks says.
Their efforts attracted the attention of Myer, who offered them rights to operate the produce section of its new Geelong property. But Tony rejected the deal.
“I just couldn’t understand it,” Frank says.
So Frank and Adrian decided either to leave the business or buy it off their father.
“My father got terribly upset when I told him that. He came back with a compromise a couple weeks later.”
Tony offered to sell his sons one half of the business when Frank turned 21 and the other when Adrian did. Frank agreed for the sake of “peace and family unity”.
Business took off under the brothers with Adrian travelling to the Queen Victoria Market early in the morning for produce.
“He would get very sharp prices for very high quality prices,” Frank says.
Their success prompted an angry delegation of local greengrocers to visit the store with Frank’s father.
“We killed the industry in Geelong,” Frank says.
“We absolutely ripped it apart we dropped prices and caused them to lose business.
“They’d all worked together for so many years – I think they’d call it collusion today. I said Dad that’s absolute bulldust, that’s not the way you run business.”
When Coles were looking to expand into the “new fandangle” supermarket business in 1965, the brothers jumped at the opportunity, says Frank.
“We knocked on their door – a couple of cheeky young blokes – and said we’ve got the answers to your fresh produce needs for the western half of Victoria.”
The Costas grew on the supermarket’s “coat tails”, but not without setbacks.
Tragedy struck in 1972 when Adrian and wife Mary died in a car crash. Frank took on younger brothers Anthony, Kevin and Robert as full partners of the business.
In 1980 Frank’s decision to open a state-of-the-art distribution centre in Corio almost ruined them, when the Coles took over its own buying.
“Suddenly I had this huge bloody distribution centre and no business and just big debts to the bank,” he says.
The Costas saved the business when they won a contract to supply the Payless Group. They moved the operation to Footscray and found tenants for the Corio centre.
In 1990, Coles suspected it was paying inflated prices for its produce and contracted the Costas to clean up the corruption.
A seemingly deliberate fire at the Costas’ distribution centre, a baseball-bat bashing of a Coles manager and a shotgun attack on another manager followed shortly after.
The Costas received multiple death threats and Frank remembers when chief buyer Anthony relayed a message: return to the previous seller or there would be “a bullet for you”.
He sent Anthony back to tell “those bastards” if they harmed “a single hair” of the Costas, it would be revisited double upon the perpetrators and their families.
“That was a bluff,” Frank later admits.
“But I knew they didn’t know that and I knew that’s the language that they bloody think in.
“Anyway that worked and dropped it off. The rest is history and we did help clean up the Coles mess.”
Frank’s business success led to an invitation in 1996 to join the board of the Geelong Football Club, which was struggling through major financial difficulties.
“I was in love with those blue and white hoops from when I was a kid,” he says.
In 1998 the board unanimously elected Frank as president, who focused on getting the “best sports administrator in the country”, Brian Cook.
Cook joined in 1999 and Frank still regards him as “Geelong’s best recruit since 1859”.
“Then it became fun,” he says.
Geelong has won three premierships since and while Frank retired from the presidency, he and his brothers are still involved in their beloved club.
The brothers contributed $3 million to the recently-completed Charles Brownlow Stand, which brought the stadium’s capacity up to 34,000.
Frank remains eternally grateful to the city which made his career and provided opportunities for all of his eight daughters.
“Geelong owes me nothing and I still owe Geelong.”