From Australia’s Jewish Past: Marcus Brasch – founder of the famous Brashs music stores

January 30, 2024 by Features Desk
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Marcus Brasch, brother of Lena and Woolf, was born in Germany and emigrated to the United Kingdom in 1848.

He established himself as a piano merchant, who traded his wares overseas to Australia and New Zealand.  Marcus and Woolf then moved to Melbourne. His parents and other siblings followed some years later. The brothers went on to open the first Braschs store at 108 Elizabeth Street in 1862, becoming one of the most famous music and electronics stores in Australia.  The first store originally sold pianos, reed organs and other musical instruments, and later increased the product to sheet music and records.  Its slogan was – “a home is not a home without a piano’’.  This store remained the flagship until its demise in 1950.  Woolf and his family subsequently moved to Sydney.

The “C” in the family name was dropped during World War I due to Alfred anglicising the name to ensure his family’s assimilation into an increasingly xenophobic Australian society.  In addition, the pronunciation of the “a’’ was anglicised.  For the latter half of the 19th century and all through the 20th, Brashs remained a leading music house, although expansion Victoria-wide did not begin until the mid-1950s and interstate thirty years later, through a combination of acquisitions and new store openings.

The business, at some stage, was taken over by Marcus’s son, Alfred who continued to trade successfully through the Great Depression.  He instigated the idea of allowing his customers to repay the debts owed on their purchased pianos over a longer period. In fact, he increased this payment period from five years to twenty years. Alfred, who was quite astute, realised that the pianos would be kept in better condition in the customer’s home than if it was repossessed in his warehouse.  Following World War II, the company boomed, as it moved into white goods including refrigerators and ice chests.  Any ice chests that were traded in were then on-sold in South Melbourne which at that time was quite a poor community.

Alfred passed on the company to his son Geoff who was known to be quite a gregarious businessman and philanthropist.  By the 1970s it had expanded even further, with vinyl records, pre-recorded and blank cassettes added to their product line.  By 1980 the company no longer sold white goods and, to streamline operations, Brashs was split into two companies – Brashs which sold audio systems, microwaves and compact discs, together with a company known as Allans which focused on musical instruments.  Allans had been established in May 1850 with a music warehouse in Collins Street Melbourne.  By 1877 it was the largest musical warehouse south of the equator.  This company subsequently became Allans Music Australia Ltd and was bought by Brashs becoming Australia’s biggest musical retail chain with one hundred and seventy stores across the continent.

Brashs main flagship store, opened in Sydney in December 1986 was at 244 Pitt Street.  It unfortunately closed in April 1998 when the company went into administration.  However, on 6 December the same year, Australia’s first major megastore opened at the same address.  This site now forms part of the plaza of the ANZ Bank Centre.  The company struggled from the early 1990s onwards.  Reintroducing white goods was unsuccessful and sustained heavy losses.  According to Geoffrey

According to Geoff,  the problems that caused the collapse were authoritarian leadership, cheapening of values, advertising that did not deliver, over-expansion, faulty management information systems, increased competition and internal conflict.  In 1988 Geoff stepped down as executive chairman but remained a director.  He had been awarded an AM (Member of the Order of Australia) for his involvement in business and community.  As part of the very large expansion, the parent company took over the major book chain of Angus & Robertson at a cost of twenty million dollars.  By the 1990s, its product base had expanded to selling hi-fi stereos, video cassette recorders, microwaves, televisions and white goods.  Unfortunately, in 1994, Brashs collapsed and went into voluntary administration, was delisted and shareholders did not receive any return.  A Singapore-based businessman purchased the company for forty million dollars, but this too was unsuccessful and in February 1998 the company was placed in receivership with debts owing of eighty million.  At this time, the chain had one hundred and five outlets, employing over two thousand staff members.  Some of the stores were sold to the Brazin Group who have women’s clothing stores and The Good Guys.  Private investors subsequently bought Allans Music which continued to trade in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, and South Australia.

Brashs mainly used television advertising and print as its main marketing profile.  During the late 1980s and in the 1990s, Australian television personality Tony Barber, who was well known for his program – Sales of the Century – appeared in most of the stores’ television promotions.

Marcus passed away in 1894; Alfred in 1962 and Geoffrey in 2010.

The AJHS acknowledges the following references in the preparation of this story:

Wikipedia; Sydney Morning Herald – Rob Myer; Financial Review – Lucinda Smith; National Library of Australia; Brash Business: 10 Hard Business Commandments – Geoffrey Brash and Lowell Tarling

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