SPECIAL REPORT: The Catalano family has delivered continuity of ownership of its seafood business across three generations, but has implemented several strategic shifts along the way.
The Catalano family name has been associated with Western Australia’s seafood industry since Francesco Catalano purchased a fish and chip shop in Cannington in 1969.
The business has morphed and grown over the decades as successive family members have joined the operation, with Catalano’s Seafood today headed by Francesco’s two sons, Nick and Paul.
Catalano’s operates from its Bassendean factory-direct outlet, where the product is processed and packaged and distributed to the business’s four shopping centre retail outlets and 11 franchised operations within supermarkets and stores.
Catalano’s also sells wholesale to IGA supermarkets, with 2,500 tonnes of seafood making its way to WA consumers annually.
Managing director Nick Catalano and business development manager Paul Catalano were 15 and 13, respectively, when they began working in their father’s shop with their younger sister, Maree.
Journeying from the south of Italy to the south of WA in 1950, Mr Catalano (snr) secured a job at a sawmill north-east of Harvey.
“He was able to work in the mill during the week, and on the weekends he would ride his push bike about 40 kilometres to work on a (potato) farm,” Nick told Business News.
“Within two years he brought mum and his brother Joe to Australia, and within a couple of years the two brothers bought the farm.”
There was little profit to be had growing potatoes during that time, Nick said, primarily due to legislative restrictions.
Nick’s youngest son, Josh Catalano, said given the tough conditions his grandfather began selling potatoes illegally to support his family.
“He had this old postal truck and he used to sell potatoes in the night because people used to think he was the mail delivery guy; he used to drop potatoes off to all the fish and chip shops all over Perth,” he said.
“I think they (the police) caught him out, so he knew he had to do something different.
“He literally loaded the kids and the family in the car two days later and they drove to Perth from Waroona to start selling fish and chips.”
Nick said he and his brother, Paul, became more heavily involved in the business once they left school.
“We had this great idea to do a bit of wholesaling and expand our retail and so that’s how it started,” he said.
He and Paul bought a truck and sold any excess fish unused by the shop at the local markets.
“I think for the first 17 years we worked seven days and seven nights. What was it like? It was hard work,” Nick said.
Catalano’s first factory-direct operation started in 1985.
“The idea was we’d build half a dozen (wet) fish shops in the shopping centres,” he said, giving his father the task of managing their first store at Carousel.
Francesco Catalano (left) with David, Josh and Andrew Catalano, pictured in late 80s.
In about 1995, the unexpected challenges of rolling out a series of traditional wet fresh-fish retail outlets put the retail expansion on pause, with Nick and Paul instead refocusing on the wholesale aspect of the business, supplying to about 40 Coles outlets, and hospitality venues within WA and in other states.
Nick and Paul had another shot at retail in about 2005, this time employing managers from outside the family to operate the stores.
Nick’s eldest son, David, said the company stopped wholesaling to hospitality venues overnight, continuing to supply supermarkets.
“We were in a really difficult place, the business was struggling and we made a complete business change from wholesale to retail and we had to lay off over 30 staff members and change our whole business direction,” David said.
“That was really hairy; it took a lot of work, but we’re still here today.”
He said while retail today made up the bulk of the brand, another business arm included contracts by other seafood companies that sent their produce to the Catalano warehouse for processing, packaging and distribution.
The third generation working in the business today are Nick’s sons David (operations manager) and Andrew (production manager), and his sister’s son Mark Lupica (retail manager).
David said it didn’t take long to embrace the family business.
“When you see how much effort has been put in from the generation before you so you can have all the things you’ve been able to have, you just need to keep that going,” he said.
Josh worked in the business for years while simultaneously managing food projects of his own, marketing the family business along the way.
“The third generation is always the hardest because we’ve lived and breathed that business constantly and you’ve got that second generation ahead that wants to hand over and move on but is still institutionalised in the business,” Josh said.
“I was the youngest and I butted heads with my brothers and that’s just about the vision; they didn’t really share the same vision for me and that’s why I did my own thing.”
Josh said he stopped working within the business two years ago to focus on launching his own fish-centric food truck business with chef Stuart Fergusson, The Fish Boss, supplied by Catalano’s.
“What I still find satisfying is my grandfather had no idea what he was going to create and the company is still called Catalano’s Seafood and it’s still owned by the family nearly 60 years later,” he said.
In September this year, their withstanding work ethic and commitment to WA seafood was recognised with the induction of the Catalano family into the Family Business Australia hall of fame.