Frank Costa puts as much store in quality people as he does in quality fruit and vegetables, an attribute which has seen him nurture the businesses in the Costa Group to collectively become the country’s largest growers, packers and marketers of fresh fruit and vegetables.
Speaking of a business career that began in 1950, when he was just 12, the former president of the Geelong Football club shares the philosophies and beliefs of many successful entrepreneurs about the importance of valuing people, especially those you employ.
Frank Costa’s first experience as an entrepreneur was selling newspapers on Geelong’s T&G corner. Wanting a better return than that afforded offered on a single street corner by selling papers to drinkers in the city’s pubs, Frank became an employer. With three other kids selling on his behalf, he covered much more territory.
If selling newspapers fostered Frank’s competitive spirit with his brother Adrian, who sold papers on another city corner, it also lit the spark of ambition for growing businesses.
When the retailer Myer planned to sell fresh fruit and vegetables in Geelong, a city whose fruit and vegetables scene was then dominated by Italian families, Frank saw the signs of a changing industry.
It was a pivotal moment. He reasoned that if he stayed with his not-ambitious Father in a long-established retail business he would not get ahead so, with his brother Adrian they bought out their Father.
With the way paved for an expansion into wholesaling, the brothers were also to demonstrate a flair for seizing new opportunities. Frank saw the potential of harvesting fresh field mushrooms in Victoria’s western district for the Melbourne market, employing staff to peel onions for the food service sector and recycling old fruit crates, thereby differentiating the business from a conventional fruit and vegetable business.
Along the way, the brothers learned to value good people, a theme which occurs regularly in interviews of Costa.
It has become practice within the Costa group of companies to recognise employees for doing something right, however large or small, instead of employees only hearing from management when it thought they had done something wrong. Frank says he also believes in providing incentives to encourage people, as he did when his three younger brothers were invited into the business.
And, in a similar vein, he counsels showing compassion when a situation might call for it, as happened when he discovered one of his buyers in Melbourne had been taking bribes .Knowing the buyer had a young family, Costa chose to fire him, rather than report his behaviour to the police.
If sport helps people achieve a work-life balance, in Frank Costa’s case that sport was Aussie Rules. Despite the fact that being too slow meant he could not pursue a childhood dream of being a footballer, by the mid-1990s his business expertise and success was not unnoticed and he was invited to become president of the city’s Geelong Cats, a position he held until 2011.
In this capacity he oversaw a board with good complimentary skills, which convinced him there is synergy between leadership and entrepreneurship.
“But you must be brutally honest to attract the best people. You must lead by example, and perform yourself. You can’t buy trust, you can only earn it,” Costa says.
These attitudes have become embodied in the recruitment practices of the football club.
“You should hire for character and then train for skills,” he says, describing the exhaustive processes by which those recruiting young footballers check their character before drafting them.
Over time Costa has backed his judgement through having a thorough understanding of the business he was in as well as floating ideas with others. He searched for people who had better skills than he had in various parts of the business.
“But first find an industry that will give you a buzz, enjoy what you do and be the best at you can at it,” he advises aspiring entrepreneurs.
“Being honest earns respect and with it, people will open up to you, even your competitors.”
He has had close brushes with failure, like the decision to incorrectly locate a major distribution centre in Geelong which “put us close to going under,” he said.
But with eight children and 22 grandchildren, Frank Costa is convinced there is no other place in Australia to beat Geelong for family development. He lists affordable housing, as well as access to good health services, educational institutions and sporting amenities as underpinning that conviction.
In the end though, it all comes back to quality people says Frank Costa.
“If all our plant, facilities and resources were suddenly taken away, we could re-start if we had good people.
“Conversely, without good people all the plant and facilities would mean we would quickly go broke.”