Johnson & Bailey was a real old-fashioned department store right in the heart of Melbourne. It had many floors with great merchandise and extra friendly sales personnel, who gave good service in a courteous and relaxed way which suited their many loyal customers. The sales ladies wore white crocheted gloves and the salesmen, in their dark suits and conservative ties, exuded dignity and utter integrity. The store was laid out with parquetry flooring which was well-maintained and soft passageway-runners with Axminster patterns led to the various counters. In the lifts and the display areas was linoleum flooring with antique, old-fashioned colours and streaks.
Sir Robert Menzies may have approved of this retail institution, I thought when calling for the first time. I liked to visit there because it was always like calling on friends. Their carpet department used to order from me mainly rugs and carpet squares. It didn’t matter to me that their floor covering department was on the fifth floor and that I had to physically drag enormous big rugs into the lift and to the top floor. One reason for this was - yes, I must state it again - the sales staff, especially their department manager, Mr David Sussmann. His staff were two young lads, but there was no trendiness in their dress code nor in their manners. Joe and Alfred were very quiet and unobtrusive in their ways of going about their business.
In other stores, I always encountered a bit of eagerness for sales figures and perhaps some aggression. However, at Johnson & Bailey, pleasing the customer was considered of paramount importance and their sales technique was very ‘soft sell’ as far as I could observe. They had their own clientele who came back to them time and again. Most were rather middle class, solid citizens who commanded respect and, in turn, respected the sales staff.
The department manager, Mr Sussmann, with his grey, wavy hair and pin-striped suit and waistcoat, was always extremely correct to his staff, never giving an instruction without explaining why it was necessary. He had impeccable manners and an elegant command of the English language, mixed with a very strong German accent which I pinpointed as from Berlin. I always treated him with the greatest respect because not only was he a fatherly figure, he went out of his way to be ‘correct’. This applied to his customers, his staff and also to the sales representatives who called on him.
He had noticed that I exchanged his slow-selling rugs with ones that were more popular in patterns and sizes, without being asked to do so. As a result, he was never ‘sitting’ on any slow stock. Huffing and puffing, I dragged rugs upstairs and when ordering his merchandise from me, I occasionally advised him of a better selection. When he discovered that my advice was always correct, he often asked me outright which rugs he should select. For example, I advised against selecting oval rugs, as round rugs were outselling them by far! Sometimes he would insist on ordering against my advice because he knew I would exchange them if his chosen merchandise did not sell. With this arrangement, he could not possibly make mistakes in buying! And he was turning over his departmental buying budget many times more than his competitors could.
As mentioned before, Mr Sussmann always spoke in a precise way, never raising his voice. That fact, plus his extreme correctness made everybody in his team love and respect him. I also noticed that his staff took more interest - and responsibility - in their work. He was a superior who would not hesitate to stand up for the ones who worked with him! This kind of loyalty also applied to suppliers who were reliable and did the right thing by him! Let me illustrate Mr Sussmann’s correctness with an example. Sometimes, he would phone me in my car: ‘Good morning, Peter, how are you today?’
‘Very well, Mr Sussmann. It’s nice to hear from you!’
‘Peter, the reason why I am calling is this: I understand you want to visit me this week with your latest, imported, rugs. Is this correct?’
‘Yes, it is, Mr Sussmann. We’ve got a whole range of new rugs I wanted to show you.’
‘Excellent! However, I have already spent my entire buying budget for this month, therefore I cannot buy anything at the moment. But next week is a new month so I will have a new budget and will need to buy merchandise. I shall give you a ring when I am ready to buy and then you can come and show me what you have. I thought that would save you coming in for nothing’.
Now, anybody who has worked in this trade will know that this was an extraordinary relationship I enjoyed! Whenever I went holidaying overseas, I always brought him something from Germany: a pocket calendar or some other souvenir as sold to visitors there. He always thanked me very formally, perhaps too formally, I thought at times. Then he would quickly glance at it and put it in his pocket and change the subject. He obviously valued the thought behind my gesture more than the actual souvenir! He never told me anything about his background and despite our excellent relationship, we kept it on a strictly formal and correct basis. But I always wondered about him.
One day something cataclysmic happened in his department! Apparently, there was a competitor of mine from Bach & Co, who was, at that time, the largest rug supplier in the trade. They had a much larger range of rugs than I could offer because rugs were their sole business. They really specialised in them and, yet, Bach & Co were not getting any business from Johnson & Bailey. Several of their representatives had tried in succession to call on Mr Sussmann and had offered their wares, but had never been able to obtain an order. And they knew that I was getting the business almost exclusively, despite the fact that my company handled rugs only as a sideline to PVC floorings.
Since Mr Sussmann was a very correct person, who would not even think of discriminating against a supplier, it must have been the good service I gave. My competitors could not or would not compete with me in this. That may have been the reason why Mr Sussmann preferred to team up with me. Only after this terrible incident I am about to relay, did I obtain all the background and facts and was able to piece together the whole picture. But I shall list the events that led up to this in chronological order.
Bach & Co, the big rug supplier, plotted an assault on Johnson & Bailey. It must be possible, they may have reasoned, to dislodge me from my position as preferred supplier. They advertised and employed a new sales representative, somebody with used-car business as his background, and with corresponding sales skill and drive - one who knew all the sales techniques, how to probe for sales, understood ‘buying signals’ and was not afraid to ask for an order. (‘Closing the sale’, we call it.)
I never met this man but heard that Nigel, for that was his name, had called once and had introduced himself to Mr Sussmann, who received him with his usual courtesy and utter correctness. Mr Sussmann had a short conversation with him in his quiet voice and precise grammar and a day of product presentation was arranged. This salesman took notice of Mr Sussmann’s German accent and plotted to ‘win him over’. Knowing little of Europe, Germany or particularly Berlin, he must have read some encyclopaedia or had asked his mates. Anyway, he had absorbed everything on the subject and, equipped with this knowledge, he tried to ‘buddy up’ as Americans would call it.
Nigel leaned back in his chair, folded his hands, observed his fingertips meet, and started his conversation:
‘Some of these rugs come from Germany!’ There was no reaction from Mr Sussmann, who kept leafing through the catalogue. ‘They are, of course, of top quality’, Nigel continued. No reaction. ‘Like everything else they do, the Germans are good! No doubt about it.’
Still no reaction. Mr Sussmann was engrossed in the catalogue, and as an expert, he was interested not only in the size and price, but also in the composition of the fibre, the density of the pile, weight of the cloth, colour fastness etc. That’s why he kept perusing all the technical data as well. This made Nigel lose his patience and he went on with his carefully prepared talk:
‘I mean, it took them six years to win the war! They were holding the world at bay for that long!’
‘I beg your pardon, what was that?’ Mr Sussmann looked up briefly but immediately returned his gaze to the photo pages before him.
Having mastered the opening, Nigel was unstoppable: ‘That’s right. And Hitler had many good points, you know, I mean there is a lot of propaganda against him . . . ’
‘Oh yes?’ Mr Sussmann interrupted, probably for the first time in his life.
‘Of course, look at the autobahn in Germany, what a great idea, and the Volkswagen and . . . and really, all he wanted was the German territories back that had been given to Poland after the first war.’
‘You don’t say!’ This was Mr Sussmann’s second attempt to interrupt.
But Nigel pressed on: ‘And his Minister for Armament, Albert Speer, was a genius! Why, they had the highest production figures in 1944. I mean, despite all the bombings . . . ’ Nigel was proud of himself, remembering all the names and their correct pronunciation. But then the storm broke loose; the unbelievable happened.
‘Will you stop and talk about something you know?’ Mr Sussmann shouted at the top of his voice! It boomed across the fifth floor and even reverberated in the stairs leading below. People had never experienced anything like that and certainly had not expected this from the reserved and correct Mr Sussmann!
The representative of Bach & Co. somehow disappeared. Nobody noticed him slinking away. Perhaps he had sunk into the floor or had crept down the stairs in snake-like fashion.
These were the facts as I had gathered immediately after the event. And then I came into the picture. I happened to call on the Rug Department as a routine visit, to say hello to my friends there, hoping for a cup of coffee. Arriving at the fifth floor, I noticed a strange atmosphere. Staff were walking around pale and clearly shocked. Obviously something was wrong.
‘Hello everybody? How are things today?’ I received no answer - just a grave nod.
‘What happened, Alfred, what’s wrong? There is a terrible atmosphere on this floor.’
Alfred gazed at me absentmindedly and resumed staring in the direction of Mr Sussmann’s office.
‘What happened?’ I pressed on. ‘I can cut the air with a knife.’
Alfred was in no mood for conversation. He used the minimum of words to put me in the picture.
‘Mr Sussmann shouted!’ he hardly got the words out.
‘What? Never!’ I refused to believe it.
That’s when Mr Sussmann’s secretary came out of the office and called the staff of the floor to a short meeting. Everybody was glad to be able to do something instead of standing around in shock.
‘Alright, you go into the office, and I’ll mind the floor for you. There is no need to miss any sales because of a meeting. After all, I am a salesman too, you know.’ I attempted to jest.
As everybody started to file into the office, Mr Sussmann came out. ‘And you too, Peter!’ He waved me into the office. Normally, I would have been honoured to be included in my customers’ sales team, but this time I was not so sure. Mr Sussmann addressed his team in his exact manner: ‘You may have been wondering what happened just now and I’d like to fill you in so that you may understand my reaction’. And then he told us his story.
He was part Jewish, living in Berlin during the war, and had spent time in jail, a victim of anti-Semitism, although only for a brief period because it was discovered that he was a carpenter by trade. So he had to work for the infamous Gestapo, boarding up bombed-out windows, reinforcing ceilings, partitioning rooms etc. Since he was a very good tradesman, he was kept working as slave labour right to the end of the war. But in any case, he would have never gone to a Konzentration Camp because he knew how to escape in the event of an immediate threat of deportation. Being a child of Berlin, he knew all the back streets and underground hiding places and also the deep forests around the city, every lane and hidden path, ditch and cave.
‘They could have never taken me anywhere’, he assured us. ‘I knew the area too well!’ The irony was that the more bombs were falling, the busier he was. The prisoner rations he got kept him barely alive. The man responsible for the provision of slave labour had been the very same man Nigel had praised so much, earlier that morning.
Towards the end of the war, in April 1945, he noticed that prisoners were about to be transported somewhere else; the time had come to abscond! Hiding in the darkest cellars and attics, he lived in constant fear of being discovered. When he ventured out into the streets in search for food, he met people he knew and who knew him. However, they all pretended not to recognise him and walked right past. He had to sustain himself by eating incredibly filthy scraps of food and even those he found only occasionally.
When the Russian soldiers closed their ring around Berlin Mr Sussmann broke out of his hideaway sneaked through the front and headed towards the Russian line, making his way through all the hidden paths in the forest he knew so well. He was in extreme danger because unexploded bombs and mines were everywhere and Nazi military police were combing the area. He hardly dared to breathe and he prayed to meet Russians soon, because then his nightmare would be over, he thought.
There was a wide river he had to cross but to his horror, he found that the bridge was being defended by a unit of Hitler’s Youth. They were actually children but very fanatical. Isolated and in a hopeless position, they were determined to defend no matter what. Alert and armed to their teeth, they would have shot him without a qualm. So he hid in the forest, near the bridge as the Russians were sure to arrive at any moment. But they did not come for some reason and he had to hide in the forest for two weeks during April, after a severe winter and living on virtually nothing! Finally, a Russian army unit came and took the bridge. His freedom had come at last! Coming out of the forest, barely alive, he surrendered to the Red Army, but they wanted to shoot him immediately as they suspected him of being a German soldier in disguise.
As Mr Sussmann explained this to us, my hair was standing on end. Other people also had an understanding by then of what he was saying and why the incident had happened that morning.
‘And that’s why I wanted you to know all this to understand my reaction to this young fool who did not know what he was talking about!’ Mr Sussmann concluded his meeting with his usual soft voice.
As everybody filed out of his office, he turned to me: ‘Thank you, Peter, for attending this meeting as well.’ Walking with me to the stairs, as polite as usual, he shook my hand and bid me ‘Goodbye’. I was then able to grasp his reaction to the little presents I had brought him from my trips to Europe!
And the unfortunate salesman? I was told that he left his employment three weeks later and I have not encountered him since in any other shop. He certainly did not seek a career in the flooring trade.
Johnson & Bailey do not exist any more. Mr Sussmann has probably retired and his staff have ‘gone with the wind’. It was after I had returned from a week’s country trip that I was told that Johnson & Bailey Department Stores had closed down. I went to say goodbye to Mr Sussmann and to thank him for the good working relationship we had, but everybody was already gone and I stood before a boarded-up entrance. Suddenly I felt very sad, as if I had lost something. And in a way I had!