Geoff Tollman with some of his grandchildren, 1997
When I arrived in Israel aged 29 in December 1960 I never imagined that I would go back into business and one day open a store. I believed that this would be the last thing that Israel needed. My late mother said, when I left South Africa, that she was not worried about my ability to earn a living, that like a cat thrown up into the air I would always land on my feet. I had in fact prepared a long list of options, from being a beach photographer to opening a driving school. I was idealistic and with an open mind I wanted to contribute and raise my children in the democratic Jewish state of Israel. I was certainly not chasing money. If I had been I would never have left South Africa.
Durban, my home town, was a beach holiday resort all year round. The photographer had a small hut on the beach, around which he would hang the previous day’s pictures of holiday-makers and beach-lovers. What could be better? I loved the sea and photography was one of my favorite hobbies.
I had grown up in an atmosphere where my mother was active in WIZO and where I was dispatched as a 10 year old to sell trees for the Keren Kayemet forests in Palestine. We were all very active in youth movements. Ours was Habonim – the builders - like the Boy Scouts, but with a Zionist philosophy. In 1948/9 my brother Ted spent a year in Israel being educated for a future as a Zionist youth leader. My mother was in Israel to celebrate the new state’s first anniversary celebrations.
I met my first wife Henya, an Israeli, in South Africa. She was 19, very different from the young 'Jewish princesses' in Durban. She had been brought out to S. Africa by an ex- Israeli uncle with the promise of a piano. He had wisely sent her to an academy for Hebrew teachers. As a very bright pupil in Israel, it was not surprising that she should receive her teaching diploma in one year instead of four. When offered a job to teach in Durban she grabbed it. She arrived in Durban well armed with the names of leading members of the community. In less than a month she was singing the latest Hebrew songs at a community concert.
My Uncle Aaron Beare, my mother’s youngest brother, was on her list. On Sunday morning David, Aaron’s eldest son and my close friend, would always be enjoying the surf together with me on the Durban beach and we would return to “The Farm”, my Uncle Aaron’s very beautiful estate, for lunch. It was fairly high up in the Valley of a Thousand Hills, with breathtaking views. The young crowd were milling around the very large patio, listening to music and chatting. The adult group was sitting in a semicircle near the swimming pool where Henya was entertaining them with stories about Israel. The British soldiers with their red berets would come into their home during the day or night searching for hidden arms. The Israeli children used to tease them, singing the beautiful Israeli song Calaniyot (beautiful red wild flowers). The soldiers would pretend to chase them and the children would all scatter.
This was the first time I had met an Israeli girl. I was then twenty four years old, a young but mature business person, and a minority partner in a new retail furniture company that I had been invited to set up and develop by a successful retail furniture group. I was an eligible bachelor ready to settle down. She was an orphan with a tragic background, intelligent, and on her own. Once we decided to get married my mother, Annie Tollman, took her under her wing and assisted her in preparations for the wedding. Unfortunately, from the outset it was a difficult marriage which eventually broke up. A year later we visited Israel for a holiday, for me to understand more about her background. Suffice to say she had been snatched from her mother by a dominant grandmother when she was six months old. I felt I had to meet her family and her friends. All this as part of an effort to improve our relationship. We were there for a month, long enough for me to fall in love with the country. After the birth of Nadia, our daughter, my mind was made up to raise my children in the new Jewish state.
My partners were not at all happy about this idea of making my future life in Israel, nor was Henya. Nevertheless, they gave me a year's leave on full pay, leaving my shares intact on condition that I return to South Africa and work for a month, in the hope that I would get this Israeli bug out of my system. If my idea was still to make my life in Israel they would buy back my shares.
In January 1961 we arrived at the ulpan, a school for immigrants to learn Hebrew. Families were each given a small apartment simply furnished with iron beds, coir mattresses, a table and chairs and a cot for Nadia. Three meals a day were provided - very basic but sufficient. An icebox was an option which we were happy to accept.
Israel needed immigrants and we paid 500 Israel lira per month for the package. This was the equivalent at that time of $166, which also included six hours of daily Hebrew tuition as well as a nursery school for Nadia. My ulpan was situated in Dora, a suburb of Netanya, a town with beautiful beaches. I had a lot of time to devote to one-year-old Nadia who loved the sea.
I had brought with me a few interesting factory catalogues of Danish furniture producers whom I had visited a few years earlier. With time on my hands, I found many fellow immigrants interested in my catalogues. Furniture and other luxury products could not be imported into Israel at that time, but immigrants setting up home were given the right to bring in what they needed. Word spread and in a short time I found real interest in my Danish collection. I established contact with a large Danish forwarding company and created a system of personal import. The immigrant as importer, and we as the factories' agent arranging the consolidation of the various factories into a single shipment for each immigrant order.
With the successful arrival of the three first “ulpan” orders, it was apparent that we had a potential business. I ran a small advertisement in two immigrant information sheets and the word spread. Shipments with two or three client orders were arriving every month. The client would clear the goods through the port and I would assist in unpacking and assembling the furniture. Most items would arrive unassembled, which would both ensure their safety and keep the volume and freight cost to a minimum. My partner, who looked after the administrative side of the business, was also a South African from Durban, Chaim Hadany, who was twice my age.
After finishing my ulpan I had found a job as advertising and public relations officer at the biggest producer and exporter of car and truck tires in Israel, exporting to more than forty countries. The company, Alliance, sent me to visit our South African importer who introduced me to his biggest clients. On his behalf I opened a branch in Durban where I was well connected. In the evenings and over weekends I took care of the immigrant furniture business.
In 1963 the then Israeli minister of commerce and industry, Pinchas Sapir, decided to open the country to imports in order to provide stimulation and competition to local industry. To protect local industry he imposed an import tax of 100%, on the total landed cost. I had enjoyed considerable success selling to immigrants with my catalogues and enjoyed a growing reputation for both the quality and the design of Danish furniture, and for the reliability of our small company. What I did not know was whether there were Israelis who would be willing to pay double the price the immigrant was paying. In practice, results proved that I had no need to worry. As things worked out, we found that Israelis would not compromise on an item on which they had set their hearts.
In my two years in Israel I had learnt that Israelis were wonderful farmers, fine soldiers, but with all the wrong ideas of retailing. They had no idea of the importance of service, of a transparent minimal price policy, of good display, of effective lighting, and that by showing price tags and maintaining one’s price one was creating credibility, and that good after-sale service was in a company’s own best interests. I immediately set about finding suitable premises. I received friendly well-intentioned warnings from Israeli friends that selling at the marked price was not the way business was conducted in Israel. Notwithstanding, I stuck to my guns since all my past experience had proven to me that transparency, credibility and good customer service were the keys to success.
We named the company Danish Interiors. The first showroom was situated in a 200 square meter semi-basement of a residential building in a central location, 26 Trumpeldor Street in Tel Aviv. We placed our first showroom order at the annual Danish furniture fair in Fredericia, a small Danish town in Jutland. The floor plan was designed to ensure a clean open look. The items included Arne Jacobsen’s Egg chair and stool, many items by Hans Wegner including his famous “China” arm chair, chairs and tables by Finn Juhl and Borge Mogensen, all sought after collector items today.
At the festive opening in Tel Aviv, the guests included the Tel Aviv mayor, the Danish Ambassador and many local architects. In addition, the export manager of France and son Christian Engel, one of our most important Danish suppliers, had flown out to be with us. There was a wonderful atmosphere - we were all young and excited by the overwhelming success.
The Israeli press gave us excellent coverage and the result was a daily flow of scores of visitors. It went on for two weeks, as if we had opened a Picasso exhibition. What we displayed was a small fraction of our range. Catalogues continued to play an important role in the business. It was impossible to attend seriously to a client without being besieged with questions from all sides, it was clear that we had to find a solution.
We put out a press release that in the public interest the store would be open to the general public on three days each week. On the other three days it would be closed, and open only to clients who had made an appointment. Each of the four members of the sales team had an interior design background. I had planned an intensive crash course lasting a week of the companies we represented before the opening. The four sales staff each worked with a diary. On the days we were open, the clients who showed serious interest were invited to make an appointment for one of the days we were closed. Only in this way were we able to give every client uninterrupted attention. This worked so well that it was extended for another three months.
An Argentinian client who had placed a large immigrant order approached us with a special request. He told us that a young girl from Buenos Aires who had been living happily in Israel was now being forced to return home. She was an only daughter who had completed an interior design degree in Brazil, and then come on holiday to Israel for three months. She was having a wonderful time, loved Israel, registered in an ulpan, and kept postponing her return. Eventually her parents came to fetch their “missing daughter”.
After some tough talking with her parents, it was agreed that unless she found a suitable job within two weeks she would return home with them. Our Argentinian client’s approach to Danish Interiors had some logic and an understandable amount of emotion. Israel in 1965 was a country where people went out of their way to help others, and although we were not looking for staff, it was agreed that our administrative director Chaim Hadany would interview her and if he saw possibilities he would then introduce her to me.
My desk was in the corner at the far end of the store, which gave me a clear view in all directions. I saw a very petite young lady on high heels, wearing a fashionable, yet business-like suit in a beige check, enter the store and take a seat on a sofa in the front part of the shop alongside the director. He was an older man - then about 60. I should add that he was always polite but not venturesome by nature. After 15 minutes I saw her heading for the door and instinctively knew that if I did not stop her that would be the end of the story. I shouted out, “Don’t go, I want to speak to you.” I waved her over and we started talking. Apart from limited Hebrew and even less English it soon became clear to me that she was highly intelligent, cultured, motivated, charming and fluent in Spanish, and my instincts told me that we had a star in the making. Tamara joined the company the following week, and my life has never been the same.
In 1969 we exchanged vows. From the outset she befriended my three children, and over the past forty four years the three older children have bonded with the two younger children, and we have succeeded in creating in Israel, a devoted family of 5 children and 17 grand children.
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