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Myer, Sir Norman (1897–1956)

by David Dunstan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Sir Norman Myer (1897-1956), businessman, was born on 25 May 1897 (and named Nahum Moshe) at Tatarsk Smolensk, Russia (Byelorusse), son of Jewish parents Yacov Meer Baevski (d.1899), a local manufacturer and trader, and his wife Chaya, née Sitz. His mother remarried. Nahum's uncle Simcha sent in 1908 for his nephew, who reached Melbourne on 7 February 1909 in the Frederich der Grosse. Nahum attended Rev. Clifford Nash's school at Hawthorn and learned English. After the Myer retail business moved (1911) to Bourke Street, Melbourne, he began working there and continued his education at Wesley College. On 8 June 1916 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. Failing to gain entry into the Australian Flying Corps, he served on the Western Front from August 1917 as a driver with the 1st Divisional Ammunition Column. He was commissioned in January 1919 and promoted lieutenant in April.

After investigating developments in retailing in the United States of America, he returned to Melbourne where his A.I.F. appointment terminated on 19 March 1920. Nahum changed his given name to Norman and was naturalized on 21 April 1920. He partnered a wartime friend Arthur Long in offering joy-ride flights over Melbourne and planned other commercial aviation ventures, but Sidney wanted his nephew in the store. Norman was given charge of the hosiery department. On 14 March 1922 in a civil ceremony at 165 Collins Street he married Gladys Margaret Roche. Following the acquisition of James Marshall & Co. Ltd, Adelaide, Norman Myer and James Martin were placed in charge in 1928. Despite the Depression, the Myer Emporium (S.A.) Ltd proved a success. In South Australia Norman gained valuable experience in merchandising, store management and administration; Gladys was important in dealings with the Adelaide establishment.

In 1934 the organization was rocked by the death of Sidney Myer. After E. L. Neil and Elcon Myer died, Norman succeeded as chairman and managing director of the Myer Emporium Ltd, Melbourne, in 1938. Believing in decentralization, he appointed eight directors, giving them autonomy in their fields, while he concentrated on overall policy. Like his uncle, Myer sought to keep things moving on the shop-floor, even if it meant sacrificing profits to sales. Extensive advertising campaigns reflected new ideas and merchandise obtained on his regular trips abroad (the Hudson Co. of Detroit and R. H. Macy & Co., New York, were among the American firms he admired). Myer's strengths were his direct involvement with people and his understanding of customer requirements. A property on the Mornington Peninsula was purchased for staff holidays and named Norman Lodge. During World War II he advised the Menzies and Curtin governments as a member of the Board of Business Administration, but he was accused of controlling prices and criticized by Arthur Calwell. Myer was active in the Victorian division of the Australian Red Cross Society and the Australian Comforts Fund.

Myer oversaw the expansion of the firm into a huge retail organization. It remained in the control of male members of the family and selected intimates. He opened additional stores in Brisbane, and at Geelong and Ballarat, Victoria, a furniture factory at Footscray and woollen mills at Ballarat. Myer's had buying offices and agents throughout the world. A director of numerous companies including Bruck Mills (Australia) Ltd and the Overseas Corporation (Australia) Ltd, Norman Myer was a governor of the Corps of Commissionaires (a businessmen's organization) and a sponsor of the Australian Administrative Staff College, Mount Eliza. He was also a founder and chairman of the City Development Association and backed the idea of the Melbourne Moomba Festival, but he foresaw that the future of retailing lay in regional shopping-centres.

Most comfortable in the company of men, Myer dominated the board-room at executive luncheons, with fine cigars and a repertoire of Australian jokes. He belonged to the Naval and Military, Victoria Golf, Victoria Racing and Victoria Amateur Turf clubs. In 1951 he and Gladys were divorced. At the Methodist Church, Caulfield, on 19 April 1952 he married 24-year-old Pamela Margaret Sallmann, a school contemporary of his daughter Pamela.

Knighted in 1956, Myer was chairman of the Sidney Myer charity trust which distributed over £400,000 to charitable and cultural projects. Shortly after announcing the presentation of the Sidney Myer Music Bowl to the people of Melbourne, he died of cancer on 17 December 1956 in his Toorak home and was cremated. His wife and their two sons, and the daughter and two sons of his first marriage, survived him. Sir Norman left control of his estate, sworn for probate at £373,737, to his wife. No longer dominated by one man, the Myer Emporium continued to be managed by the family, but Norman's sons did not follow him into the firm. A posthumous portrait by (Sir) William Dargie is held by Coles Myer Ltd.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Marshall, The Gay Provider (Melb, 1961)
  • P. Warrender, Prince of Merchants (Melb, 1972)
  • People (Sydney), 12 Jan 1955, p 41
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22 Sept, 29 Nov 1939, 31 May 1956
  • naturalisation file A1/15, item 20/4310 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

David Dunstan, 'Myer, Sir Norman (1897–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/myer-sir-norman-11216/text19997, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 25 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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