Freidman and Cohen History

This article comes from the Freiedman and Cohen that has been trading for over 100 years in the Helderberg Basin.

A young man by the name of Benjamin Friedman escaped from the pogroms in Russia and arrived from Lithuania at Cape Town in 1903. He managed to get a job at the docks in Cape Town where he worked for 2/- ( 20 cents) per day. After approximately six months he felt that as he had saved a little money and taught himself to speak a little English and Afrikaans he should try to start his own little business.He bought a bicycle for 10/- ( 1 Rand ) and cycled all the way from Cape Town past Goodwood, Parow, Bellville, Kuilsriver, Faure and Firgrove to Somerset West. At Somerset West he learned that AECI, or as it was then known the Cape Dynamite Factory, was being started and it would employ a large number of people.

He went to the Magistrate and for 2/ 6 ( 25 cents ) he obtained a general dealers license. He then hired a shop in Station Road, Somerset West ( where Mrs Sybil now has her furniture store ) and proceeded to Cape Town to purchase stocks.The wholesaler at that time was Messrs. JW Jagger & Co, who refused to open an account without references. This Mr Benjamin Friedman was unable to supply as he had never traded before and knew nobody in the trade. He then suggested that they send the order COD. He admits that he has never been able to establish what made him suggest that they send the order COD as he obviously would not have the money to release the order. However, he was a man of great faith and always said the Lord will provide.When he arrived at the station he found that by mistake they had not marked the goods COD.He took delivery, sold the goods and immediately went in to Jaggers to say that they had not sent the goods COD so he came to settle the account. They then opened an account for him and he was in business.

Two years later he married a Miss Anna Cohen, and his brother-in-law, Mr Shio Ben Cohen, joined him and they decided to open at the Strand. The Strand was then only a little fishing village and the sea used to push up at Spring tide, right up to where Friedman & Cohen is now. Mr Friedman bought the land where the shop is now situated, much to the amusement of the old residents, as they said the customers would need a boat to get to the shop.

A typical country store was built and had a little groceries, crockery and kitchenware, and dress materials. Behind the shop were Mr Cohen’s house, the stable and the stores.

In 1928 Mr Abe Friedman joined the firm. A few years later the great depression of 1933 took place. Business was extremely bad. Businesses were considered lucky if they could remain solvent. Unemployment was rife, and people were happy if they could get jobs as labourers on the roads and railways.During the great depression the partners decided that as in the days of Joseph when the seven fat years were followed by the seven lean years, so also this depression will be followed by a boom. They decided to enlarge the shop, to install new fittings and fixtures, and to turn the store into a departmental store, by opening a furniture department, a shoe department, and a showroom. Mrs Cohen ran the showroom at that time in one of the rooms in her house. This proved to be a very wise decision because on account of the depression all these improvements were carried out at a very low cost, and when the country kicked out of the depression, Friedman & Cohen was ready to enjoy the boom to its full extent.

In 1948 Friedman & Cohen bought an adjoining property which belonged to the Mochomovitz Bros. For 25 000 pounds ( R 50 000 ). This was the highest price that had ever been paid for any property at the Strand at that time. The highest price paid for a property before that was when Mr Benson Bosman bought the White House Hotel for 10 000 pounds (R 20 000 ) .I still remember so vividly when Mr Victor du Plessis, who was our father’s attorney for many many years, came into the store and said he wanted to talk to us privately. We went into the office and he said that he had been Mr Benjamin Friedman’s attorney for many many years. He knew how hard Mr Friedman had worked for his money and he was terribly upset to see that our father had hardly passed away and we were already wasting his money and that we must please cancel the sale.We assured Oom Duppie as we used to call him that we appreciated his concern very much indeed but that we were confident that our move was the correct one as the property joined ours and would be very useful if we one day wanted to extend. He was not the only one who felt we made a bad buy. Most of the property owners thought we were mad and were waiting for us to go insolvent.

In 1948 we decided to change our grocery department into a self-service supermarket, which included a butchery, vegetable and fresh fruit department.This was a very bold step, as self service supermarkets were absolutely unknown in the country, and although Stuttafords and OK Bazaar operated supermarkets successfully in the cities, the country folk are much more conservative. As we were the very first self-service supermarket in the country, we did not know whether it would be successful. However, we met with a lot of resistance from our customers, but overcame it by appointing two of our most friendly and capable assistants as hostesses, who helped the customers to choose their requirements from the shelves.

In 1958 we decided that the store had grown too small again and we decided to demolish the whole place, as well as the building bought from the Mochomovitz Bros., and build a three storey building which included a lift, the very first lift in the Strand. As a result of this we were able to enlarge our existing departments and to start many new departments. This rebuilding program again proved to be a wise one. The customers doubled and the business really prospered.

On the morning of 25 October 1973 at 00h30 Friedman & Cohen had a disastrous fire that gutted the whole building. It is impossible to describe the trauma of seeing 70 years of sweat, hard work, planning, failures and successes destroyed in few hours. This was even more so, as the fire could have been extinguished if the Strand had had a reasonable fire brigade instead of a little Land Rover. The Somerset West Municipality and AECI very kindly agreed to assist, but by the time they arrived it was too late.Fortunately the furniture department, which is a separate building, was not destroyed and in the morning we gathered there with all our staff. We advised our staff to go home to relax. And not to worry, as their jobs were safe, and to meet again the next morning. The next morning it was the same procedure and the day thereafter. On the Wednesday, Mr Sam Friedman, Mr Abe Friedman, Mr Avron Cohen and Mr Benjamin Friedman had a meeting where Mr Sam and Mr Abe told the boys that as they were in their sixties they did not have the energy to restart the business and thought we should sell the site. Avron said we will do all the work, just help us with the financial arrangements and Benjamin said how can you just allow a tradition and business of 70 years to disappear. After a long discussion we decided to call in the shopfitters. The staff were absolutely superb, and although we only took the decision on Wednesday afternoon to restart the business, we were ready for trading by Monday morning. Our suppliers, our customers, and everybody concerned were most cooperative and helpful. But now our troubles really started. We unfortunately were hopelessly under-insured. Instead of insuring our property at replacement value, we only increased the insurance each year to cover the inflation rate. Also the fire took place at the end of October when our stock was at its very highest because all our summer and Christmas goods had arrived. Unfortunately we were paid out according to our balance sheet which was in June, and the stock was at its lowest.Although the country was booming in 1973, we suddenly fell into a recession in 1974, and money was in extremely short supply. We approached our Bank for a bond but they refused - saying that statistics have proved that 14 % of businesses destroyed by fire can recover successfully.

Leon Cohen joined the business in 1976, after obtaining his BCom (C.A) from the university of Cape Town. He took charge of the administration and was responsible for the computerizing the financial systems. He left the business in 1989 to immigrate to Australia.We then approached a new Bank who were very excited about getting our account. We neededR 1 000 000 for the rebuilding of the shop for which we wanted a bond of R 700 000. We needed R 350 000 overdraft to restock and R 500 000 for fixtures, fitting, fridges, cash registers, office machinery and typewriters. We managed to get leasing for the fixtures and fittings and the Bank provided us with the bond and the overdraft facilities. However the Bank tied up all our assets including our private homes as collateral, with the result that if things did not work out, we would all have gone out absolutely penniless.There is an old Chinese adage that reads " Fate admires courage and is apt to bestow the good things on those who take the bad well ". This certainly seems to be true, for all of a sudden everything seemed to fall into place. Within three months most of the customers had returned to us, and we had more customers on our books than prior to the fire. Also the government had decided to introduce TV to the country. Barry Friedman who joined the firm in February 1975 joined Avron Cohen on a TV course with Philips, and we had an extremely successful year in our TV department. So much so that our turnover and profits doubled, and we were able to make large repayments. Also with the new air-conditioned store and the excellent layout, the planning of which took many many hours of hard work, the business just went from strength to strength and we could breathe freely once more.

The business has remained in the family for 3 generations. The ongoing success of the business is attributed to maintaining our excellent quality of customer service and our wide variety of quality mercha.

For further information you can visit the Friedman Choen website.

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