Unable to discern a pearlescent dawn because of an atmosphere gooey with smog, Ann Raff concluded that congested Johannesburg was no place to raise her baby. At the very same time, her husband Louis resolved that he would never advance as a car mechanic unless he was self-employed.
The small family lived from hand to mouth, sometimes with nothing more than a can of sardines and slice of bread for the day’s sustenance. The future did not look any rosier, until one day Ann came across a rental advertisement for a service station with an attached living space for only 25 pounds per month in far-off (considering that there weren’t highways in those days) Benoni, east of Johannesburg.
Ann was excited at the prospect of clean air and a chance for her husband to manage his own business for a cost that they should be able to maintain based on gasoline sales. But as the adage goes, “too good to be true” is invariably true. The service station had been perpetually bankrupt and whoever tried to make a go of it invariably failed. The living quarters would be best described as four walls containing a non-functional coal stove, sans bathroom or electricity.
Running a gas station was a challenge when the local power plant did not distribute electricity regularly or predictably (a foreshadow of the load-shedding that South Africans currently suffer), meaning the gas pump could not reliably deliver gasoline when a customer required it. As franchisees of Shell Oil, the Raffs had to sell a certain amount of fuel to be eligible for loans and other company benefits. Alas, a filling station that cannot pump gas is what rain is to a garden wedding.
At one point Louis could take the hardship no longer (not to mention that the irregularity of the electricity nearly resulted in his electrocution) and went right over the head of the local Shell executive to their headquarters in Johannesburg. These suits were rather startled when a grease monkey stormed into their office, but before they could arrange an eviction, Louis made his appeal which touched the heart of the national manager. The very next day, Mr. Shell arrived by chauffeur and was able to verify with his own eyes Raff’s complaints.
Three weeks later, a 12-horsepower engine was installed in the power plant that would enable the gas station to consistently operate. Yet Shell was not giving something for nothing. They wanted the Raffs to renew their contract with a steeper rent, while the area had not yet sufficiently developed to ensure more than the current traffic.
What the ambitious Raffs really wanted was not a rental, but ownership of the property, and to convert the premises – currently on an unpaved patch of road that, after a downpour, resembled the detritus of a mudslide – into a modern filling station and mechanic shop.
No matter what the Raffs protested to the Shell people, their response was always a pen and a renewal contract. Shell’s Benoni representative, however, was sympathetic, for he saw how through sheer grit the Raffs had kept an operation viable for three-and-a-half years when no one before them had succeeded. And yet, offering ownership as opposed to a rental did not fit into Shell’s franchise model, and was also over this Shell employee’s head. The only way to override the inviolate company policy would be for Ann to appeal at the national office, but there was no protocol and certainly no precedent for personal representation.
But this did not stop the resolute Ann, resulting in the local representative finally declaring (not exactly in these words), “When one road is blocked, you have to try an alternative.” And he was willing to do his part.
A few weeks later, he breathlessly called up and exhorted, “Mrs. Raff, get into your car and make tracks to the Shell House in Jo-burg. I have arranged for an off-the-record meeting with the head of the Shell company and its board.”
Ann quickly got someone to watch the kids, put on her best outfit, and sped to Johannesburg. The somewhat bemused receptionist informed the non-executive who had just barreled through the door that the national director’s office was on the seventh floor. As Ann flew into the elevator, she saw that the receptionist had buzzed someone, but she could not tell if it was security or the director’s office.
When Ann stepped out of the elevator, a secretary was waiting for her and escorted her down the long hallway to the conference room. Without even a knock, the secretary opened the door and announced, “Mrs. Raff from Argus Motors” and then bowed out.
Ann took a quick and terrified look at the jowled grimaces of the executives who greeted her intrusion the way the Spaniards had welcomed the bubonic plague. Ann had not entered the lion’s den – she had been thrust between the voracious jaws of the lion. These executives had significant matters to discuss, not to mention the lunch menu, and they didn’t take breaks for amateur hour.
“Mrs. Raff,” announced the director, clearly perturbed by all of the annoying requests he was getting from Benoni, “wishes us to consider violating company policy.” This introduction earned a few smirks, and then with trademark flourish befitting a CEO, he gestured with his hand like the magician making a French curl in the air as he directs the audience’s attention to his vanished assistant, signaling that Mrs. Raff’s few seconds to address the board were quickly lapsing. Every executive scowled at the speaker slotted to steal half a minute of their time.
Ann stepped forward with a degree of sobriety possibly enjoyed only by those awaiting imminent execution by firing squad. One board member, wishing to spare Ann Raff the humiliation of being heaved into the shark tank, assuaged, “I propose that in five years when Argus comes up again for review that we look into it,” and then, assuming that the matter was over, went back to aimlessly shuffling the pages in front of him. On cue the others resumed talking to their neighbors and checking their watches as if their visitor was no longer there. But Ann Raff was not about to allow this opportunity to slip by. She was aware that none of the other executives had ever visited a station that did not pump at least twenty to thirty thousand gallons a month – Argus barely mustered five thousand gallons. But that didn’t mean that things wouldn’t change in the future. And that is precisely what she said.
“It is a wonder that Argus sells as much as we do, considering that our station is dilapidated, unappealing, and the mud capital of the region. Yet we are in a strategic location and when the traffic reforms are imminently implemented, our location will be prime and business will treble – even without a facelift – which we have every intention of implementing.”
“But where will you get the sales to vindicate our investment until the new zoning is realized?” one executive demanded.
“Just down the road,” she commented to a board that had never been to Benoni in their lives, “the Atlantic gas station pumps 17,000 gallons a month. Everyone knows that Shell is superior to Atlantic, but the competitors have a modern facility and ours is currently a decrepit nightmare.”
There was an awkward silence, for despite their preconceived notions, the lady made sense. For the first time since she had entered the boardroom, sunny crescent smiles began tugging on the corners of mustaches. The L-rd had winked from on high and Ann had carried the day! The manager looked around the room and said, “Gentlemen, I’m for granting the Raff request. Any objections?” Gingerly at first, and then like a roll of dominoes, there were wall-to-wall nods.
Ann slipped back into her car and repeated the entire way to Benoni, “Thank you, Hashem!” From its very humble beginnings, Argus would blossom to become among the largest auto part suppliers in South Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, and many Torah institutions, particularly the Maharsha community in Jo-burg, would be the beneficiaries.