By Hedda T. Schupak
Ben Stillerman, 28, is descended from three generations of merchants and shopkeepers. But while he knew his own future wouldn't involve working in his family's chain of home goods stores in South Africa, the family business inspired the young filmmaker's first documentary, Taking Stock.
Benoni Discount Stores was founded as a grocery store in 1947 by Stillerman's paternal grandfather, David. Over the years, the business morphed into a full range of home goods for kitchen, bed and bath, and expanded to three stores: the original headquarters in Benoni, a second location in a town called Springs and a third in the center of Johannesburg. None sells food any longer.
David Stillerman worked in the business until the week before his death in 2006 at age 88; his wife, Friedel, also worked there until her death in 1993. Stillerman's father, Clive, 60, is a self-described shopkeeper/philosopher who calls the stores his "empire of dirt," after a line in Johnny Cash's song "Hurt."
Ben Stillerman never worked for the stores in a professional capacity, though like any teenager in a family business, he worked there part-time through school and helped take inventory.
"At age 15, I went to career counseling with my mom and dad," Stillerman recalls. "Before my butt cheeks hit the chair, I had apparently announced that I wasn't going into the business." His sister, Jessica, 26, is studying economics in London; they have a half-brother, Jack, 5, from Clive's second marriage. His father's sister and her husband, Adele and Zwi Angel, work in the business as co-managers of the downtown Johannesburg store.
"My father is conflicted," Stillerman says. "He doesn't want his kids in [the business]; he wants us to do something bigger. He didn't study what he was passionate about. He went into the business right away after graduating university. The business is something he likes but doesn't love."
In fact, Ben Stillerman thinks his father has grown to hate the business.
The film, now in final production with a release date of early 2016, explores all the questions, relationships and emotions universal among family businesses, as well as themes—guilt, survival and apartheid—unique to a prosperous Jewish merchant family in South Africa.
Stillerman conducted a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to make the documentary. Through Kickstarter, he raised about 25% of the cost of filming the project; private funds and donors also contributed. Many family members and friends donated their money, contacts and expertise, Stillerman adds. He is still trying to raise money to distribute the film.
Family Business: What inspired you to make a film about your family's business?
Ben Stillerman: Two things. One, because a documentary is a commitment that lasts at least two years, it needed to be something I would not lose interest in, and I knew this wouldn't get stale for me because it's so close to home. And two, it's my first move on my own after studying. It would be a very different film if I'd done it in 15 years and looked back, and I think it's very important for a documentary to be current and contemporary.
I wanted to explore the relationship between family members and family business. Can you separate them? Should you separate them? The film explores class guilt, family dynamics and the Jewish community in South Africa, which is a very important part of the story.
My grandfather left Poland in the 1930s at age 18. My grandmother left Germany just after Kristallnacht in 1939. Neither went to the camps, but both lost a lot of extended family [in the Holocaust]. It had a huge impact on them, my grandfather especially.
You hear stories of how refugees have quirks like keeping hundreds of cans of food all the time. My grandfather kept a huge amount of stock [inventory]. He used to say that cars, holidays, fancy clothes and fancy things were bad investments, but stock sells itself. He had huge boxes of stock, but now it's taken on an oppressive weight for my father. Will he be able to sell it? Can he get smaller and retire? It's a real burden.
FB: Your grandparents came from a place that was violently anti-Jewish to another that officially sanctioned oppression of blacks. How did that affect both life and business?
BS: The position of an average Jewish family through apartheid was to keep your head down. We'd just escaped the Holocaust, now we saw this happening. Yet the second generation—my father's generation—did extremely well. They went into banking, mining and resources, and the corporate world. They were the product of a long history of fear; they came with it, it didn't happen just when they arrived.
FB: South Africa has a reputation of being very dangerous. How do you run a retail business in that environment?
BS: Security is very important. Every day an armored car comes and big guys with guns take the money to the bank. That's the most dangerous job in South Africa.
I have very vivid memories of calls at 4 a.m. from the security company, saying there was a break-in. But during the day the store has to be open; you can't buzz people in like a jewelry store. There were a few incidents where guys came in with guns and demanded all the money in the registers; at night they come in through the roof or smash the glass. And there still is lots of shrinkage and theft.
FB: How did apartheid affect the business?
BS: We weren't segregated. It's a no-frills discount store, open to anyone who can afford the stuff. It was odd, but our aisles were shared by black and white both during apartheid. That might have insulated us from antagonism, and people knew they would get a good, fair price, which helped post-apartheid.
FB: What about now?
BS: We're now 20 years out of apartheid. Now we're separated more by economics than race. South Africa has the highest Gini coefficient in the world. That factors in on so many levels: crime, psychology and so forth. But it is changing. There is hope in the air. After 300 years of oppression and 50 years of legal oppression, the fact that there was a successful transition says a lot about the future.
FB: Your father used to love the business, but now you believe he hates it. Why?
BS: You do something for 40 years, the passion goes out of it, and it just becomes toil. My father just turned 60 and he's been doing this since he was 22. It's been financially rewarding but emotionally taxing and caused lots of stress. It's why he divorced from my mother.
In the beginning, it's exciting to be master of your universe, or at least of a retail empire in South Africa. Now he just feels trapped by all the stock and not sure there's a way out. And my father carries massive, massive guilt over having wealth where so many people are so poor.
FB: Your father thinks the business will die with him. What do you think?
BS: Dad's 60, but I don't see him retiring any time soon. I don't know what he'd do if he weren't in the shop. He still does his own books and cash-outs. My grandfather worked until the week before he died at age 88. Maybe by then my brother Jack will be ready.
For me, the most exciting thing would be to find an out-of-family manager to hand it off to. I found an ending in the film that he found peace in what we are all doing, but what would be a good end resolution is to find a good young black employee my father can mentor and perhaps someday transition ownership.
FB: Is there anyone in mind?
BS: There's no employee at the moment. Over the years, managers have come and gone, black and white. Management in retail often leads to antagonism with the owner unless you're invested in the business.
FB: Is there any option for a family member to take over?
BS: There are some younger cousins who've spent time working and have expressed interest in it. But the idea is that you do a job so your kids can do a better job, and their kids do an even better job. Maybe it's a Jewish thing. Or an immigrant thing.
FB: Your film addresses complicated relationships with relatives, employees, customers and friends.
BS: My father and grandfather dealt with all people pretty much like employees. Both shouted at their employees, and they did a lot of that to family as well. It goes back to the premise of the film: Can you separate family from family business?
My mother [Elaine Rubens] talks in the film. She worked in the shop when they were first married. My father was shouting at her and a customer said, "I can't imagine working for that man." My mother said, "I don't work for him, I married him." She got out of the business soon after.
But you can't really separate family from business. My father and grandfather didn't really have any relationship beyond business. At Friday night dinner, my grandfather had the figures for the week and my father had the ads. They'd be in a shouting match and we'd all be having another conversation.
FB: Did the film change any feelings about your father, the business, or family business in general? How does he feel about your film project?
BS: Yes, for sure it helped us form a closer relationship. We were quite close [already], else he couldn't have lived with six people [in the film crew] shadowing him for a month. But at first we argued a lot on the phone; he didn't understand what the film was about.
The business is a very inherent part of who I am, even if I'm not in it. It's a tremendous force in my life and my sister's life. When we talk, we'll ask, "How's business? Can we call Dad now? No, it's cash-out time."
FB: It seems as if the film will deal with extremely personal issues surrounding family relationships and the family's feelings toward the business. Is your father OK with this? Has he seen the footage?
BS: He's OK with it, although he hasn't seen any real footage yet, and there are definitely some moments which I think will be difficult for him. Ultimately, though, the film is not an attack on him, and I'm confident he will see it for that.
To learn more about Taking Stock, see www.takingstockfilm.com or www.facebook.com/takingstockmovie. A trailer for Taking Stock can be seen at https://vimeo.com/125735551. Stillerman also has created a series of five short videos titled Shopkeeper Philosophy, featuring his father, Clive, dispensing bits of business and life advice. They can be found at https://vimeo.com/channels/shopkeeperphil.
Hedda T. Schupak is an editor and analyst specializing in fine jewelry and luxury retailing.
Copyright 2015 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.