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Here Comes Treble: Clouds And Shadows

"Alfred Dunhill Limited was a wonderful company to be associated with and they gave me an excellent foundation on which to build my working life,'' writes Isabel Bradley.

Towards the end of my year at secretarial college, I was interviewed by the South African Director of Alfred Dunhill Limited, for the post of secretary and receptionist at their offices in central Johannesburg. Mr Owers was a dignified, rather daunting gentleman. From the perspective of a 20-year-old, he was rather old, about my father’s age, a few years from retirement. He seemed to be favourably impressed with me. I went to work at the Alfred Dunhill offices the moment I left college.

It was a quiet place to work, a couple of offices in a smart office block on Bree Street. Every morning, the representatives would visit the office to write up their reports, and leave by nine. Mr Owers taught me early on that ‘image was everything’, and I thoroughly enjoyed dressing well, co-ordinating shoes and handbags and outfits, and looking my best for the office every day. There was no passing trade, and very little to do in the office. To keep myself occupied, I bought every woman’s magazine on sale in Johannesburg, and read every edition from cover to cover. I knitted jerseys, embroidered tapestries and wrote poetry and letters by the ream.

When the reps were out of town, they phoned in daily to check for messages. Answering the phone was one of my favourite tasks of the day. “Alfred Dunhill, good morning,” I would say in a most professional manner. If Jeremy, the youngest and best-looking of the reps, was calling, he would say, “Good morning, Alfred, how are you today?” Sadly, I was far too reserved and prim to enjoy the company of the reps.

One of my tasks was to calculate the miles per gallon used by the reps’ cars. Each young gentleman was chauffeur-driven in a glorious, dark maroon Rolls Royce Silver Cloud, with the company’s gold logo on the front fender. These luxurious ‘gas guzzlers’ were seen, admired and talked about all around South Africa, an excellent way to advertise the brand. I was sworn to secrecy as to the number there were in the fleet. Occasionally I was privileged to ride in one, usually in the front passenger seat next to the driver.

On the few occasions that I was called into Mr Owers’ office to take dictation, I was a nervous wreck for the rest of the day. Thankfully, he usually scrawled his documents for me to copy-type. He was a true gentleman, and taught me the intricacies of office etiquette and the importance of careful work and accuracy in all spheres of business.

When the day came for me to hand in my resignation, I was very apprehensive. I felt I was letting him and the company down, but the offer of a position in a musical foundation at twice the salary was too good to turn down. Mr Owers listened to my tale, and smiled.

“I’ll be very sad to lose you, Isabel,” he told me, “but there’s something you need to know. We will find someone else to take your place. I’ll go back to the secretarial college and interview their top students this year. There is an old Chinese proverb: ‘the graveyards are full of people who thought they were indispensable’.” At the time that was absolutely no comfort to me, I felt awfully guilty about leaving Mr Owers and ‘the chaps’. Over the years since then, however, I’ve often quietly thanked him for that little spot of humbling wisdom. It has enabled me to move forward to new experiences with confidence.

Many years after I left them, when I was working as a receptionist at a primary school, one of the reps walked back into my life when he registered his child there as a student. He was still being chauffeur-driven, in a new Rolls Royce Silver Shadow. He took over the directorship of the company in South Africa when Mr Owers retired.

I have marvellous memories of Alfred Dunhill Limited. The only half-cigarette I ever smoked was one of theirs, though I never took to smoking cigarettes. Looking at their web-sites, I see that they now produce designer clothes and perfumes, and are sponsors of major golf tournaments worldwide.

Alfred Dunhill Limited was a wonderful company to be associated with and they gave me an excellent foundation on which to build my working life.

Until next time…. ‘here comes Treble!’
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by Isabel Bradley

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