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Robert Suter's Memories of working at Suters Ltd

Before 1968

When Robert was at St Pauls School, West Kensington, London he started helping out Suters in the Winter holidays.

Robert worked for Spicer and Pegler, Chartered Accountants in 56-60 St Marys Avenue, London, EC3 from 12th February 1962 - 5th July 1968 as a trainee accountant. Although he was reluctant, John Suter wanted Robert to train as an accountant and run Suters Ltd accounts.

August 1968 onwards

Robert joined Suters in 29th July 1968, just shy of his 25th birthday, 8 days before he got married to Anita who was a fashion buyer and was given her first job at Uxbridge as a separate's (skirts and tops) buyer by Frank Suter.

Robert started in Slough working with Peter Bradford the store's Chartered Accountant and also worked with Mr Barrett, the office manager in Slough and often escorted him when he was taking money to the bank. His official title was a 'Statistician'.

As was customary for family members, Robert had to work for 3 years at Suters before he was to be made a director (and a senior buyer). This happened on 16th August 1971 - his 28th birthday. Interestingly, his brother Dick left before his 3 years was up to work abroad but did later return as the marketing manager,

Robert became a member of the IAS (Independent Stores Association Ltd) - More information here as a Junior executive in 1972. This changed to the AIS (Associated Independent Stores) in July 1976. He regularly attended meetings alongside fellow directors. Meetings were held at different locations and hosted by fellow members of the AIS / IAS such as:

May 1972 - David Morgan of Cardiff; attended by Robert and Michael Suter

May 1973 - Various stores in Dusseldorf and Stuttgart (Germany); attended by Robert and Michael Suter

March 1974 - Grants of Croydon; attended by Michael Suter

April 1975 - Heals of Guildford and Bentalls of Worthing - attended by Robert and Michael Suter

Feb 1977 - Eaden Lilley of Cambridge; attended by Robert Suter

Sep 1977 - Russell & Dorrell of Worcester; attended by Robert Suter. Interestingly where Anita Suter later worked.

April 1978 - David Evans of Swansea; attended by Robert and Philip Suter

Robert was a merchandising manager in his second year at the Uxbridge store, before going back to Slough in 1970 to prepare the company for Decimalisation in February 1971. Robert recalls that he did not like the Uxbridge branch as much as the Slough one. He was not so sure why but possibly since Uxbridge was a little smaller and had older buildings.

Robert then took over responsibility for buying china and glass. He recalls that Uxbridge had an excellent department manager of china and glass - Mrs Pestell who had a great team of experienced staff around her and Robert got on really well with her, stating that she was a super girl!.

Robert discussed the Cook Shop idea with his brother Dick and looked at starting up a cook shop within the Suters shop. He had noticed that stores in London had done so and that chefs such as Elizabeth David were becoming big news offering their own brands. Robert had also observed that cooking was becoming a big business.

Suters asked Robert to introduce and run the cook shop and he really enjoyed working with John Dollimore on this, who he had similar ideas to Robert. In 1976, Robert's roles were listed as: Director / Buyer - Kitchen and Table ware, Cook Shop and Gift Lines, Girls and Boys Schoolwear, Boys Fashionwear. He remained in these roles and a director of the company until the sale in 1978.

Robert brought in new innovative products that were selling well in locations such as London but were not yet known in Slough and Uxbridge. He bought and sold a great deal of Pillivuyt crockery and Elizabeth David items too - going for popular brands and runs. Other products included: Prestige / Somerville, Royal Worcester as well as the Denby Greenwheat crookery, which was Miss Fosters idea to bring in (Uxbridge buyer).

Robert visited glass factories and potteries which was really fun. He felt that whilst Suters did use good manufacturers such as Thomas Webb, and Royal Dalton, they did not have the top rage stuff (such as Minton) since we felt they wouldn't sell.

Suters Slough - snatch and run incident (c. 1969).

One of Robert's jobs was to escort the office manager Mr Barrett to the bank with the day's takings. Mr Barrett (worked under Mr Bradford - the Company accountant and Secretary) would carry the leather money bags and they would walk the short 50-yard distance from the back of the shop to the bank, on the high street. Robert recalled that Mr Barrett would always have a trilby hat on and carry a case. A man ran past, snatched the money bags off his shoulder and sprinted off. It happened so quickly that they did not have a chance to react or give chase. The man ran off from the back of the shop into the precinct / market. Robert was not used again as the escort after this!.

Suters Slough incident - ammonia bottle (c. 1977/8)

Late one evening in, Robert was with Dennis Eaton cashing up in the staff buying offices after hours. The store had been closed for around thirty minutes when a man ran into the office and demanded that the day's takings be handed over.

The thief was brandishing a bottle with a large ammonia label on it and it looked like he had a revolver in his jacket pocket. The man had obviously remained hidden after the store had closed and made his way up to the offices on the top floor, looking for a quick and easy theft.

Suters' staff were encouraged to deal with any incidents of theft themselves. Without thinking, Dennis pulled the assailants jacket over his head (he had worked as ground crew in the RAF where he had learned some self-defence techniques, one of which was to pull someone's jacket up and over their head) and Robert punched him squarely in the face. The robber fell to the floor and Robert left the office looking for back-up from other staff who may be around.

When Robert returned moments later, the assailant had disappeared, Dennis explained that he had picked himself up from the floor and had run off empty handed in the direction of the stairs. The Police were called, and it turns out that two local beat officers had seen the man running from the store and managed to arrest him as he tried to flee the scene. They found that he had a bottle of ammonia but no other weapons or any stolen items. He was taken away for further questioning.

Tom Suter (Suters Ltd Slough store merchandise director, whose office was next door to the one targeted by the robber) recalled the incident but stated that he was away in Manchester at the time on a business trip..

Suters Slough incident - Skinheads by the down escalators.

A call went out that there were some skinheads causing trouble in the store; running around and being loud and boisterous. They were coming up the escalator and stopping it from working by holding onto the handrail.

The call was for any available male staff to come to a disturbance by the escalators and Robert and Tom Suter rushed to the scene. Tom grabbed one of them so hard by his arm that he may have broken it! Staff were always encouraged to deal with such incidents ourselves though.

Another similar incident saw Dick Suter being punched in the mouth by some thugs, breaking his jaw broken and requiring a hospital visit. Robert recalls that in a 2-week spree, 450 worth of store windows were broken, stink bombs were let off in the store, toilets handles were broken off and telephone directories were thrown out of windows. Robert was constantly being called out to the store alarms going off. Tom Suter later stated that such incidents encouraged thoughts of selling up and changing career from being a draper to a farmer..

Sale of Suters Ltd in - 1978

Robert recalls driving David Suter (MD) to Liverpool to get the final takeover sorted. Around the same time, Tom had been asked by Owen Owen whether they could recommend any buyers who could work for them. Tom suggested Robert as a great candidate, particularly after his cook shop work, which Owen Owen did not have. (Tom Suter later told Robert that he was bringing in good profits and was one of the top buyers. This was one of the reasons that he put Robert forward for Owen Owen).

Robert declined because he wasn't prepared to move to Liverpool with his family. He was worried about how his family would cope with the move.

Immediately after the sale of Suters

Barry Appleby was a rep working for a firm of wholesaler of pots and pans. Robert had dealt with him in his buying days at Suters. In the early 1980s, after Suters Ltd had sold out, Robert and Barry nearly went into business. They were going to call their shop 'Pots and Pandemonium' (Anita Suter's idea), but unable to find suitable premises the idea fell through.

Instead Anita and Robert moved to Suckley near Malvern, Worcestershire, and started renovating and selling property.

In 1982 Robert started working for John Lewis at Brent Cross North West London and later at High Wycombe and remained there until retiring in 2013..

Robert's memories of some of the Suter Ltd Staff

Suters Staff (Slough) - The 5 heads of area:

  1. Alan Wells (Head of Merchandising - soft furnishings) - Tom Suter's assistant at Slough. Robert shadowed him on his first two trips as a buyer.
  2. Robert Woodcock (Fabrics) - He was a quiet chap. Worked with Clarence, since he knew fabrics.
  3. F W Tomlin (Menswear) died in 1971. Lovely guy. Knew his job and got on well with John Suter since he knew that John knew menswear (from working in Savile Row / Sackville street in London)
  4. Joan Davies (Fashions) - later Head of Menswear at John Lewis. Robert recalls Joan going on a buying trip to Scandinavia (1969). Very smart. Robert remembers her when she left Suters - he bumped into her whilst delivering to her home for John Lewis - a replacement microwave. She said "I remember you, you're one of the Suters!" - Robert did recognise her. Tom brought her in from outside and she was not an internal promotion
  5. Mr Morley - was previously a civil servant in the strand. Tom brought him in from outside, he was not an internal promotion.

Other Suters' Staff

Mrs Higgins - (Uxbridge) in charge of cash / General office at Uxbridge - very efficient, lady. She worked with Peter Bradford. She was a great person to learn from and Robert knew that Arthur Suter was very happy with how she ran the office, since she did such a great job.

Eileen Jones - (Slough) ran the staff offices. She was fantastic to talk to and a kind soul.

Peter Bradford - he was the store's Chartered Accountant and secretary too and sadly passed away shortly after the sale took place.

Beryl Campbell - worked in the Slough toy department with Denis Eaton

Mrs Robina (Robin)Pitfield - (Uxbridge) Shoe buyer and department manager at Uxbridge.

Mrs Pestell - (Uxbridge), an excellent department manager of china and glass. Also had a great team of experienced staff around her and Robert got on really well with her.

John Dollymore (Slough) - He was Robert's predecessor as a buyer and moved from John Lewis to Suters Ltd. He brought a lot of their systems in to modernise Suters Ltd systems and taught Robert a lot about the buying industry. He left after a number of years to open up his own business as a wholesaler between businesses and shops, dealing in china, glass and hardware.

Mr Tommy Thompson - (Uxbridge) A buyer at Uxbridge.

Mr John Plumtree - (Uxbridge). Fabrics buyer who really knew his stuff

Dinah Wortham - (Slough). Fashions

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Russell Suter's (Robert's son) memories of Suters

Russell was only 6 when Suters was sold, but he does have a few memories. He remembers the amazing toy department and the half scale toy locomotive running around the shoe department with the impressive escalator into this area. He also recalls the special machine for measuring foot size that would move in until it reached the correct shape. Russell recalls sitting in the plush armchairs in the panelled directors' offices and the boardroom with the impressive views of Slough. He enjoyed once being allowed out on the roof of the store (through the boardroom window, he thinks) and being able to look down on the cars and buildings below..

A favourite exercise was to roam through the store with his sister, Susanna and not being told off by an members of staff since they were one of the director's children. He doesn't believe that we were allowed to do this too often though!

Last memories were visiting the store in 1977 for the Queen's Silver Jubilee and seeing the whole precinct decked out in Union Jacks. He and his sister wore Union Jack hats and remember having their photos taken sitting in a chair, it was all very patriotic.

Above: Robert Suter with John Suter who was celebrating his 90th birthday at the Colston Hall, Gerrards Cross, October 1997

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Source of images, unless otherwise stated - Suter family archives

 

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