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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Scarf, Reuben Francis (1913–1993)

by Matt Bailey

This article was published online in 2020

Reuben Scarf

Reuben Scarf

Scarf Family

Reuben Francis Scarf (1913–1993), retailer and philanthropist, was born on 23 January 1913 at Hillgrove, near Armidale, New South Wales, seventh child of Syrian-born parents Frank George Scarf, storekeeper, and his wife Nahida Rose, née Herro. Of Lebanese descent, they had migrated to Australia in 1897 following an arranged marriage in their home village, Ain’broudi, near Baalbek. After settling at Redfern, Sydney, among an expatriate Lebanese community, the family moved to the northern tablelands where Frank made a living as a hawker. He later ran a successful store, Scarf’s Emporium, at Hillgrove before moving back to Sydney. Reuben suffered from asthma, contracted a mastoid infection which led to deafness in one ear, and had severe myopia which required him to wear ‘coke-bottle’ glasses from a young age.

Educated first at Christian Brothers’ High School, Lewisham, and then at St Joseph’s College, Hunters Hill, at fifteen Scarf went to work for his brother Charles in his Balmain store, one of a number of retail businesses established by his father and brothers. He later described his young adult life as undisciplined, recalling that he frittered away money on ‘grog, gambling, girls’ (Scarf 1990). At the urging of another brother, Alex, he began practising his Catholic faith, a shift he claimed placed him on the path to success. He met Mercia Phyllis Taffa, a storekeeper’s daughter and a trainee nurse at St Vincent’s Hospital, and the couple married at St Thomas’s Church, Lewisham, on 15 July 1942.

Scarf began running another of the family’s drapery and mercer’s stores, at Annandale, with his twin sister Millie and brother George. Established in 1928, the store proved too small to sustain all three, so the family allocated other businesses to Millie and George, leaving Reuben at Annandale. Scarf’s Menswear, subsequently known as Reuben F. Scarf, became a highly successful operation. In approximately four hundred square metres of retail space, Scarf sold a range of goods, including drapery, blankets, cutlery, towels, cotton goods, eiderdowns, womenswear, and menswear.

In the mid-1950s Scarf embraced the idea that ‘the customer is king’ (Scarf 2017). Realising that he had been serving the interests of his suppliers rather than customers, he invested in a manufacturing plant at Surry Hills to produce suits, which became a specialty of the Scarf brand. A cousin, Paul Scarf, had been making ‘buy-one-get-one-free’ offers through letterbox advertising brochures, and Scarf adopted the practice, offering free items of clothing with the purchase of a single suit; this brought a significant growth in customer numbers. By the 1960s Scarf stores accounted for between 30 and 40 per cent of suit sales in Sydney.

The success of Scarf’s advertising campaigns and other innovations such as time payment and open displays allowed him to expand his network of stores in the late 1960s. In 1973 he retired from day-to-day involvement in business to work full time on charitable activities, and his sons, Richard and Matthew, in partnership with his cousins Khalil and Frank Herro, subsequently ran the chain.

Involved for many years with St Anthony’s Home, a residential care facility for mothers and babies at Croydon, Scarf became interested in a wider range of charitable activities, including the construction of buildings for Catholic religious orders in Sydney. He was also one of the first benefactors of Grow, an international community-based mental health support organisation founded in Sydney in 1957. Taxation rules precluded him from generating income for charity through his stores, so he registered the Frank and Nahida Scarf Memorial Foundation in 1972. Its charter was to produce revenue from commercial trading and investment, including trade with the Middle East, with profits going to charity. Having gained support from the Australian and New South Wales governments, Scarf toured the Middle East with a business associate, Henri Fischer, his first deal being to sell Australian meat to Iraq. After initial success, Scarf and the foundation became embroiled in a political scandal, dubbed the ‘Iraqi breakfast affair,’ when the Australian Labor Party attempted to raise campaign funds in the Middle East. Although the foundation continued to function, Scarf ceased his involvement in its management.

Mercia died on 22 June 1984 and on 8 July 1985 Scarf married Mary Carmody at St Mary Magdalene Church, Rose Bay. Survived by his wife and the five sons and two daughters of his first marriage, he died on 24 November 1993 in Gosford District Hospital, and was buried in Northern Suburbs cemetery, North Ryde. Numerous honours were bestowed on him for his services to the community, including appointment as OBE (1965), AM (1985), Order of St Gregory the Great, Papal Knighthood, Knight of Jerusalem, Cavalier of Cedars of Lebanon, and Affiliate Associate of the Disciples of the Carmelites. The name of his foundation was changed to the Reuben F. Scarf Memorial Foundation, which established an annual award to recognise effort by a boy and a girl student in every school in New South Wales.

Research edited by Joy McCann

Select Bibliography

  • Hocking, Jenny. Gough Whitlam: His Time. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2014
  • Records of the Frank and Nahida Scarf Memorial Foundation, held by Matthew Scarf, Rose Bay, NSW
  • Reuben F. Scarf Memorial Foundation. ‘About the Foundation. ’Viewed 20 June 2020. http://www.rfsmf.com.au/about. Copy held on ADB file
  • Scarf, Richard. Interview by Matthew Bailey, 9 August 2017
  • Scarf, Reuben F. The Key Is Three: Formula for Success, at Home, at Work, in the Community. St Hubert’s Island, NSW: The Scarf Foundation, 1990
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Retail Pioneer Dies.’ 25 November 1993, 7

Citation details

Matt Bailey, 'Scarf, Reuben Francis (1913–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/scarf-reuben-francis-27779/text35509, published online 2020, accessed online 21 September 2020.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

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