Frankie Costa’s desire to build community and connection comes naturally. The Pittsburgh native credits his civic-minded upbringing and hard-working immigrant grandparents for instilling in him a sense of responsibility and a desire to build something lasting. Today he’s CEO of 500+-person Orion Light HVAC, a growing platform of leading commercial HVAC companies with operations in more than 25 U.S. states. The scholar-turned CEO—he holds a J.D. from Yale and an M.B.A. from Harvard—explains what drew him to a services business, the importance of stakeholder input when making change, and why he’s so energized by the challenges ahead.
Tell us about your background. How did your early years inform (and inspire) your career?
I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, a city past its prime when I was coming into my own. We always had a bit of a complex about that. But Pittsburghers are proud of our gritty heritage. Growing up in a city like that instills a deep sense of responsibility to honor the sacrifices of those who came before us—those who toiled in the mines and mills—and to recognize you are just one leg in a relay that spans generations.
That’s why my grandparents have been such a big part of my story. My dad’s father came to Pittsburgh from Southern Italy to work in steel. He actually enlisted in the U.S. Army and fought against Italy in World War II. After the war, he went back to Italy and married my grandmother, who had been there through Nazi occupation. They moved back to Pittsburgh in the ’50s where my grandfather became a shoe repairman and my grandmother worked as a seamstress. My father didn’t speak English in kindergarten and worked his way through school at the family pizza shop. He eventually became a doctor and met my mother, an ICU nurse, while he was a resident.
My mother’s father was an orphan whose brother went to juvenile detention throughout his teenage years. My grandfather saw how that path impacted his brother’s life, and he committed himself to education, eventually becoming an accountant. So my mom always valued education. Every day on the way to and from school she would teach me vocabulary words or make me discuss and analyze some verse of scripture. Those rides may have contributed more to my intellectual development than eight years of higher education.
What realizations led to your decision to explore the private sector, and then business school?
In undergraduate, I ran the largest student group at the school, the Yale International Relations Association. I was always interested in policy and government, and I loved being on a team with people who were motivated to build and grow something. I realized what we were building mattered less to me than the fact that we were in it together. I did a number of policy internships, including a fellowship for a senator and an internship in intelligence in D.C. That was important and impactful work, but I felt the pace was slow-moving and bureaucratic. I felt like a rung on a ladder and I couldn’t drive results. So I decided to explore the private sector.
As a solutions architect at Dropbox, I had real ownership over my work, and I started realizing that companies were a place where I could have the most immediate and tangible impact on people’s lives. I went to law and business schools, and during that time I had a chance to sample a whole range of work cultures through summer internships. I spent my first summer at Bridgewater and the second summer at a corporate law firm in New York City doing litigation and M&A. I spent the last summer at Ro, a telemedicine startup in New York.
You had lots of options after HBS. How did you decide that Alpine was a good fit?
I was attracted to the Alpine role because it offered the chance to lead people in building something bigger. I was especially attracted to blue-collar services businesses in parts of the country where people have been ignored or lost both culturally and socioeconomically. After spending so much time at graduate school, publishing legal scholarships, and doing research at Bridgewater, I realized I would rather be out there mentoring and impacting peoples’ lives. I had considered raising a search fund, but when I learned about Alpine, I realized the scale I could reach working with them was far greater than anything I could do on my own. I absolutely loved their emphasis on culture and people.
The fact that Alpine was willing to take a big bet on me was both humbling and motivating. I’ve always been drawn to people who are going to take a big bet on someone. That sense of trust motivates me and amps me up to prove myself. My view was that if they’re going to take that bet on me, then I’m going to take that bet on them. There was some ambiguity about where I would end up, and what role I would have, but I knew I wanted to work in a services business, and I was energized by the opportunity to run a business right away. I ended up joining Orion Group, a commercial field services company that partners with family-owned service providers. I started running a heavy mechanical business in Oklahoma and am now CEO of Orion Light HVAC, a national platform. Even after I committed to Alpine, I admit I was a bit skeptical they’d live up to the big vision they sold me. But the fact they have empowered me to manage a large P&L with over 500 employees 18 months out of business school is the ultimate evidence that they are fully committed to backing young leaders.
There was some ambiguity about where I would end up, and what role I would have, but I knew I wanted to work in a services business, and I was energized by the opportunity to run a business right away.
If someone told you while you were at HBS that you would be living in Oklahoma, running an HVAC and plumbing business, what would you have thought?
I think out of my 1,000-person HBS class, I’m the only person who ended up in Oklahoma. I think that’s regrettable and says something about the concentration of talent (and capital) in our country. But I love that I am doing something different. I grew up in a rust belt city that I knew had remarkable talent and people, but wasn’t a cultural or socioeconomic epicenter. When I think more broadly about the divisions in our country, I hope in some small way what we are building can help bridge that divide. Going into a services business in a place like Oklahoma felt like the perfect fit for things that drive me both professionally and personally. Our technicians are remarkably smart and hard working. They know the physics and chemistry, have the soft skills to manage customers, and have the strength to handle the manual aspect of the job. Above all, they are decent people and have been so welcoming to me. I love working with them.
How did you build trust in your early days at Orion?
The first business we partnered with was Jackson Mechanical in Oklahoma City. I made a point to spend many weeks out in the field, in the van with technicians, on job sites, trying to get my hands dirty, and asking as many questions as I could. I wanted to get to know people, so I immersed myself fully in it.
We structured our work together in an effective way. There are tons of things I will never know, and I don’t have the subject matter expertise that a lot of our leaders do. I try to show up humbly and excited to be helpful, and I try to bring operating and commercial insight to the table. I give the credit to our team, though. They have been incredible partners through a period of immense change and growth for the business.
What has surprised you most about your experience as a CEO?
Before this role, I admit that I thought senior people management positions required soft skills anyone could do. I had a bit of arrogance from working in so many analytical, individual contributor roles. Alpine Founder and Managing Partner Graham Weaver emailed me when I got the offer and he said, “The reason you should take this role is because a lot of your strengths up to now have been tactical, analytical roles. It’s heady stuff. But you’ll realize it’s not the hardest stuff.”
Now that I’m here and running a large team, I’m realizing that managing teams and running a company is far more challenging. Not just because of the people dynamics, but because when you want to lead change, it’s hard to steer a ship full of hundreds of people. It’s tough to get everyone on the same page and to drive results. You cannot do it all yourself, or even with a small group of people—and you aren’t smart enough to have the answers yourself. You need to somehow set the tone, set the vision, and influence ripple effects.
It’s hard to steer a ship full of hundreds of people. It’s tough to get everyone on the same page and to drive results. You cannot do it all yourself, or even with a small group of people—and you aren’t smart enough to have the answers yourself.
What have been some of your biggest learnings as a leader since joining Orion?
After partnering with Jackson, we achieved a lot in a very short period of time. In the same quarter, we started a new branch in Tulsa, bought an electrical business, started a plumbing division, and brought in software. We have set an excellent foundation for growth, but we likely spread the team too thin at that point.
As a first-time CEO and a person brand new to the industry, I realized that I had to disaggregate my learnings from my doings. Everything was new to me, and I wanted to seize every opportunity. I realize now that to be good at allocating capital, and a good decision maker and leader, you have to limit the number of choices you make and focus on only so much. You can learn a lot, but focus on doing the things that matter most.
As a first-time CEO and a person brand new to the industry, I realized that I had to disaggregate my learnings from my doings. Everything was new to me, and I wanted to seize every opportunity.
I’ve learned a lot from working for an HVAC business in the middle of the U.S., too. We tend to draw this dichotomy between so-called knowledge workers and tradespeople. There’s this misperception that trades are just men mindlessly hammering away at nails, while white collar workers are solving complex problems. But I’ve found that our technicians require much more entrepreneurial and creative thinking than you would expect. Look at the founders of our operating companies. They were incredibly gritty and hardworking and creative to get to this point. I really admire their flexibility and agility, and often look to them as we continue to add to what they’ve built so far.
What’s next—for you and for Orion?
We’re just getting started. Maybe when you’re building something that you believe in and that everyone’s excited about, it feels like the sky’s the limit and you always feel like you’re just getting started. I’ve recently become the CEO of our light commercial businesses. I get to partner with the GMs and presidents of the businesses, plus our regional CEOs.
There’s so much opportunity to cover the entire nation, to coordinate operations and sales and to build an integrated or coordinated massive commercial, national accounts business. We’ve got two platform businesses so far and a third under LOI.
I’m here for the long haul. I have never been more motivated to work with a team. Orion Co-CEOs Will Adams and Isaiah Brown are leading us into three or four more verticals in the coming year, and our team will build a large community of people growing essential businesses across the nation. I’m energized for the work ahead.