SecondBite founder Ian Carson, Edwina Arto, Shirley Costa, Laurelle Cecic and Simone Carson. Picture: Arsineh Houspian.
Frank Costa called it “a gift from above”.
It is now just over two years since the fruit and vegetable industry king, former legendary president of the Geelong Football Club and patriarch of the Costa family passed away, surrounded by his loving family and comforted by his faith.
The deeply religious Italian-born father of eight daughters died on Sunday, May 2nd, 2021, a fortnight after he and wife Shirley celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary.
Frank, one of the nation’s most successful businessmen, had been battling ill-health for about a year. He was 83.
He also lived a life of service to the community. The Weekend Australian can reveal that his passionate advocacy for the welfare of others will now live on through a $1m donation to SecondBite, the national community food program backed by retail giant Coles and food behemoth Mondelez.
“He found the idea that his gift was ongoing really attractive, which is why he wanted it to be called “a gift from above,” Frank’s second eldest daughter Laurelle Cecic, who maintains a strong association with SecondBite, says of the family’s bequest.
“It showed that he had a strong Catholic faith, but also that he wanted to be able to keep on giving after he had gone.”
Today Laurelle is sitting with her mother and one of her sisters, Edwina Arto. None of them have done a media interview before.
One million dollars is the largest single donation ever made to SecondBite by an individual, matched only once in the past by Geoff Handbury, Rupert Murdoch’s philanthropist brother-in-law who was also a long term supporter of the food charity.
Laurelle Cecic, Shirley Costa and Edwina Arto. Picture: Arsineh Houspian.
Shirley, Laurelle and Edwina now want to reflect publicly for the first time about how Frank Costa’s tireless philanthropy impacted their lives and many others.
As they speak of their beloved late husband and father, you sense a part of each of them still can’t believe he is gone.
“I’m still meeting everybody on the street or wherever and they all want to know how I’m going. They all ask how I am managing,” Shirley whispers.
“He’s still talked about all the time in Geelong.”
She still lives in the luxury penthouse she and Frank purchased on the Geelong Waterfront in 2008 after leaving their five-bedroom, four-bathroom family home in the inner Western Geelong suburb of Newtown, where they brought up all their children over more than a quarter of a century.
Laurelle says her mother had to twist Frank’s arm to move there as he struggled to give up their family home.
“He was, however, quick to admit it was the right move for them. It gives her a strong sense of home and security as it was their last place together,” she says.
In the apartment’s main living room, a grand piano has long taken pride of place surrounded along the walls by antique vases and ornaments. Frank’s favourite features 10 birds — a striking red one sits atop the other nine.
“There are my eight girls,” Frank told me in 2016 during a guided tour of the apartment.
“Shirley and I are the bird on top,’’
Shirley will never leave Geelong, the city she will always love. Later this year the life and achievements of her husband will be publicly recognised with a permanent bronze statue of him in the centre of town.
“Geelong is home. It is my world now. I still love to go back to Warrnambool. (The nearby town of) Killarney is where I am really from. I still have a few cousins there. My parents were both from an Irish background but they were born here,” she says.
In 2019, after Frank stepped down from the board of the listed Costa Group, he took Shirley on a tour of 10 European countries in eight weeks. It was an exhilarating but exhausting experience, the longest period Frank had spent away from the country of his birth
“When we went over to Ireland, it felt like home,” Shirley says of her Irish heritage before she met Frank.
“Then I had to adapt to the Italians,” she adds with a smile.
She doesn’t go to the football anymore, but Laurelle still has seats at Kardinia Park, home of the Geelong Cats.
When they were growing up Frank used to take Laurelle and her eldest sister Rona to Melbourne to watch VFL matches whenever Geelong was playing away from home.
He’d leave them at the entrance to the rowdy outer before heading into the grandstands to watch the match (where he never drank alcohol – he was always a non-drinker) and then he would pick them up after the game. They loved every minute of it.
Frank almost single-handedly saved Geelong from financial collapse in the late 1990s after being asked to take over the presidency in a time of crisis.
So I pop the question to Shirley that so many friends and strangers still ask her: what occupies her time, two years after losing her soulmate?
After a pause, she smiles proudly and utters a single word in reply: “Kids.”
She has 24 grandchildren and 12 great grandchildren. She excitedly reveals number 13, “God willing”, will be born in November.
“I’ve also still got certain friends that you just keep,” she adds. They include trucking magnate Lindsay Fox and his wife Paula.
Frank was always good friends with the former. Edwina’s youngest child is coincidentally named Fox, and one of her most treasured photographs is of her tiny baby in the giant arms of the Fox family patriarch.
“The sad part lately is funerals, too many of them,” Shirley continues with a sigh, as for a moment her eyes go watery behind thickly-clad black eye-shadow.
“I had a call today before I left to come here that another one was gone. That is just happening all the time. We are just at that age.”
Frank Costa’s legacy in Geelong was so much more than football. He was a generous philanthropist and fierce advocate for the local community.
Even into his late 70s he maintained a formal role as patron of up to 25 different organisations and charities. One of his greatest passions was giving to St Mary’s Church where his parents, he and Shirley, and seven of his eight daughters were married.
“We started off fairly poor. I was staggered when I found out we were paying five pound rent to his father when we got married and we were living above the shop. So I got out of there as soon as I could,” Shirley recalls.
“When he made money, Frank spread it around a bit. But we were never over the top. Because he worked so hard.”
She says the biggest change in their lives came when Frank joined the Young President’s Organisation, better known as YPO.
The secretive group has long described itself as a global leadership community of extraordinary chief executives. Its network includes chapters in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth, part of a global community of more than 29,000 chief executives in 130 countries.
“He always said that was his university, his education. He went to a technical school but he only knew how to change a light globe,” Shirley jokes.
“YPO was wonderful for him and for me. You sought your friends out there. I just had a call yesterday from Connie Kimberley (co-founder of the Just Jeans retail group) to say ‘It is a long time since I have seen you’. So I have committed to going to a Christmas function with them.”
Frank Costa in 2019. Picture: Stuart McEvoy
She says Frank was a long term supporter of SecondBite by donating food and supporting events because he understood the value of fresh nutritious food for those in need.
The charity was founded a decade ago by Tanarra Restructuring Partners Executive Chair and former Victorian Liberal Party president Ian Carson and his wife Simone.
Its long time ambassador is Penny Fowler, Rupert Murdoch’s niece and chairman of the Herald and Weekly Times.
“Whenever I asked Frank for anything, within reason, he was always there to support us. Whether it was coming to a function or giving a donation or food, he was always there,” Carson now says.
With his $1m gift, Frank will become one of the foundation members of SecondBite’s Feed the Future program.
Carson says all bequests made to SecondBite become part of the program and are invested in the SecondBite Future Trust, a segregated and professionally invested fund established in 2008 following Geoff Handbury’s generous donation.
“The money gets put into a trust and then that gives the income so SecondBite staff, who work so hard, don’t have to spend all their time fundraising. They can focus on what they do best,” he says.
Importantly the trust has diversified SecondBite’s funding to ensure that its goals of ending food waste are supported in perpetuity.
SecondBite is also establishing the new role of a Gift in Wills Officer, whose salary will be paid from the Future Trust annual dispersal. This position will be named after Frank Costa.
Simone Carson notes that Frank took a risk in backing the group in its infancy.
“When he first met SecondBite we were still quite young. It was a big leap of faith from him to get involved in our organisation in its early days,” she says.
“All the people that are involved in food, and we hear this again and again, they just understand. There is so much that goes into the production of food, in growing and moving it, and they always believe that to waste it is just terrible.”
Edwina Arto says the greatest lesson her father taught her about giving was “If you can, do.”
“We will bump into people we don’t know and they will say ‘I’ll tell you a little story about how I bumped into your dad years ago’ and they needed some help or their son needed help with something. Dad went over to see them, he gave them advice and he kept in touch. There were a million little things he did that impacted, that just showed he cared,” she says.
“SecondBite is a perfect example of the stuff that he cared about, the community that he lived in and his passion for food not being wasted.”
She says the family’s philanthropy will remain focused on the late patriarch and her mother’s passions.
“As far as Laurelle and I are concerned, we are always looking to do things that we think dad would have wanted,” she says.
“So we don’t want to branch out into crazy new areas. We are trying to stay mindful of what mum and dad get fired up about and what interests them. SecondBite is central to that.”
Frank Costa was the eldest of five brothers, born of Sicilian parents.
In 1959, aged just 21, he and his brother, Adrian, purchased their father’s fresh fruit business, “The Covent Garden”, which was established in 1888 by Frank’s great uncle on his mother’s side on Moorabool Street, Geelong.
With Frank and his brothers in charge of the business, it was renamed Costa Group and expanded into wholesale, becoming the largest supplier of fruit and vegetables in the country.
It is now perhaps best known for its Driscoll’s brand of premium berries.
After steadfastly keeping Costa Group private since its birth, Frank said he felt no excitement about seeing the family name on the ASX bourse when the group floated in July 2005.
It has had a volatile history since, with a number of profit downgrades and a roller coaster share price ride. But they are still up more than 45 per cent since listing.
Shirley retains a 1 per cent holding in the company. But she and her daughters don’t follow its fortunes closely.
“My husband John does more than I do because he worked there for a long time,” Laurelle says.
John Cecic previously ran Costa Group’s export fruit and vegetables business.
“Of course we want it to do well. But I don’t follow it.”
Frank long lamented that none of his daughters had a career in the business. But not once did he ever insist they considered it. Or even ask.
“There was never a discussion about the girls in Costa,” Shirley declares.
“They just did their own thing.”
Laurelle worked for a time in the business supplying fruit and vegetables to hotels and restaurants in the Geelong area before she had children.
“I really enjoyed it while I was there,” she says.
Edwina worked in the Costa shop after school when she was just 11 years old, peeling carrots for the Geelong hospital.
But she never had any interest in the business.
“You know what, it didn’t matter. You didn’t feel like a massive disappointment, because Dad didn’t want you to go that way,” she says proudly.
“He and mum were was always very conscious of us doing our own thing. Of course Dad would have loved it if we went into the business because he was very proud of it. But we didn’t feel like we could not follow our own path.”
For decades the Costa family has owned a huge holiday compound set on rugged cliffs overlooking the Southern Ocean at Aireys Inlet on Victoria’s Great Ocean Road.
Over the last decade of his life Frank tried to spend most of his weekends with the family there.
All of his children and some of the grandchildren have homes and apartments on the site.
When they are all in residence, they still gather each afternoon at a rustic children’s in-ground trampoline Frank installed on a grassy patch within the compound, after he failed to get the approval of local residents to put a tennis court on the spot.
Frank and Shirley’s eldest grand-daughter was married overlooking the ocean there last December, exchanging vows with her husband amid the stunning backdrop of the soft late-afternoon light striking a cliff face above the roaring sea.
While Airey’s Inlet remains a favourite of the grandchildren, visits there have not been the same for Shirley and her daughters since they lost Frank.
Another family legacy is a property development business Frank created on the side when he was 21. After being advised to put all his spare money into property, he bought one every year with cash the Costa business did not need.
Today Costa Property Group targets mainly residential subdivisions. Two of his other daughters – and busy mums – Rona (formerly her father’s personal assistant) and Kate have helped out with its administration over the years.
Asked about learnings for life from her father, Edwina repeats one of his trademark sayings:
“If it is to be, it is up to me.”
“That was his favourite. Plus ‘Attitude, not aptitude, decides your altitude’. All these things I now find myself saying to my kids. Dad got those sayings from his mother,” she says.
“I can also still recite parts of the Desiderata that hung framed in the billiards room (in the Newtown family home), given the number of times I was sent there,” she says of the famed early 1920s prose poem by the American writer Max Ehrmann.
“That was sort of my naughty corner. Dad used to point out to me one particular line, saying ‘This one is for you: Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit!’.”
Laurelle says her father’s greatest teaching was simply “to be caring, to care about everybody.”
Her mother concurs. Shirley says her husband’s greatest gift was giving. Not just of money, but of himself.
“When he was Geelong president, he would often see these people who just lived for football and had little else. They looked down and out. But they would call out to Frank and he would give them the time. That has been passed onto our kids,” she says softly.
“Many times we would be sitting on the side of the road in the car after a game, sometimes for an hour, waiting for him to finish sorting someone out. We’d always ask ‘Who was that’. He would reply ‘Oh, I don’t know. But they needed my help’.”
Originally published via Australian Business Review, 16 June 2023. Article by Damon Kitney.