Eric Ellerine, the retail icon and quintessential businessman
Eric Ellerine is a leader, a mensch, a man for all occasions, and an all-around quintessential businessman with a happy disposition, a video about him at the 2021 Absa Jewish Achiever Awards declares.
The 88-year-old veteran business leader said he was humbled to receive the Kirsh Family Lifetime Achievement Award in honour of Helen Suzman.
“Eric’s success in business and family life is a tribute to who and what Eric is,” says Colin Datnow, the group chairperson of the Chevrah Kadisha. “My own experiences with Eric have been magnificent and he has been gracious and magnanimous in his remarkable support for the less privileged and the aged.
“There were 14 other furniture shops in Germiston when I opened my store [at the age of 16] but my prices were way below the other ones,” recalls Ellerine on accepting his award. “I was giving customers such good service and price that they were falling over themselves. We did a lot of business, getting off to a flying start, and it snowballed. But by that time, I needed help and my brother Syd, two years younger than me, joined me.”
In 1969, when Eric’s Furnishers was a holding company for a group of retail furniture stores with 18 outlets operating in the non-white market, it decided to go public and be listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.
“We issued shares at R1.90 per share,” says Ellerine. “Before I knew what was happening, the share was trading at R4.40, and it built up quickly. Between 1989 and 1992, we opened up a new store every 11 and a half days throughout Southern Africa. And by the year 2000, we had been in the business for 50 years. We decided that it was enough. You would have thought that after 50 years, it would be sad to leave. But it wasn’t, we were proud to leave because we knew that we left it in good hands.”
Ellerine said he felt confident and happy, having handed over his company to his youngest daughter, Dionne.
“She’s my boss now because I’ve retired. I’m now the non-executive chairman and she’s the chief executive. So, she gives me the help that I used to give her.”
Dionne says her father has an “old-world charm” and still goes to work in his tie and sits at his desk with his lunchbox. “He’s always educating people,” she says. “He really does like to look after the next generation and instil the wisdom that he’s learned over the years.”
Nick Imerman, Ellerine’s grandson, says, “Eric is much more than just the regular old grandfather. He’s really a mentor and one of the most humble people you’ll ever meet.”
Ellerine came from a humble background and learned what struggling felt like, though his family was never short of food. “We were happy with my mom, my dad, a brother, and I. But it also taught us that you have to share in life. And once you’ve got more than what you need, it’s pure greed if you want to continue by just building up your stake, your money.”
Paul Salomon, the head of Stockdale Street, says, “To be able to watch someone like Eric operate with such integrity and to achieve such success, it’s a real shining light and an inspiration to everyone in business to show them the way that one can achieve success and still maintain complete integrity.”
James Hirschowitz, Ellerine’s grandson, says, “Eric has the most positive outlook on life. He’s constantly breaking out into song and dance.”
Danna Yates, Ellerine’s granddaughter, says, “He’s literally dedicated his whole life. So, if it’s a Lifetime Achievement Award, it goes to him because this is his life.”