This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986
Simcha Myer (SIDNEY) Baevski (1878-1934), merchant and philanthropist, was born on 8 February 1878 at Krichev in the Russian province of Mogilev, within the Pale of Settlement, youngest of eleven children of Ezekiel Baevski, Hebrew scholar, and his wife Koona Dubrusha, née Shur.
His elder brother Elcon Baevski (1875-1938) was born on 4 December 1875 at Krichev, attended the Jewish Elementary School in Krichev, then a higher school, and later managed his mother's drapery business. In 1896 he migrated to Australia, finding employment in Melbourne in the clothing trade with a relation, Lazer Slutzkin. Simcha attended the same schools as his brother, distinguished himself as a student, and in turn managed his mother's store. He too migrated and in August 1899, almost penniless, joined Elcon for a time in Slutzkin's underclothing business in Flinders Lane, teaching himself English. Several months later, adopting the family name of Myer (the second name of their eldest brother Jacob), the brothers moved to Bendigo and opened a small drapery shop. Sidney plied a rapidly growing trade in fabrics and garments in country districts, first on foot, later with a horse and cart.
In 1900 the brothers formally became partners in new premises in Pall Mall, and on 12 March 1902 Elcon married Rose Marks (d.1927) of Melbourne. But the partnership soon foundered on Elcon's strictly orthodox opposition to Saturday trading, and he returned to Melbourne, establishing himself as a clothing manufacturer in Flinders Lane. Sidney bought him out for £320 and remained in Bendigo, but they continued in close association, with Sidney as Elcon's biggest customer. On 8 March 1905 Sidney married Hannah (Nance) Flegeltaub at Ballarat; they had no children, but from 1911 Sidney acted as guardian to his nephew (Sir) Norman Myer (1898-1956).
The Bendigo drapery, decked out in exotic style, drew crowds of customers with irresistible bargains and novelties temptingly displayed; Sidney Myer had a flair for discerning new fashion trends and presenting stock attractively. He also advertised boldly, in a style both sensational and persuasive, appealing to women's shopping habits and predilections with a sure touch. By 1907 'Bendigo's Busiest Drapers' had over sixty staff and had expanded its premises. In 1908 Sidney Myer bought Craig Williamson Pty Ltd, a leading drapery firm, for £22,000, and a 'hurricane sale' of its stock repaid his creditors. Now Bendigo's foremost merchant, he increased his turnover in three years from £38,000 to £160,000, with a net annual profit of £15,000.
Late in 1909 Sidney travelled overseas to study British and European merchandising methods and to establish contact with manufacturers and exporters. In April 1911 he seized the opportunity to purchase Wright & Neil, a drapery store in Bourke Street, Melbourne, for which he paid £91,450. He raised staff wages, then closed the store for a fortnight's stock-taking and ordering; and in June, after a spate of full-page newspaper advertisements, Melbourne experienced its first Myer sale. Old stock sold for a song, new stock was priced almost at cost, goods once kept behind counters were strewn upon tables, and the rush lasted for a week.
The newly acquired store continued under its former manager Edwin Lee Neil, but Elcon Myer now rejoined his brother and, with another deputy, managed the two Bendigo shops until their sale in 1914 for £50,000. Sidney purchased the freehold of the Bourke Street site; and in 1912 he also bought land in Post Office Place. In 1913 he purchased the Civil Service Stores, Flinders Street, to accommodate business while the outgrown Bourke Street store was rebuilt. The move was made in a single night; custom was retained by a free bus service and by an almost continuous series of bargain sales. Modelled upon San Francisco's 'Emporium' and bearing the same name, the new £70,000, eight-storey building opened in July 1914 with a hugely successful gala sale.
When World War I began, Elcon was on his way to London, to establish a buying and export office and organize shipments of cloth. In 1915 he joined the Army Service Corps, serving first in England, then from May 1917 at the front. He returned to Australia early in 1919, to become merchandizing manager for the Myer Emporium, a post which involved frequent journeys overseas.
During the war the London office greatly assisted Sidney's determination to maintain his imports, despite an initial slump in the retail trade. Convinced that the struggle would be long, and fearing lest Australia would be cut off from overseas supplies, he also increased purchases of locally made softgoods and began manufacturing on his own account. Already, in 1913, Myer had opened a fitting factory in Barkly Place; in 1915 he built a clothing factory in Condell's Lane and bought the Doveton Woollen Mills at Ballarat in 1918. He bought more land off Post Office Place for a men's wear store; and at the end of 1917 he formed Myer's (Melbourne) Pty Ltd, with a capital of £500,000 and himself and Neil as directors.
The two men were opposites: Sidney 'open, informal, and genial though moody', Neil 'reserved, formal'; yet they complemented one another admirably. While Neil was the expert manager, Myer provided creative energy, commercial intuition and sheer merchandising genius. His influence was almost charismatic. He could speak harshly when he saw fit, or at moments of sudden wrath, but generally treated staff with consideration, criticizing constructively, consulting freely, rewarding initiative and encouraging effort. Department managers might well dread his frequent forays through the store, as with an unerring eye he detected their errors of judgement, or on an inspiration upset their domains. But in return for his generosity and the responsibility he bestowed, they gave loyalty and a capacity to excel that made Myer the envy of other employers. He was a remarkable judge of character; and his own infectious enthusiasm, natural dignity and persuasive charm won an eager response.
At once frank and courteous, Sidney had a lively sense of humour, offset by an underlying wistfulness. He was tall and elegant, with dark crinkly hair and light blue eyes, high cheek-bones, neat moustache and an expressive mouth. In his quiet voice there lingered a Russian accent that became stronger when he spoke, reluctantly, in public. The accent was more noticeable in Elcon, who tended to 'splutter' under pressure and whose capacity for mispronunciation 'sometimes verged on genius'. Short and stocky, with a walrus moustache and a fatherly manner, Elcon was 'impossible to dislike'.
In mid-1919 Sidney left Neil in command and visited the United States of America, to investigate department stores. He also obtained a divorce in Nevada and was converted to Christianity. On 8 January 1920, at San Francisco, he married 19-year-old (Dame) Marjorie Merlyn, daughter of George Baillieu, of Melbourne. They subsequently spent several months each year in California where their four children were born.
By 1920 the Myer Emporium was a vast affair of 200 departments, famous for its 'Friday specials' and Monday 'star bargains', and equipped with a fleet of motorized delivery vans. In that year a new holding company, Myer's (Australia) Ltd, brought together all firms solely owned by Sidney Myer, with a capital of £2 million; and a London subsidiary was incorporated. In 1921 warnings of a post-war slump overseas prompted Sidney to anticipate the collapse of import prices and cut his losses with a Million Pound Master Sale. It cost Myer over £500,000, half his fortune; but, by restocking with the cheaper imports, he traded out of crisis by the year's end, while other firms languished.
Sidney now offered on easy terms 73,000 'staff partnership' shares of £1 each. He also began distributing shares (more than 200,000, all told) among his executives and managers, according to his estimation of their merit. Increasingly, Myer looked upon his staff as a community; by 1926 they numbered over 2000. Weary managers received paid vacations, a sick fund was instituted, holiday homes were established, and an elaborate free hospital provided in the store. Social activities included annual staff balls and picnics, football and cricket matches, a Christian Fellowship, and choral society concerts in aid of charity.
The Myer Emporium grew steadily, its business expanding threefold between 1922 and 1925. The Bourke Street frontage increased as the neighbouring drapery stores of Robertson & Moffatt and Stephens & Sons were purchased. The first section of an eleven-storey Lonsdale Street store opened in 1926. To finance this growth, a new company, the Myer Emporium Ltd, was formed in 1925, with a capital of £3 million. Sidney Myer and Lee Neil continued as governing and as managing director, but a large assisting directorate was appointed also. In 1927 this company's net profit was £328,000, and shareholders received a dividend of 17½ per cent. In 1928 Myer took over the department store of James Marshall & Co. of Adelaide, establishing The Myer Emporium (S.A.) Ltd under the joint direction of his nephew Norman and James Martin.
While the Lonsdale Street store was being extended, Myer bought out Thos. Webb & Sons, tableware merchants, in 1930 and in 1931 W. H. Rocke & Co. Ltd, quality furniture dealers. Myer's now catered for all needs, pockets and tastes. In 1926 it had opened Melbourne's first 'Cash and Carry' grocery; then came one of the world's largest self-service cafeterias and in 1933 the handsome 'Mural Hall'.
With the Depression at its worst, in 1931 Sidney Myer launched a £250,000 reconstruction of his Bourke Street store, deliberately aimed at creating employment and restoring confidence. In 1930, anticipating the Scullin government's tariff embargoes and import restrictions, he had reduced his overseas buying and inaugurated a 'Made in Australia Week', displaying locally made goods and urging customers to 'lessen unemployment by helping to open up new avenues of industry'. To meet the decline in purchasing power he limited profit margins to 5 per cent. All staff, himself included (except for those affected by a wages board), endured a 20 per cent pay-cut for eighteen months, so that no employee need be retrenched. The staff shareholder dividend was reduced by 6 per cent in August 1931.
Stressing the connexion between spending power and recovery, Myer declared: 'It is a responsibility of capital to provide work. If it fails to do this it fails to justify itself'. Late in 1931 he urged the wealthy to donate funds for government projects, so that people might have work and a happier Christmas. He himself gave £10,000 for immediate continuation of the Yarra Boulevard scheme, which employed many hundreds of men; and over the next two years he contributed a further £12,000. On Christmas Day 1930 he had endeavoured to cheer the unemployed by holding a vast Christmas dinner for over 10,000 people at the Exhibition Building; free tram travel was provided, a band played, and every child received a present.
Much of Myer's liberality was privately bestowed, but on occasion gifts were made publicly, to draw attention to the cause. The objects of his philanthropy were sometimes cultural, rather than charitable. In 1926, learning of the University of Melbourne's financial plight, he gave it 25,000 Myer shares, worth £50,000, with the sole request that the shares not be sold until they doubled their value. This 'princely munificence' was honoured by the naming of the Sidney Myer chair of commerce.
In 1928 Myer backed the trans-Pacific flight of aviator (Sir) Charles Kingsford Smith; and, when 'financial stringency' was forcing the Children's Hospital to close its wards in 1929, he donated £8000. His love of classical music inspired him to provide £1000 annually for free open-air concerts by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Then he engineered its amalgamation with the University Symphony Orchestra, to form a new M.S.O. in 1932, and established a trust fund for its support with a gift of 10,000 Myer shares. He also endowed an annual series of free orchestral concerts at the university conservatorium. In 1932 also he gave £5000 to Melbourne's Shrine of Remembrance.
From May 1931 Sidney Myer served with energy and generosity on the committee of management of the (Royal) Melbourne Hospital, largely contributing to a reform of its business system, purchasing methods and patient records. Early in 1933 he was appointed to the executive committee of Victoria's Centenary Council, and raised over £20,000. He organized the musical arrangements for the celebrations, and donated many prizes for centenary competitions. One of his last gifts was an ambulance for the Victorian Civil Ambulance Service. At the time of his death he was planning to endow the Anglican Church with £100,000 for a training farm for indigent boys.
Sidney Myer died suddenly of cardiac failure on 5 September 1934, near his home in Toorak, and was buried in Box Hill cemetery. Survived by his wife, two sons (Kenneth Baillieu and Sidney Baillieu, both of whom became managing directors of Myer's) and two daughters, he left an estate worth well over £1 million. By his will one-tenth of his wealth was placed in trust for the charitable, philanthropic and educational needs of 'the community in which I made my fortune'. His portrait by John Longstaff is held by the family.
Neil replaced him briefly at the head of the firm, which by now had an issued capital of £2,479,950 and 5300 employees. He was succeeded by Elcon, with Norman Myer as managing director. As chairman, Elcon presided over the completion of the modern Bourke Street store and the celebration, in 1937, of its silver anniversary.
A retiring yet sociable man, Elcon was active in many charitable causes, and served on the board of the Alfred Hospital. He was also a leading member of St Kilda Synagogue. He died on 18 February 1938 in the Mercy Hospital, of cancer after a long illness, and was buried with strict Jewish rites in Melbourne general cemetery. His estate in Victoria was sworn for probate at £114,353. Elcon was survived by the two sons of his first marriage and by his second wife Myrtle Audrey Fisher, née Levy, whom he had married in 1929.
When Sidney Myer first established himself in Melbourne, Lee Neil had judged him to be 'inordinately ambitious', but withal 'a man of vision and high enthusiasm and warm human sympathies'. The combination made Myer 'one of the most magnetic personalities' Neil had ever met. Myer's bold optimism and fine philanthropy, his commercial foresight and innovative courage, and above all the brilliance with which he wrought a retailing revolution and changed the heart of Melbourne, have established him as one of the great men of his time.
Anthea Hyslop, 'Myer, Simcha (Sidney) (1878–1934)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/myer-simcha-sidney-7721/text13525, published in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 11 March 2014.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986