Australian Biography

Victor Smorgon - full interview transcript

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So what happened when you went to buy the chickens?

Well, I started ... I picked out a pen that I thought would be the right pen for the Jewish women like that type of fowl, very fat, and which they boil down the fat together with onions and they make a special dish out of that. And they make soup with the rest of it. They make all different dishes. Poor people make a lot of things out of very little. And they ... So I asked several of them would they like me to be buying chickens ... fowls and would they buy them from me and they said, 'Yes'. So I knew roughly what they were paying for them, but they didn't want to pluck them themselves. So the first day I got an order for six fowls, the first order. And I bought ... at the auction I have picked out one cage with six fowls and I kept on saying ... waving to the auctioneer like this and he wouldn't take such notice of me because he saw me so many times before, and I'd never bought anything. So he knocked them down to somebody else at two dollars ... two and threepence or whatever it was. And so next one came along - the next cage that I wanted: my second choice. And I started that time, making sure that he heard me. [POINTING] I said, 'Me, me, me, me, me, me, me!' to take notice of me, to ... that's my bid, to realise that I'm buying. And then he knocked it down to me, whatever the price was - two and tuppence or two and threepence. And I'm a millionaire, I've got six chickens. And I go back to the office - to the shop rather, harnessed the horse, and the horse and cart and drove the cart back and paid for the chickens, put the chickens in the back of the cart and bring them home. Put them into the back yard and bought some wheat to [coughs] feed them with. And now I'm in business. Now I've got six orders and I bring them back to the shop and get the ritual slaughter man to do it the proper way. And I started plucking from about five o'clock in the evening, 'til about two or three o'clock in the morning. I'm not sure, maybe five o'clock in the morning. I stood there. I sat there and I was plucking chickens 'til they were plucked, in the morning. It had to be on Friday, so it would have been Thursday that I had them slaughtered and Friday I had to deliver them. Put them in the chiller meanwhile, because my uncle allowed me to do that. I didn't ask him. And then I presented them ... When the women came in, I sold them the chickens at a very high price. For me it was a high price, about three times what I paid for it, and they didn't mind. They paid me and then from then on, for the next few weeks, 'til the end of the year in fact, I was dealing in chickens and going and buying six or ten a week and making 'round about three or four pounds a week. In those days, a working man was only earning thirty shillings - a pound a half, so I was very rich.

How much was your father making at the time?

At that time my father would have been living on about four pounds a week.

Were you doing this as well as going on at school?

Well, I wasn't doing very much at school, so it was easy. I'd go to the school and I'd do the typing that's supposed to be done, do whatever the teacher gave instructions about the bookkeeping. And I did that and then I'd disappear. He'd say to me, 'Go and play', because I was a nuisance staying there, interrupting, talking to the other people that were doing their shorthand. So he didn't mind me leaving. So I'd leave round about 10.30 or that time, go back to the city, walk around, look for opportunities, and then get my chickens and get them plucked. And I had pocket money. And [most of it] I gave to my father. Father put it in the business, and saved it for me. That's the old Jewish way, Greek way, Italian way, all the immigrants way. They all work that way. All the money, whatever's made, goes into one pocket. After that you can get it back, but meanwhile it's being used. And that's how I became ... that became ... that was my first business.

Now let's go back and pick up your father's story, and the family's story. When the family arrived in Australia, how did you father set about making his living?

Well, he was originally, when he had a letter from his brother-in-law, that the brother-in-law has bought a hand knitting machine, for making socks. And so father wrote back to him and said there was some money at that time he could send over and buy more machines. And when my family arrives, we will all have a machine each, all the children and all the wives and all the relatives, and we'll make a lot of socks and a lot of money. But by the time we got to Australia, which took about two months - about two months, about six or seven weeks we were on the ship travelling from Marseilles to Melbourne - and we arrived, the uncle, my father's brother-in-law, said that he's not doing that any more, he went broke doing that and he's now hawking. He was making twenty pounds a week. The same way as Myer started, Sidney Myer. But he was a good salesman and he could do it. So father thought that he would do the same thing. But father didn't have the ability to sell that, like my uncle did. And so he went to ... he bought the same suitcase, or two suitcases, went to the wholesaler, the Jewish wholesaler, and the Jewish wholesaler gave him the socks. They were all on credit, and payed for after you sell and every week he'd go off on the train, and for two or three days, and if he pulled up at the ... he was at it for about two months. And one day he came into a street and there was a butcher's shop and he start looking at the meat, which funny thing is I do exactly the same thing today. I still, whenever I pass a butcher's shop I've got to have a look at it - and the butcher came out to talk to him, and the butcher talked German. And my father spoke German, perfect German, because he comes from a German village. And so they started talking about politics, all this sort of thing. Then the man said ... the butcher said to him, 'Well what have you got to sell?' He did it out of pity. He didn't really want a pair of socks. So he sold him a pair of socks. My father burst out crying, because he knew that he had only bought it because he felt sorry for him and he didn't want to be in that situation. He was too proud to be in that situation. And he said ... he told him straight away, he said, 'I'm giving this up. I'm going back, and I'm going to do something professional and I've decided to become a butcher again'. He came home. His brothers were doing different things: one was collecting scrap iron, another one was collecting wool - brothers, different brothers. None of them were making a living. So father said, 'Let's go back to what we know - be butchers again'. And then we bought ... he bought ... he and his brothers, and one who was still in Russia, the younger brother, was a partner to it. And they bought out another Jewish man's business, who already had a shop in Lygon Street, Carlton.

Where did they get the money from?

That's another story. You borrow. If you have a good name, you can always borrow. And the Smorgons always had a good name, going back for probably ten generations before my father. It goes in the family. The reputation follows the family as you go along. And the Smorgons always had a good reputation, so people that knew us from Russia, that knew - not me but my father and my uncles - they knew us as honest people, hardworking people who always paid their debts. And whatever happens, my father always pays his debts. I think I told you before about the story about how he sold everything to pay his debts in Russia. And that travels with you, because if you do bad, the same thing travels very quickly too, in Australia. That's the time when he told me, always protect your name. Because that's the only thing you take away with you: name. The rest stays behind. Money is nothing, your name is important. In ten seconds you can lose your name, if you do the wrong thing. He always kept on telling us, 'You must look after your name. Do everything right, because you can lose it and you can never replace it again'. And so therefore you go to people that you know, you say I need to borrow ten pounds or two pounds or whatever it is. So you collect enough money and then you pay it back. And there was also a society which later was formed in Australia, which we then helped other people the same way. The family helped other people to get on their feet, which we guarantee them ten pounds or twenty pounds or whatever. That was a lot of money in those days. So it's the equivalent probably to £5,000, $5,000, and we've been doing it all our lives. Later on, when we became employed people, all the Jewish and non-Jewish people used to borrow from us and start businesses. And we never charge interest, because we went through that ourselves. And when you go through that system or through that hardship, you understand that and you try to help other people.

How successful was the butcher's shop? How successful was the butcher's shop?

Oh, it was very ... quite successful. Because immigrants were coming in and they didn't know the value money. They all got jobs straight away. Most of them were Polish. Most of them were Polish Jews. They all had professions, mostly furrowing and that type of thing and a lot of them worked for a while for somebody else and then started their own factories, and became reasonably well off. And so they had money to spend. So they had the money to lend. And that ... so they lived reasonably well within months. When ... later on when the immigration started after the last war, the Second World War, we used to pick up the ... we went to the welfare society and told them any Jewish person who wants a job, send them to us, the job's available. And most of them came ... Probably half of the immigrants who came at that time had a job with us and worked for three or four months and saved up some money. Then they'd say, 'Can you lend another £500?' 'Yes'. And so each one who would ask would get, so they'd have about £1,000 and he would start a fruit shop or deli shop or something like that. Or start a little factory. And they all, to this day, if they meet me they say, 'Your father helped me. You helped me. Remember when you lent me the money?' I don't remember, there's so many. We also used to do the same thing with Greeks and Italians, who were coming in at the time. It might have been more than Jewish people. Labour was very scarce, and we were building up our business at that time, the meat business, which is a story I'll tell you later. And we would send two people, one Italian speaking person and another a Greek speaking person, over to Perth, to board the ship, to come with the immigrants, sign them up to come to work for us. And they came up from the ship directly to ... We'd have a bus ready for them, bring them over to the works, put them to work and they started making money. And some of them became business people. And they also did very well.

You arrived in 1927. Not long after that, the worst of the Depression started to really hit. Do you remember that and the effect it had on life in Carlton?

I learned about that when I was much older. I didn't know. For us there was no Depression. For any immigrant there was no Depression. Because you come with nothing and every time you make a penny you're already better off than you were yesterday. Where people that had money during the Depression lost it, for them it was very hard. And today, if I lost what I've got, it'd be very, very hard for me to get ... to do the same thing. Because you know, you already had something, it's very hard to repeat the performance again, if you don't have any money. But when you start with nothing, it's very easy. You accept it. We didn't know there was a Depression on. My father didn't know there was a Depression on. It was no Depression, because it was a separate business, the Jewish kosher business. The immigrants were coming in and they were the same, as I said before, they immediately got some job. And the Depression was only for people, like today, that don't want to work. Everyone could find a job - to do something if they wanted to. And a lot of them did, a lot of them didn't. But that Depression that they talk about, the 1929 Depression, as I learned later, is not as horrible. We had worse ones in 1960. We had the worst Depression. It wasn't 1929 in Australia. At that time it was a different standard of living. You've got to understand that the standard of living was very low too. People didn't ... you didn't have to have anything, except possibly a roof over your head, somewhere to live. Because you can pick up of the trees, you can pick up any food, very, very cheap. They'd sell their shoes or socks. They'd sell something. Nothing was being produced, so there's a market something. Always a market for something. And that's how they survived. That's how most people survived. I mean nobody really died in 1929 from starvation in Australia, at that time. And they're still not dying today. I'm told that there is a lot of people live below the living standard. It depends what you call a living standard. At this point I must tell you a story you might have to fill in later. I brought in my friend from Russia. He left there when he was twenty-one. I met him again in 1960 and I invited him to Australia. He spoke very good English. He was an English teacher in Russia and he came and he stayed with us. And he came one day, and he said, 'Somebody told me that there's a lot of people in Australia, Melbourne, living below ...

Poverty line.

The poverty line. I said, 'Yes there are people. It all depends what you call poverty'. I said, 'You take me, in relation to a Rothschild I'm a very poor man. Go, do me a favour, go and get that man to take you to where there's people living below standard, below the living standard or whatever you call it'. He came back, he didn't want to talk about it because in Russia it was so much worse, that he couldn't even compare with it. To him they were millionaires, the ones that lived under that - what's called the living standard. It all depends where you are, where do you live, where do you measure the living standard. If you go to Africa today, their living standard on three dollars a week is very low, but they still live, they still manage. It all depends on the context of where you are at the time and where you're starting from.

And who you have to look at to envy. And who you have to look at to envy.

That's right, that's right.

Did you father and your uncles work very hard in that shop in Lygon Street?

Yes, yes... When I left my great education period and training period, father said to me ... My father wanted me to be a lawyer. I said, 'I don't want to be a lawyer, I want to be a businessman'. He said, 'If you're a business man, go to work. Go to the butcher's shop'. So right, I'll go to the butcher's shop and we started about six o'clock in the morning. Go to the butcher's shop: work all day. I was delivering parcels or helping to clean up, to sweep the floors and all that at first. And about seven, eight o'clock at night we'd walk home and dream about what we were going to do in the future - father and I. Because we were both the same type, saying, 'What I'm going to do in future ...', Because he already knew that I have some business sense and he used to talk in terms of tens of thousands, and I used to talk in terms of hundreds of thousands. And he said to me, 'Why do you always talk in hundreds of thousands?' Because in those days ten thousand was like a billion today. I said, 'If we achieve ten percent of what we're dreaming about, look how much more money I'll have than you', and he appreciated it. And that's really ... I really mean it. The bigger you think the better chance you have of making it big. Maybe not all the way big, but half way big is big.

Why did you want to be a business man rather than a lawyer?

Because I thought it would be much more fun. When I started off the chickens it was a lot of fun. It was all excitement. Every time you'd buy something, every time you'd sell something, it's exciting. It's alive. It keeps you alive, keeps you dreaming more. Not more for money's sake, but more for success, which is measured by money. You don't measure it by money, you can measure your success as a professional at a certain level, but as a businessman you can only judge by what money you're making in the business you're in. That makes you successful or not successful.

So it's honestly not the money itself.

Not at all. Now, I have plenty of money and I can't spend it before I die. My children will spend it. But I still want to achieve. I want to achieve huge amounts. I want to repeat what I started with, what I did up to the age of eighty, when we were partners with the rest of the family, when we built up the business that I'll show you later in the journal. And I want to repeat the same thing again before I kick the bucket, before I die. And if I'm lucky enough to live another five, six years, maybe ten, I'll make it. It's that will to succeed. Nothing to do with money whatsoever. But without money it's nothing. What have you done in business? If you're an educator, it's how many diplomas you get, or however high you get into the profession itself. You take lawyers, they can only go up to a certain point and become judges. That's their usual aim, most of them. In your profession, you like to make a beautiful film, like Titanic, wouldn't you?

Back there in the butcher's shop, were you regarded by everybody as a hard worker?

Not quite. My uncles thought I was lazy. My uncles thought I was untidy. And all that is true. Because I was dreaming. I was talking about what I'm going to do, which I did. I did very early. And my uncle had a ... I must tell you that story, because I've been telling it a long time. The ... I'm about sixteen, and I'm working in the butcher's shop and I'm not allowed to cut meat until I learn. So uncle gives me an old knife, that thin [GESTURES A FEW CENTIMETRES], and the knives are usually about that wide, [GESTURES FIVE OR MORE CENTIMETRES]and he wants me to cut the steaks, which are cut very ... you've got to learn how to cut it. He ... great decision that he made - a new knife's got to be bought. Naturally as a kid I think I've got the worst knife, I'm going to get the knife. And the knife arrives - beautiful long knife, curled. My uncle takes it and sharpens it. I said, 'Lovely uncle'. He puts it in his pouch and gives me his old knife and that cost him millions. I never forgave him for it. And that's why I became the largest partner in the business. I'm the biggest shareholder because the uncle ... every time my uncle wants to make peace with the family - well I didn't get to that story where we broke up. But we'll pick it up later. But ... and I said to him, 'If we're going to be partners I want a pound more than you'. He says, 'Never'. I said, 'Okay, then we're not partners'. By that time I was partners with my father and my brother. And eventually my father came one day and he said he spoke with the uncles, and they said that they'll agree to have twenty-five percent of the business and pool everything together. They were called Smorgon Brothers and we were called Norman Smorgon & Sons. We put the two companies together without counting anything - put them together and became partners. They kept twenty-five percent, we get seventy-five percent. There's three of us and there's two of them. So I became much ... well five times the value-wise partner in that business and that's when I didn't ask for that extra pound anymore, and then after that we had no problems. I had no problems with my uncle. He never had problems. I loved him. He was a very nice man.

Which uncle was it?

The ... Moisey, which is .. He's got two sons: one is Sam, one is George. And I really liked him. Really, I was very fond of him.

But you did want that knife.

I wanted that knife. And he didn't understand people. He didn't understand young people. It wasn't the two shillings, it wasn't because he ... but he didn't have enough sense to understand that there was a kid, an ambitious kid there that wants a knife. I kept on saying, 'How do you expect me to work with a knife like this?' and you know, not once, many times. And so I automatically expected to get that knife and that was a great disappointment to me that I didn't get it. And I'll say here too, I was very stubborn when I want to win.

Could I ask you something, you work with the younger generation now ... Do you find it easier ... You do ...

I give them ten knives. The answer's yes. In fact I'm the one that's been pushing all those people you saw in the what's it's name, I've been pushing them into bigger and bigger jobs and bigger and bigger money. Because I understood it, because of what happened to me. They wanted something equivalent to a knife, they got it. [INTERRUPTION]

Did you learn all the butchery that you knew at that time from your father and uncles?

Yes, but there wasn't very much to learn. At the time in the butcher's shop itself, it was ... you just simply cut off slices of meat. But then to be a butcher, to be really in the meat game, you have to know how to slaughter the cattle, you have to know all those parts: how to buy cattle, you have to judge the weight of the cattle, all that you've got to learn yourself by going to the market. And it happened that I ... I have to tell another story, because otherwise you won't understand it. One of the things that I did very early, with my father, when they bought two non-Jewish shops, one in Bridge Road, 14 Bridge Road, Richmond. The other one was lower down in, also in Bridge Road. And the first shop did very well, very profitable. The second shop was put over my father by the fellow that sold it to him. He put in false sales, which is usual thing to do - build up the sales which weren't there. His friends gave money. Father was watching the people coming in, a lot of people coming in, and he fell for that, and once he paid him, suddenly the people are not there any more. He wanted to get another manager. The manager was hopeless, so he said that I should work in the butcher's shop. So I worked in the butcher's shop. Like I said I'm not a manager, I don't know enough about it. So ... but there was a manager in a butcher up the street whose shop was always full. His name is Harry Eames and he worked for a shop owner called Bill Zoppo. And my father said to me, 'Go and see him, and see if he can ... we'll make him a partner. We'll go halves to give him a job'. So I went to see him and then father went to see him, and he decided to join me, and it became Harry Eames & Company. And he's probably the hardest worker that I ever met in my life. First of all, he started about five o'clock in the morning every day, 'til about seven at night. Saturdays he started at two o'clock in the morning and worked 'til about two. And being ambitious I had to keep up and there's no way I could keep up with him. He taught me how to cut the meat. And then, I'll show you the book later. There's a story. My daughter interviewed him and he gave ... wrote out a story about how we offered him - father and I offered him a job. And so we were partners and I had to ... and that's probably the hardest, physically hardest time of my life at the time. And I would have been about twenty, twenty-one.

Was he Jewish?

No, no. They were very Australian. And when you read the story in his own words, you can see how Australian he is. He's fair dinkum.

And how long did that partnership last?

That lasted about, roughly, about a year and a half. And then I had ... that's where the story starts to answer your question. I went to Daylesford with some friends in a truck, and on the way back we had an accident and I had a shoulder broken, a broken bone in the shoulder. Or a strain or whatever it was. But I had to have my arm in a sling. My sister nearly ... in fact she died from that eventually. You know, the gristle that you have back here, she just ... she ... for months she had to lie between two sandbags on the floor, 'til it heals. And there's about eight of us in the truck ... we were going ... that got hurt. So I couldn't work in the butcher's shop. Can't work with one arm. My father said to me, 'Will you come with me to the market, and learn about buying cattle?' So I joined my father buying cattle and buying sheep, buying lambs. And it's ... I followed him, and I used to write down what he bought. And by that time we were already getting bigger, which is another story. And at the same time, after ... so the market lasted from about eight o'clock in the morning 'til about two o'clock in the afternoon. At two o'clock my father had contract slaughter men doing the slaughtering for us, for the cattle that he was buying and sheep that he was buying. So he said, after he'd finished at the market, 'Go and learn how to be a slaughter man'. So I'd go up the slaughterhouse in Flemington Road, and work there alongside the other men to learn how to take the hides off and all that. And it's not very hard. It's hard work, but you don't have to have brains for that. You have to have strength. And so I worked for about three or four months there and learned about slaughtering. Then that gave me the opportunity to see that there's a wholesale market. And I saw that we were doing kosher meat, and the kosher meat, it's only the forequarter you're allowed to have. The hindquarters are not allowed because there's too much blood in it, and most of the Jewish laws are health laws. And when it's killed kosher it means that it's much, much stricter than inspection done ordinarily by normal standards. And particularly the lungs. They blow up the lungs to see if there was any air when the animal was killed. They blow it up and it's rejected, because it could be tuberculosis. So if the part was rejected it had to be sold and the hindquarters had to be sold. The hindquarters can be eaten but they've got to take all the veins out and there's a lot of veins in the hindquarter. And so the only place it's used is in Israel, because they have no other chance to get rid of it and they didn't have things like steaks or anything like that, it was just meat, which is used in stews. And so I had to ... I thought that was being sent to agents, which were in North Melbourne. There was a meat hall where people like us used to send their meat, and it was sold on commission. Agents were selling it. And that was quite profitable. And then I said to my father, 'Why don't you let me buy a truck?' I was still working for all the brothers, out at the old company. 'And I will try and sell them wholesale, and make more money'. So I talked to uncles. Yes, everybody agreed. In those days, a truck cost about a hundred dollars ... a hundred pounds, and with twenty pounds deposit you had a truck. So I bought the first truck and I went raound looking for customers. I found the customers within weeks and started selling wholesale meat. Now that built up. Within a year it built it up to three trucks. And my head got a bit swollen, because I was making more than the five partners put together. And I said ... that's when I said I wanted a percentage of the business.

And my father said, 'You're my son, I can't give it to you', although he was the leader. 'But you had better ask uncle'. I went to uncle, he said, 'I'll give you one percent the same as your brother gets'. My brother was a hard worker, I wasn't. I said, 'I don't one percent, I want ten percent'. He said, 'You're not going to get it'. So that's when I said to my father, 'I'm leaving. I'm going to ...' By that time I had about forty pounds saved up and I said I wanted my forty pound back. I can buy a deposit on a truck, and I've got enough money to trade and I already know the business. I know how much profit I can make. And father understood that and father said, 'Well if you are really going to be successful, the family's going to break up and then there'll be no Smorgon family anymore'. So he says, 'I'm coming with you'. And we ... Eric, my brother said, 'I want to be with you too', because father tried to fix up a partnership with one of the uncles. In the end my brother and sister - they wanted to be with us. So we then stood it up, each one. My father put up one fifth part. We still stayed friends. We used to buy cattle together. We used to buy sheep together. That's what I was telling the story before about my uncle and my dispute with him, over that knife.

[end of tape]

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