Imagine one of the country’s leading entrepreneurs has died and the evening TV news carries images of thousands of people lining the streets to bid a fond farewell. Unthinkable!
Well that was the effect Sidney Myer had when he died in 1934 at the age of 56. According to newspaper reports more than 100,000 mourners turned out along the seven mile route from Toorak to Box Hill Cemetery (Melbourne) to express their grief and affection.
Born in the small Jewish village of Kritchev in 1878, on the main road between Warsaw and Moscow, Myer was part of the great wave of migration of the late nineteenth century from the Old World to the New. It was a wave which did so much to shape and energise America and Australia in the twentieth century.
Fleeing the poverty and pogroms of Russia, Sidney Myer arrived in Melbourne in August 1899 and moved to Bendigo with his brother where they opened a small drapery.
Over the next decade the shop grew strongly, and in 1911, Myer decided to take the leap and open a store in Melbourne. The store eventually became known as the Myer Emporium and revolutionised retailing.
The business was built on exuberant marketing, an awareness of overseas fashions and trends, high standards of customer service and excellent employee morale.
Known as a caring employer, Myer came to see his staff as a community. He introduced practices unknown in the past and rare in the present, such as an in-store hospital and dental clinic.
It was during the 1920’s that Sidney Myer was able to give public expression – in a manner not seen before in Australia – to a generous, imaginative and courageous vision of commercial, civic and philanthropic leadership.
His first major gift was 25,000 Myer Emporium shares (worth 50,000 pounds) to the University of Melbourne in 1926. The gift reflected Myer’s respect for learning and culture, and his belief that education was the remedy for poverty.
Hospitals faced tremendous financial shortfall during the interwar period, and Sidney Myer made a number of substantial gifts to Melbourne’s major hospitals, including one of 8,000 pounds to the Children’s Hospital so that it would not have to close its inpatients wing.
In 1929 Sidney Myer funded a series of free outdoor concerts by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens. This event sparked a tradition that continues to this day, with annual concerts performed at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, itself a benefaction from Sidney Myer’s estate.
It was during The Depression that Myer made one of his most extraordinary gestures of generosity. On Christmas Day 1930 he invited destitute citizens to join him for Christmas dinner in Melbourne’s Exhibition Building.
Approximately 11,500 attended and the meal lasted from 10am until the late afternoon. Sidney Myer, along with other staff from the store, received all the guests and waited on them. Each child received a box of toys.
With the onset of The Depression Sidney Myer’s philanthropic activities became more strategic and included a view of how business and government might show greater leadership and responsibility.
He launched a public campaign urging people to buy goods manufactured in Australia. This was accompanied by a decision to lower salaries throughout The Myer Emporium rather than lay off employees. Myer’s urgings were commended but not adopted by government or the business community.
He published a letter in the press exhorting other employers to find work “for your less fortunate brethren … even if it hurts your treasury.”
Myer himself brought forward a 250,000 pound reconstruction of the Melbourne store against the advice of his financial advisers, and with little enthusiasm from his fellow directors. It was the only building undertaken in Melbourne at that time.
In 1931 Myer gave the government 10,000 pounds to give two weeks work to 1000 married men with families to construct the Yarra Boulevard. Sidney Myer’s final and largest gift was to set aside one tenth of his wealth, in perpetuity, for the charitable, philanthropic, and educational needs of “the community in which I made my fortune,” thus creating the Sidney Myer Charitable Trust, (now the Sidney Myer Fund).
It is estimated that Sidney Myer made public gifts to the value of more than 100,000 pounds (perhaps $5 million in today’s terms). He also made many private gifts.
The Myer Foundation was established by Sidney Myer’s sons, the late Kenneth Myer and Baillieu Myer, in 1959. It is now supported by three generations of Myer family members, and represents their continuing commitment to philanthropy.
Since their inception the Sidney Myer Fund and The Myer Foundation have made grants totalling more than $80 million (historical value), and average annual grants are made of $5-$8 million.
It is not simply through his philanthropy that Sidney Myer remains revered. He integrated his business, philanthropic and civic commitments in a way not seen before, and set a standard for individual and corporate citizenship which perhaps remains a benchmark in Australia.
Story contributed by the Myer Foundation