Remembering Joe Mitchell

The following reminiscence from retailer, publisher and former IDEA executive director, Paul Curtis, was prompted by an exchange of information on this website about photo retailing legend, Joe Mitchell and his company, Tasmanex:

Joe Mitchell was one of the founders of speciality photographic retailing in Australia. Born in the UK and after serving with the occupation forces in Germany in World War II, he brought his German wife to Australia where I believe he first joined the optical company CT Lorenz.

They say a cobblers shoes always need mending, so we suppose this badly-lighted, grainy effort seems the best the photo industry leaders could do in 1979! The occasion was the transformation of the Photographic Dealers Association to PMA Australia. Holding the flag, from left to right are: Alistair Moss, Les Brener, a moustached long haired git who I suppose is me, John Paxton, Ken Peters, Joe Mitchell, someone whose name will come to me at 2.00am tonight, Jack Wagner and Keith Williams. PC

They say a cobblers shoes always need mending, so we suppose this badly-lighted, grainy effort seems the best the photo industry leaders could do in 1979! The occasion was the transformation of the Photographic Dealers Association to PMA Australia. Holding the flag, from left to right are: Alistair Moss, Les Brener, a moustached long haired git who I suppose is me, John Paxton, Ken Peters, Joe Mitchell, someone whose name will come to me at 2.00am tonight, Jack Wagner and Keith Williams. PC

In the very early days of photo retailing in Australia, the photography storefront displays were a hotly-contested battle between the opticians and the pharmacists. The opticians thought photography was their business as it involved lenses. Equally fierce in their claim were the pharmacists. They said it was a chemical process.

The importers of photographic equipment into Australia for these two warring retail groups were mainly Jewish and from Europe looking to establish a better lifestyle. These included Rudolph Gunz (who established brands such as Eumig and Konica on the Australian market, Jack Hannes of Hanimex fame, George Erinyi of Photimport with brands such as Paximat, Bolex and Minolta. Harold Hald of Haldex represented Leica. Motion Picture and Bolex were represented by Tommy Watson of Cineoptics, which was located among the TV stations on Sydney’s North Shore. Clem Kennedy (Snr) of CR Kennedy fame, was also a pioneer of these early camera distributors.

There were three extremely successful salesmen at CT Lorenz that were undoubtedly making Sydney the photo retailing centre of the country. They were Bernie Silver, Tim Wilson and Joe Mitchell. They agreed that as they represented a key part of the CT Lorenz photo sales and that the company was not interested in photographics as they were, they should go out into business on their own and do it properly. Thus, taking the initials of their names, Milversons was formed. They located their business in Market Street, just around the corner from CT Lorenz. So Milversons was probably the first specialist photographic retailer as Paxtons and Michaels in Melbourne were also running pharmacies at that time.

Eventually the partnership broke up but they still remained friends and went on to join together again to form the first Australian discount photo store, Sydney Wide. More terror for the camera stores of the day! But initially Tim Wilson opened in Chatswood under the Milverson brand, Bernie stayed with the Market Street store and Joe Mitchell formed a photo franchise within Waltons. During the ’60s, Waltons was Australia’s dominant department store. This was mainly on the strength of a regularly-produced catalogue with numerous sales reps home door knocking to sell products around in Australia.

They were particularly successful in rural areas and Joe’s 100-store-plus franchise made him Australia’s largest photo retailer. To the dismay of his regular suppliers, he began sourcing his own products. Even more dismay was caused by the fact that he was using the importers money to do it! His accounts blew out from 30 days, to 60, to 90 and to even 120! Although this is of course totally unheard of these days (?) it was very hard for any distributor to refuse an order from Joe as they were so large.

Finding staff for so many stores was also a challenge, so he took to advertising in British trade publications for staff to come from the UK to Australia. He brought in many such people, including future industry leaders such as Ken Dobson and Terry Rimmer. Joe was also the first Australian retailer to advertise his products on television. Run late at night, they mostly featured Joe extolling the virtues of his Titan movie products.

As he was importing so many products, he then formed Tasmanex, a company distributing products to all retailers. More anguish for his suppliers, and to the consternation of many of his fellow retailers. As a retailer in the early ’70s I would occasionally see Joe in company with Keith Williams licking ice creams in front of my store window. Just a few months early he had been quoted in Jim Coleman’s Photo Trade News as saying let all fellow retailers shake and tremble in their boots as he planned to take over the whole Australian photography scene, much as Dixons had in the UK. And yes I was worried!

Fortunately for many of us, Joe was also a man that liked to live life to the full. For him this meant keeping a yacht on the Mediterranean and sailing around Nice, St Tropez and the like for the entire Australian winter. Our mutual interest in sailing brought us together and Joe played a key part in helping me with the formation of the Photographic Dealers Association (now PMA) W ith Waltons going into decline, Tasmanex went with it. Managers Ken Dobson and Keith William were sending Joe urgent messages to come home. But Joe kept sailing and just asked them to forward him more money!

By the time he returned, his home ship was really sinking and Tasmanex and other wholesalers pushed it into bankruptcy. But Joe never gave up. He popped up again in the computer industry with Novaco, supplying software and computers to the industry. Much to my surprise (but I was now out of retail and into publishing), I became one of his biggest clients. Even more surprising, we became fast friends! Joe is an amazing character, was the best of company and full of life. He went from a man I feared to someone I loved to be with. But Novaco was also to founder and, as was previously mentioned by Alan Small, Joe became the Fletchers franchisee for Port Macquarie. In the early days he again did this with great distinction but lost interest towards the end and so moved onto retirement in Adelaide.

We did many boating trips together, both here and in Europe. I will never forget the stormy night I was holding onto the back of Joe’s trousers to stop him from falling overboard as he puked into the ocean. (Yes, we veteran sailors still do that!) But I just couldn’t believe there I was hanging onto the back of the mighty Joe’s belt in such a situation. And of course, I never let him forget!

But my most telling memory was Joe in his very later years. It was around 3am on a beautiful moonlit night as we sailed south from the Whitsunday’s. I finally plucked up the courage to ask him a question I had been pondering for years.

‘Having been a millionaire twice over and having gone from being Australia’s biggest retailer to now Australia’s smallest retailer, didn’t he regret not having come home when his staff implored to come back and rescue the business?’

‘Not at all,’ snorted Joe. ‘When I was young I was out there living life to full. Now I am so old, all I am fit for is work.’

Great words from a great man.

I am ashamed to say that the last I heard of Joe was when he moved to Adelaide to live with his daughter and we unfortunately lost touch. But these recollections have been formed from many days and nights of sailing with Joe. If I have miss-remembered anything, please let me know so that I can set the record right!
Paul Curtis (paul@paulcurtis.com.au)


6 thoughts on “Remembering Joe Mitchell

  1. Very accurate Paul, you also prompted my memory to go back a few years to some other early wholesalers in the trade. Gardener and Salmon had the agencies for Noris, Metz, Nitzo, Edixa, Gossen, Schneider, and Topcon. Many of these agencies ended up with Gunz. Leica, in the early sixties was handled by Pyrox, a company better known for their gas heaters. Jack Hannes in 1956/57? was offered the Nikon agency but declined. Max Adams later jumped at the opportunity.
    Seasons Greetings to all.
    Gordon Sheard.

  2. I worked for Joe Mitchell when I finished school in 1976.Working for Milversons ,Opportunities arose atTown Hall in Milversons concession in Waltons Camera Department.For close on three years I travelled to country stores ,Albury,Canberra, Sydney suburban Bankstown,Hornsby and Finally West Ryde.In 1978 while in Mellbourne Working with the ( legendary ) Jessie Shomelian at Peter Fox store (also a Milversons acquisition) in Swanston Street great work experience for the day.
    At one of Milversons sales drives at the Antler Parkway in Frenchs Forest ,Joe Mitchell,Straight off the plane from Hong Kong ,presented
    Ellie Topjian with a prize of a Casio Micro calculator and clock.We (the people),had not seen anything like this technology at the time.In typical Joe fashion,He always liked the latest gadgets
    In conclusion ,working for Joe was fun,and even when I was working for Fletchers Fotographics in 1981,when Fletchers acquired
    Milversons ,the fun and enjoyment is just a memory now.

  3. I remember working for Milversons in the Edward Street store in Brisbane with Joe Hirsch. Joe taught me so much about the ‘business;, since my only experience had been with Waltons in their camera department. I worked in the Pavilion Branch with Dave Smith and Darby West for quite some time until the Waltons Camera Department became a Milversons acquisition. So here I was, back in Waltons Valley store, but NOT working for Waltons. It was a weird feeling. I also ran the Waltons at Indooroopilly and Ipswich, all at the tender age of 18 and a bit. I remember so many of the giants of the industry of the day when they were reps and when attending release nights. I loved those days, and I reckon somewhere in my keepsakes, I have one of the Milversons printed paper bags with some photos I had taken back then. Such fond memories.

  4. Does anyone know what happened to Tim Wilson. He lived down the road from me at Roseville Chase and I did repair works for Tim when he owned Milversons in Chatswood.

    Recently I had lunch with Peter Clark of Magnetic Sound and I would like to do the same with Tim if he is still around.
    Dick Smith

  5. Hi there I worked for milversons in the 70 s at waltons Sydney then as a manager at Bankstown and Liverpool for a while heady days they were always some special sale of something going on and the monthly managers meetings were something else , I was in Sydney yesterday but found it hard to find anywhere I recognised after all these years as I have been living in the U.K. since the late 70s oh well happy days Regards to all
    Bob Beith if anyone remembers me ??

  6. Lovely to read these memories, my name is Jeff Gardner, I began my photographic retail at Anthony Horderns camera dept in January 1963, which was franchised to John Border Photographics in 1964, from Borders to Dixons in Market st. Then I went to Melbourne and worked at Wagners 65/66. After returning from Melbourne I went to Milversons, firstly George St. then to Waltons Town Hall, Bankstown and Canberra. I’d love a dollar for every Titan Movie outfit I sold. Sydney Wide, Milversons Chatswood and I ended working in Photographic retail at Paxtons Hornsby in 1979. A great time over the years working for many of those wonderful Jewish business owners.

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