The business dynasty of Sir George James Coles and his Christian connection
‘Are you a millionaire, daddy?’ Judith asked her father. It was not long after decimal currency had been introduced into Australia.
‘No,’ he replied. ‘But it will make it a lot easier for me to get there now that the pound is worth two dollars.’
Few people have made their mark on the shopping habits of Australians like George Coles. The founder of the Coles supermarket chain, he is still a household name four decades after his death. His father had been a shopkeeper and, at an early age, George watched the business struggle as a result of extending credit too far and too often.
He made the decision that his stores would take only cash, would offer quality items at an affordable price – ‘Nothing over half a crown’* was one of his first mottoes – and would adhere to the philosophy that the customer was always right. He also paid his employees higher than the going rate—believing that loyal, well-rewarded workers made his business more successful.
His first store opened in 1914. As his chain of stores grew rapidly, even during the worst years of the Depression, he partnered with family members to form a Board and manage the shops. This led to conflict, as not all the Board were as principled as he was. In 1935, he arrived a few minutes late to a meeting, only to find himself replaced as chairman. In addition, he was pressured to retire. This came about because he felt it was unethical for Board members to vote on their own salaries and then keep it secret from shareholders.
The matter became so public that officers of the Stock Exchange felt compelled to comment on it. Public support for George was finally instrumental in his reinstatement. A man of high morals and honourable standards, he could have been a millionaire—except for the fact money wasn’t first in his life. In his eighties, he said, ‘Above all else, I owe most to my parents for the grounding they gave me in the Christian religion.’
His greatest legacy to our country was not in the bricks and mortar of grocery stores and retail outlets—it was in fact to live out the teachings of Jesus and contribute to the wellbeing of society. George Coles was an ardent and generous Christian.
He paid for Billy Graham’s crusade to be publicly broadcast across the nation in the early days of television. He enabled the Brotherhood of St Laurence to set up a retirement village at Seaford by purchasing the land for them. He financially supported Christian Education in public and government schools. He helped fund a hall at his local church and assisted many charities and societies, such as the Boy Scouts and the Corps of Commissionaires, a support and welfare organisation for war veterans who have the responsibility for the Shrine of Remembrance.
Although he loved the Bible, the quote that he most often wrote at the back of his diaries was: ‘It is a sad day when a man sits down and tries to make money without earning it.’ He was a hard worker who reaped the reward of his labour.
In these days when we expect instant results, he is an example to us all.
* ‘Half a crown’ was half of five shillings – in today’s money, 25 cents.
Written by Annie Hamilton for The DIDUNO Network
Source: Judith McLaughlin, Nothing Over Half a Crown, A Personal History of the founder of the G.J. Coles Stores, Loch Haven Books, 1991
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