Popcorn and passion at the family Palace

After migrating from Italy in the 1950s, the Zeccolas' passion for cinema birthed a business empire. New Palace Cinemas chief Benjamin continues his family's legacy.

Not many chief executives can lay claim to 21 years in the business by age 38 – but Benjamin Zeccola can. And that's not counting the time he worked for Palace Cinemas on school nights. His earliest memories involve crawling around his father’s movie cinemas in Melbourne when he was a baby, and he’s never wanted to work anywhere else.

The Zeccolas lives are defined by the movies.

“My grandfather, Giovanni, came to Australia in 1957,” Benjamin says.

The bridge over the river Kwai won the academy award for best picture that year.”

The family’s film obsession has created a business worth around $50 million. It employs more than 500 people across 20 cinemas in Australia and sells 3-4 million tickets per year (including its partnership ventures).

As well as showing films, Palace also helps make and distribute them. Chopper, Lantana, 10 Canoes, Yolngu Boy and Japanese Story may never have been made if it weren’t for Palace backing them.

All four of Antonio Zeccola’s children now work as key executives in the business he started more than four decades ago, and while you’d expect some drama around Benjamin’s rise to the top spot in January this year, it was a remarkably smooth process.

Antony, the eldest, is the business development manager; then comes Benjamin, the new chief executive; then Elysia, who oversees Palace’s film festivals (and newborn twins); and Stephanie is the national marketing manager.

“My siblings were always very encouraging of [me becoming chief executive] and it seems like for the last decade there was never any doubt,” says Benjamin.

But this wasn’t always the case. Benjamin remembers one devastating barb from his older brother when he was seven years old: “I’m going to inherit the business because I’m older and you can buzz off!” I’m assured this was the only power struggle in what’s always been a close family, and I imagine Mum sorted it out with a hug and a choc-top.

Benjamin says that this teasing session didn’t spur him toward becoming chief executive over his brother, but he decided early on that he would always be involved, no matter what anyone said. His rise to the top was never in doubt because he (knowingly or unknowingly) turned himself into the perfect candidate though years of work getting to know the business intimately.

He started work as soon as he could, turning up to the head office after school and helping out, then working in the movie snack bar when he was a bit older before graduating to the ticketing booth. When he finished school, Benjamin stopped turning up in his school uniform and starting showing up in a cheap suit, sick with nerves. It was something not everyone was ready for.

“I knew most of the people and they knew me, and for some of them it was difficult to go from knowing me as ‘Ben the schoolboy’ to ‘Ben the worker’," he says.

"It was a bit isolating, there were colleagues that I might have been closer friends with, but you’d notice that sometimes you’d walk into a room and people would go silent.”

A chief executive encouraging his son to take over his job isn’t as common as one who is unwilling to move aside, but that’s how this succession happened. Benjamin had only ever worked at Palace and had dropped out of university to concentrate on the business, trading the degree for on-the-job learning.

“My father’s always been saying, ‘C’mon, get on with it, I need you to help more, I don’t want to do this stuff anymore, I want you to do it’. He always gave me a strong sense that I needed to hurry up and start carrying more load to help him.”

Above all, the family has always loved putting on a show. Giovanni Zeccola was a cabinet maker from a village near Naples and used to catch the train to Rome, returning with huge film reels under each arm so he could play them in the local church hall. Benjamin’s father Antonio, along with Giovanni's other kids, quickly became equally obsessed with film, and the passion followed the family to Australia.

After leaving school in his teens and working a few odd jobs, Giovanni, Antonio and his brother Franco rented a cinema in Melbourne’s north and showed Italian language films for other immigrants. But it wasn’t long before SBS began showing the same sort of films on television and the business went “kaput”.

In 1970 Antonio rented the Roma cinema on Bourke Street and the Metro cinema in Malvern, and Palace Cinemas was born. He began focussing not just on Italian films but on all foreign and art-house films. His business, and family, started to flourish.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, Palace Home Video was the larger component of the business. Luckily the family never turned away from showing films, and when video started losing popularity in the late 90s, their cinema business served as a welcome fall-back.

Palace usually makes a healthy profit but there have been times in the last 10 years when the company has run at a loss, mostly because of factors out of their control.

“That Avatar year was enormous, the Titanic year too – but there are lulls in-between," says Benjamin.

"If you go through a period where the product isn’t as appealing, it can get pretty close to the bone.”

Palace and the Zeccolas set themselves apart from their competitors by bringing romance back to the cinema. They favour beautiful buildings and offer a glass of wine or coffee made by a barista, rather than a ‘big gulp’ soft drink. They refuse to cheapen the experience even if it costs them a few dollars more in the short term.

As for the rising number of online movie downloads, Palace’s chief executive isn’t worried.

“My father says every house has a kitchen, yet people continue to eat out."

"And inviting your lady to the couch for a download is not nearly as appealing as inviting her to the cinema,” he says.

Benjamin has three kids under eight, plus nieces and nephews too. He’s aware of the difficulties of third generation handovers and says he will consider implementing formal governance models as his young relatives get older.

Positions have never been implied for family members and never will be, according to Benjamin.

“There’s no entitlement. Being born into the family does not equate to a position in the business, you absolutely have to earn it. That’s been true of my siblings and I would expect that to be true of our children.”

Benjamin wants to set up rules for the third generation such that they would have to have a university degree and/or experience at another company – two things he regrets not having.

“If you’ve got a family business and you’ve got children coming through who are ambitious and who are capable, that’s a wonderful problem to have rather than having children who aren’t interested or couldn’t be stuffed or are incapable.”

But if the next Zeccola generation is anything like their mums, dads, aunties, uncles, grandparents and great grandparents that won’t be a problem.