The Wittner Heritage Series | Est. 1912
It was with great delight that I recently read the story in the Herald Sun about the Wittner shoe family. It is where I started my working life.
I started as a cadet in the warehouse at 35 Sturt Street, South Melbourne working under Mr. Bert O’Loughlin in 1962. There were two senior storemen, Wes and Humphrey as well as Hendie, the delivery driver who delivered the stock to every store and drove an old non airconditioned white Bedford. I remember he had to wear a tie no matter how hot it was!
I was lucky during my time at Wittner as I would meet Mr. David Wittner, Mr. Arnold Wittner, Mr. Hayman Wittner and his brother, who at that time was the children’s buyer.
I worked in the warehouse for two years and completed twelve months training before I was allowed to go to a shop. I was allowed to work Saturday mornings in the Bourke Street shop in the city. I could not serve customers. My role was to put shoes back in their boxes with tissue paper and back into the stock behind the scenes so that the senior sales people could keep selling.
In the article it stated that Wittner were in department stores. In 1965-66 they went into Walton’s Bourke Street store with men’s footwear on the ground and ladies on the second floor.
I am most grateful to both Mr. David Wittner and Mr. Arnold Wittner as they sent me back to school at night at Taylors in the city where I completed fifth form (Year 11). They also sent me to elocution classes so that I could speak clearly to customers. That lasted six months. Whilst working in the warehouse I was sent to Beggwood’s factory for two (2) weeks to learn how shoes were made, then two (2) weeks at Saxone to learn how welts cement P.V.C. stitch downs and welt stivows?? were made. I learnt how skin hides became glassy kid pumps and brogues lengths – heel to toe and heel to ball. All paid for by Wittner.
The first shop I worked in full time was Wittner in Leeds St, Footscray under Mr. Don Grey. Mr. Arnold told me it would be training, and Mr. Grey would pass on his views in six months’ time. Before my six months were up Mr. Arnold left and I could tell it sent shock waves through Wittner. The older managers and staff could not believe it. I can always remember selling the Doctor Arnold shoes welts with toe caps and stitches inside the heels. I passed Mr. Grey’s tests and then had to interview with Mr. David. Etiquette was very strict. You would knock on the door, wait thirty seconds and then Mr. David would open the door and ask you to come in. You were wetting yourself you were so nervous! He told me how pleased he was with everything I had done and informed me I was to go to the Camberwell men’s only store for two months then on to the Flinders Street store.
When the then Governor General Cowan, a relative of the Wittner’s, visited the shop in Camberwell with his wife and children everything came to a stop. Everything had to be perfect! I would carry their shoes to the car at the end of their visit.
At the Flinders Street store, I worked under Mr. Bertie Blyborg. This was when managers started buying stock for their own store. Bert was the head men’s buyer and would choose the range where upon the reps would go out and visit all the stores. It was here you could make good money. Mr. David introduced “Spiffs” – five shillings, ten shillings and a pound. Lines we could not move had a sticker put on them showing the amount you would earn for selling them. A customer would come in pointing out a shoe that they liked and we would bring out the one with a sticker on it saying how sorry we were for not having his size in the shoe he liked. Bang! They became good sellers all of a sudden.
It was during my time at Flinders Street that I became a qualified shoe fitter. Another night course paid for by Wittner. If you wanted to improve even though they were hard, Wittner would always help you. The last course I did will make you laugh. We had the Post Master General’s department (Telecom now Telstra) come out and teach us how to use the all new wall phone! Wittner were streets ahead of our rivals. It took two hours to complete the training.
When decimal currency was due to come in, we would spend one hour a week learning to convert pounds and shillings to decimals. We arrived each Saturday from 8.00am until 9.00am to learn how to do it. It started in January and ended in February 1966 the week before change over. You also mention “online”. We had “online” back then too. The rags we used to clean the shoes hung “on the line” in the kitchen.
I was the first male to be called up for National Service from Wittner. I served two years of army service. After completing two years you had a week to report to your workplace to tell them you were coming back. Heather who was still at the front desk, phoned Mr. David and then told you to wait. As before when Heather said “David will see you now”, you knocked on his door, waiting nervously before he opened the door and asked you to come in. Nothing had changed.
In closing I also was part of the first Wittner television advertisement with Mr. David and Bob Horshall from Channel 7. It was filmed in the Dorcas Street South Melbourne studios. My claim to fame in the ad was filling the tables with shoes of every style, size and colour for ladies, men’s and children emptying the boxes of shoes for their annual sale whilst shoppers were snapping up the bargains with oohs and aahs! I met Happy Hammond from the Tarax show and was given a bottle of Tarax lemonade to take back to the warehouse with me. That was something to crow about!
Mr. David was very good to me and as luck would have it, the senior salesman at Flinders Street had left so I came back as a senior salesman. I left Wittner three to four months later with great memories of Mr. David, Mr. Arnold, Mr. Hayman, his brother and all the great Wittner staff.