When I was a young girl growing up in Perth, each year at Christmas, one of the TV stations would televise the Christmas Carols in Melbourne, which were held at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl. I wasn’t that keen on watching this, I was never a fan of carols, and, having on ever heard the name of the carols and not seen it in writing, I couldn’t understand why they were holding the Christmas Carols in a music bowl in Sydney if there were supposed to be hosting the show in Melbourne! Did I mention, I’m blonde?
Turns out Sidney Myer was a person.
In fact, he was a clever person. He emigrated (penniless) to Australia in 1899 and opened the first Myer store in Bendigo in 1900 at the tender age of just 22.
Upon arrival in Victoria, Sidney and his brother Elcon, briefly worked at a drapery store in Flinders Lane before opening the first Myer store in Bendigo in 1900. A second store followed in 1908 and it was their advertising and exciting promotions which drew in the crowds and earned them the loyalty of their customers.
Sidney bought a number of adjoining properties in Bourke Street by 1911 and on the site, built a department stored which he named The Myer Emporium. The Emporium was heaven for the modern woman. Myers was miles ahead of other retailers at the time, and as well as enticing customers from all walks of life, the advertising of visually appealing merchandise kept the crowds coming. This is the same store which continues to trade as the flagship store in Melbourne. Although the 1920’s saw the world facing economic depression, the Emporium remained strong and Sidney became a local hero through his acts of generosity.
In 1915, the first of the Myer factories opened. It was followed up with the first interstate store, in Adelaide, in 1928.
And in 1931, Sidney led the way with the Buy Australian Campaign to keep manufacturing jobs in Australia.
In 1939 however, Australia went to war. The new “Chief” of the Myer Emporium, Norman Myer (Sidney’s nephew), offered the facilities and resources of the business to be at the disposal of the government. Myer’s wool mills at Ballarat became a major supplier of clothing for the military. US forces occupied Myer’s dispatch facility in Carleton and their Lonsdale Street building. Team members too joined the war effort. Norman formed the Dug Out Club providing food and entertainment for more than 50,000 allied servicemen a week. Over 150 Myer volunteers acted as dance partners and hostesses staffing the club.
When things turned around in the 1950’s, Myer epitomised post-war Australia’s prosperity. In 1956 the first Myer Christmas Windows went on display in the Bourke Street store, a tradition which continues today.
The Chadstone store followed in 1960 and it continued to expand into the 70’s, with Myer branching into new opportunities. This included discount department stores, speciality fashion retailers, food outlets and ventures into land development, travel, finance and film production. Whenever the business expanded though, the profits were reinvested in the welfare of team members.
Myer acquired New South Wales department chain store Grace Brothers in 1983 which gave Myer prestigious real estate in capital cities throughout Australia. Then in 1985, Myer merged with Coles in what was known as the largest deal in Australian corporate history. The business continued to diversify and in 2009, it was floated on the Australian Stock Exchange.
There are now over 60 Myer stores across Australia. Something I bet Sidney never imaged when he first arrived in Australia.
Sidney was a violinist and he established free open-air concerts with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in the late 1920’s. During the depression years of the 1930’s Sidney also showed his philanthropic side – rather than terminating the employment of the works in his department store, he cut the wages of all staff, including himself. For the unemployed, he financed a Christmas dinner for 10,000 people at the Royal Exhibition Building in Carlton, which included a gift for every child.
His unexpected death in 1934 shocked the people of Melbourne. More than 100,000 mourners lined the streets to pay their final prospects to the funeral procession.