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End of an era, as quintessential businessman passes on

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Many say that everything they know about business they learned from the old-school business icon Eric Ellerine. But early on Monday morning, when for so many decades he would be heading for work, he passed away at the age of 90.

Ellerine, who won the Lifetime Achiever Award at the 2021 Absa Jewish Achiever Awards, was still going into the office every day until a few months ago at the end of a 74-year business career.

And until not long ago, no big deal would go through Ellerine Bros without being run through him.

He was always the first in the office and the last out, and for many years, if his daughter Dionne Ellerine Hirschowitz – whom he eventually handed the reins of the business to – wasn’t in by 07:00, he would call to find out why.

“He was the quintessential businessman, a mensch, and the last in his era. Eric’s success in business and family life is a tribute to who and what Eric was,” Colin Datnow, the group chairperson of the Chevrah Kadisha, said of him in a video at the Jewish Achievers event. “He has been gracious and magnanimous in his support for the less privileged and the aged.”

Dionne, the director of Ellerine Bros and chief executive of the Ellerine Trust, said her father had an “old-world charm” and really liked to look after the next generation and instil the wisdom that he had learned over the years.

He didn’t play favouritism at work. Even Dionne was expected to sign in and out every day for many years. “There was many a day I took unpaid leave because G-d forbid, I didn’t sign in!” she said when her dad won Lifetime Achiever.

“My dad was tougher on me than other people. However, he was a fair boss, and treated everyone with respect and friendliness no matter who they were,” she said.

Ellerine was born and raised in Johannesburg, attending Athlone Boys High. Born to emigrants from Latvia, he came from humble beginnings.

At the age of 16, he decided to start a business with his Barmitzvah money – all 100 pounds of it. Having invested it when he received, it had grown by eight pounds.

He knew his parents couldn’t afford to send him to university, so when he heard of a shop that had become vacant at Germiston Station, he grabbed it, creating Eric’s Furnishers in 1950.

His mother insisted that he had to finish matric, so he started his business in July, and took trams and trains to Damelin College night school and completed his matric.

He had learned the fundamentals of the furniture business working on weekends in his father’s store. Ellerine believed that opening his first store was well timed because the old Germiston township was being demolished and a new one created nearby. “People needed tables, chairs, stoves, and other big items for their homes,” he said. His first sale was a stove for the equivalent of R15. The buyer had the equivalent of only R10, so he took that, and the customer agreed to pay off the balance every week.

His reasoning was that with her down payment, he could buy another stove immediately, a small amount of the rest covered expenses, and then some. Many see this as the beginning of credit in the retail industry.

Ellerine’s target market was the lower income black market. The formula was to offer low mark ups that undercut the competition and attracted customers, using the same logic that worked with his first customer.

“My first customer came in every week to pay, and once her stove was paid off, she bought a table, and so it went on,” Ellerine said.

He brought his younger brother, Sydney, into the business, whom he referred to as his “true partner – we shared everything and did everything together”.

The business kept growing, and the Ellerines opened more shops, now under the name of “Ellerines Furnishers”. When Eric and Sydney eventually retired, they had 630 retail stores around Africa, and they went from initially employing six people to 8 500.

They also opened training centres, which were particularly important to Ellerine as he believed in helping people better themselves.

As his company was growing, so was his family. In 1955, Eric met Rhona Levinstein at Cyrildene Shul. Three and a half years later, they married, and went on to have four girls together – Lana, Jodene, Nicole, and Dionne.

Ellerine’s biggest regret was not spending enough time with his girls. Every morning, he would leave home, shouting out, “Bye goggies [his nickname for his daughters]!” and came home for dinner in the evening, shouting, “Hi goggies!” In spite of this, he made a point of always being home for dinner, and not bringing work home. In his time out, he would enjoy sport. “I was never a good sportsman, but I was a keen one,” he said.

But much like sport, Ellerine enjoyed his career, and believed that to succeed in business, “you have to be passionate about what you’re doing, and be hands on and lead from the front”.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. anon

    Dec 7, 2023 at 5:07 pm

    A true icon. Wishing his family long life. What a life!

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