Me and Mr. Jones

My first contact with Fletcher Jones must have been towards the end of 1934 when I called on his store as a representative of Burns, Philp and Co.  I recall how impressed I was by the appearance of the place and its window displays and interior layout.  This was something of a surprise to me as I had been briefed by the accountant before leaving on my trip of the Western District on the credit standing of the various potential customers.  Burns Philp had done very little business in the Western District prior to my visits.  FJ’s credit wasn’t rated too high as he had previously had to come to some arrangement with his creditors.  (At this time there were many storekeepers in the country with low credit ratings, according to the accountant who no doubt obtained his information from an organisation who sought and supplied this information for a fee).  When I returned to Melbourne I was able to tell the accountant that I found it difficult to believe some of this information and I was later to learn of the efforts that FJ made to meet all of his obligations in full. 

Disregarding the accountant’s warning, I proceeded to show my samples and make the best possible sales.  I found that FJ had his staff organised in such a way that most of the senior staff had a responsibility for some section of the merchandise.  The person who was responsible for most the lines that I carried was Paddy Down who looked at the samples and, if impressed would make a selection of items and then present to FJ, who would approve or discard.  This was how I made my first contact with him.  As buyers, FJ and his staff were individualists.  Quality was their keynote and they would never accept the standard or usual assortment of designs, which made up a range of such things as ties or half-hose – always nominating their own colour selection.  They also had the habit of ordering ties in ¼ dozen lots, thereby getting the largest possible assortment (ties usually had 4 designs to the dozen).

Another thing, FJ always had a thing about buttons.  He would always give the buttons on shirts and other garments a great twist, which invariably removed them, thereby rendering the samples useless for future showing!  One learnt form experience to make sure that all buttons were well sewn on when visiting the Western District! I must have got a reasonable order on my first visit, as I had to do some talking to the accountant on my return.  I was able to win him over with his decision to watch the account on further visits.  I never heard any more from him on this subject.

On a subsequent visit, FJ mentioned that he was hoping to go to Japan but was unable to get a ship’s booking at a time to suit him – one that would fit in with his business requirements.  I thought that perhaps my firm, through our Shipping Department might be able to help him as they had two ships trading with Japan.  He agreed to let me find out what I could do for him after obtaining his needs.  I rang our travel manager who assured me that he could do something and to ring again in a couple of hours.  We were able to give him a booking at the time he required.  I believe this was the start of a friendship that grew.  On subsequent visits, I was usually called up to the office for a yarn and afternoon or morning tea.  Fletcher was a great conversationalist and he ranged over a great many subjects.  I learnt much of his trading policies and ideas; his views on other methods of trading; of his meeting with Kagawa and his visit to Japan.  FJ also had very good staff and it was always a pleasure to visit his store. 

We developed several good accounts in Warrnambool and Fletcher’s great rival was another storekeeper, Harry Taylor.  Both were friends out of business, both good Methodists with philosophical turns of mind.  Harry’s business was in general drapery, good staff relations, giving good value to the public - both traded for cash. 

There was always one difficulty - Fletcher wouldn’t buy anything that one sold to Harry and Harry would always ask that I didn’t sell any of this design to Fletcher.  It took some sorting out.  Harry was also a good conversationalist, but liked to interview his travellers late in the afternoon; sometimes he would talk on until after 7pm and one would miss the evening meal at the hotel.  In those days, dinner at a hotel in the country was always 6-7pm – after that one would have to find a café.

In 1939, I had a bad car accident at Bacchus Marsh and I always remember the wonderful letter that Fletcher Jones wrote to me.  It was a pleasant surprise to learn that a leading shopkeeper should so remember and be concerned for a traveller when they had so many callers in their business who would be much more important than my representation.

The name of Fletcher Jones was well known throughout the Western District and this dated from the pre-shop days when he was a hawker operating throughout the area – sometimes in local halls, at other times in a marquee.  When I called on him as a traveller he used to relate some of these experiences to me.  One of his gimmicks was to play his cornet in the evening of his arrival in the township, thereby announcing his arrival. He soon became known by this method.

The local traders in the larger towns were not always happy about visiting hawkers and usually brought pressure to bear on the local council to prevent these outsiders from obtaining use of the local hall.  At Hamilton, he had a friend who resented this attitude and allowed him to pitch his marquee in a vacant block along side his place of business.  This friend was Mr. Sableberg who had a hardware business. FJ was most grateful for this help, as Hamilton was one of his best areas. 

After some years of hawking, he decided it was time to settle down in one place and selected Warrnambool as the most suitable place – although he told me that it wasn’t on his usual hawking run.  However, he considered it as offering the best opportunity for the type of business he had in mind. 

He went on to make the name of ‘Fletcher Jones’ synonymous with that of Warrnambool.  I well recall his signs on the post-and-rail fences on all roads leading to the town.  So many ‘miles to Warrnambool where Fletcher Jones Suits come from'.

Having served in the Militia since compulsory training days and having attained the rank of Captain, it was only natural that I should join the A.I.F. when Australia entered the war in October 1939.  It took some weeks after entry to get things moving, so I was able to make a final trip throughout most of my territory.  It was interesting to hear the remarks of many of my customers; most thought that it was a rather silly thing to do; some said the war will only last for six months; a few thought it was the right thing to do.  FJ, after his experience in the First World War had become something of a pacifist, which was quite understandable, as I now know how he would feel.  Indeed anyone who has been through a war should feel the same way. 

Knowing that I was an Officer in the Militia, he used to discuss war and peace with me from time to time when I called on him.  He wasn’t sure that I had done the right thing, but nevertheless wished me well as indeed most others did – more especially the women.  Even my boss at Burns Philp, who had been a Captain in the Black Watch during the First War wasn’t very pleased when I told him that I was going into the A.I.F.  Nevertheless, he came around and gave me a good send-off.

When I returned from the war after six years I rejoined my old firm of Burns Philp and Co, but did not return to country travelling, being engaged in the city area.  In 1946, most goods that were worthwhile were still being sold on allocation, so it was really a matter of keeping in touch with the customers and working out allocations.  I found the department not what it was in pre-war days; the former departmental manager had left and had started up in business on his own account, taking with him the best of the old staff.

My home was with my people in Ballarat and I returned home each weekend and stayed at the C.T.A. Club during the week.  The Travellers Club was a flourishing place in those days and it was always a problem to retain the booking from week to week.  Bed and Breakfast was 8/6d per day and it had a first class dining room.  Several other Ballarat Travellers were doing the same thing as myself, so we formed a happy group at the Club.  At dinner in the evening, we were usually able to attract some interesting people to our table – most country businessmen were our old customers.  It was then that I again came into contact with Fletcher Jones, who was a regular visitor to the Club. 

I soon learnt that FJ had launched into the Trouser Manufacturing business and was making the best garments then available in the country.  He had himself become something of a traveller and was distributing his product through selected stores in the Eastern States.  He was always most interesting to talk with and listen to, and was most sought after as a table companion.  We were always assured of an informative and entertaining evening when he joined us. 

No doubt at the start of 1946 he was preparing the way to the opening of his store in Melbourne.  Later he invited me to inspect a store on the corner of Collins and Market Sts where he was preparing to open his business.  It was a most unusual place for a retail outlet, being right out of the business area and it didn’t even look like a retail shop.  I had my doubts as to its possibilities, but as first-class goods were in such short supply – and with so many men being discharged from the forces – I thought it might take on.  FJ was most enthusiastic and I’m sure worked on his ‘mouse trap’ theory. 

The opening of the store was a tremendous success with queues forming and awaiting the opening of the doors to purchase his trousers.  The store soon became the talk of the town.  City store managers found it hard to believe that a man from the country could take the city by storm, and be such a success in the wrong type of store in the wrong part of the city.  Each day the store would sell out of stock and at times close down until more stocks arrived from Warrnambool.  This situation went on for several years before factory production came anywhere near meeting the demand. 

Shortly after the opening of the Melbourne shop, I was approached by Mr. Jones and invited to join him at Warrnambool.  The offer came at the time I was considering an offer from Mr. J. W. Outtrim of Daylesford to purchase his business in that town.  Prior to the war, I had called on Mr. Outtrim as a traveller and knew the shop quite well; it was the best drapery business in the district.   He was anxious to retire and was looking for what he considered a suitable person to take over from him; he did not require any ingoing and was prepared to sell to me for the value of the stock – it was certainly a very good offer.   How to raise the money was concerning me when FJ came along with his offer. 

FJ had always impressed me with his personality and his philosophy of life and theories of business, which we had discussed on many occasions, both before and after the war.  I told him of Mr. Outtrim’s offer, but the salary FJ offered was most attractive and the added prospects far exceeded what appeared to be possible as a proprietor of a country shop. 

The offer FJ made to me was to join him as his right hand man, with the view to taking on the management of the business.  He told me that he was anxious to slow down and gradually to ease out; at the time he was working too hard and required some relief.  My immediate response was to ask him why there wasn’t someone on his present staff who could help him in this position.  However, he replied that he did not consider any of them who could put into operation the ideas he wished to implement.  He also mentioned that he had discussed such an appointment with his staff and that they welcomed the idea of me taking on such an appointment.  I was acquainted with most of his senior staff through my contacts with them in my country travelling days. 

We discussed his proposal and ideas at considerable length.  He explained why he had come into the trouser manufacturing business as a wartime control; his association with the firm of Vicars; his desire to create employment for his old staff returning from the war; his anxiety to implement a profit sharing scheme with all the employees.  We discussed quality and service and profits, and the attitude of manufacturers and retailers on this subject.  He explained the plans for the building of the new factory and of the problems associated with it.  We talked about staff amenities and the morality of incentive in the clothing industry.  The discussions covered a very full range of subjects but, above all, underlying all the talks was his great desire to establish a new relationship in industry.  He firmly believed that those who take part in the making of a product should share in the profit derived there from and not be given to outside shareholders; he also believed that the consumer should also benefit from the increased efficiency and quality of the product.  FJ always lived close to his God and he was sure that what he was trying to do was the only right course for him to take.

I was in full accord with the philosophy that he was proclaiming and it was with these in mind that I finally accepted his offer to join him in his venture.  At his request for a few moments, we offered up a prayer that we would be able to fulfil the undertaking. 

In April of 1947, I severed my connection with Burns Philp and Co and journeyed to Warrnambool to take up my new position.  The factory in those days was situated above the Man’s Shop in Liebig St; with an annex a few doors down the street.  Mr. Jones was away when I arrived, so I was somewhat surprised on entering the store to be welcomed by the old staff that I had known in pre-war days with the remark “oh are you back on your old travelling job – what are you going to try and sell us this time?”  I had expected that they were acquainted with the role that I was to take and their remarks set me back somewhat.  I ultimately saw Miss Betty Rust, the Secretary, who was apparently the only one who knew of my appointment. 

 

Wilma Williams shared this type written story.  She believes it is the story of Arthur Browne, who married Miss Betty Rust – FJs Secretary.  Betty was Wilma’s auntie. 

 

FJ trouser staff 1947 before the move to Pleasant Hill and at the time the author of 'Me and Mr. Jones' joined the staff. Ms Betty Rust is seated 6th from the left in the second row next to Fletcher Jones. Photo: Jones Family Collection
The Man's Shop with upstairs workroom. Corner Liebig and Koroit St. Warrnambool 1946.  Photo: Jones Family Collection
Inside the Man's shop in the late 30s.  Photo: Jones Family Collection
The Man's Shop with post war lights at night.  Photo: Jones Family Collection
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