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Lassetter, Frederic (Fred) (1828–1911)

Mr Frederic Lassetter, managing director of F. Lassetter and Co., Ltd., passed away at his residence, Redleaf, Double Bay, yesterday morning, at the advanced age of 83 years.

The late Mr Lassetter had a distinguished commercial career, and was a well-known and highly-respected figure in the business life of the city. The story of his life is an interesting one, and illustrates how a young man of energy, pluck, and perseverance, with a capacity for business, brushed aside many difficulties and won a top place among the merchants of Australia.

Mr Lassetter was born at Taunton, Somersetshire, England, in December 1828. Four years later his father, who was a Wesleyan clergyman, set out with his wife and child to seek a fortune in Australia. The deceased often spoke of his father’s story of how they stood on the deck of an old-time sailing ship, the clergyman and his wife, with a little four-year-old boy between them tightly clasped by the hands. With mixed feelings they bade goodbye to the home land and set out for the new.

Four years later the Lassetters were settled in the Wesleyan parsonage at Longford, North-eastern Tasmania. There they entered the ranks of the pioneers, for adjoining the parsonage, where the glebe farm lands which were part of the minister’s holdings. The little boy Fred here got an early training on the land, and before he had reached his teens was practically managing the farm. But at the age of 14 fate dealt him a cruel blow. His mother died. Thereupon the clergyman and his son moved to Launceston, where the father established a school.

Young Lassetter became restless in the atmosphere of the school, and yearned for a more active life. He therefore made his way across the Melbourne, and obtained employment at a small salary in an auction mart. In the succeeding years his home training stood to him. He was proof against the temptations of what the city had in those days to offer, and cultivated all the good qualities which later manifested themselves in his business career.

As it so turned out, the auction mart provided the nucleus of a very good business training. He learnt how to buy and sell, became accustomed to business methods, and laid the foundation of systematic work, which stood to him all the years of his life. No boy ever went through a harder training or did more work for so little money. He felt that his employer had bought him body and soul, but, nevertheless, held on, learning all he could, and continually developing fresh ideas.

Mr Lassetter sometimes took pleasure in relating early incidents of his life to show in what a hard school he was reared. It appears that in the days he spent with the Melbourne auctioneer he dined from a penn'orth of biscuits. One day his master caught him lunching and inquired what he was at. "I am at lunch, sir", was the innocent reply. "At lunch, Lassetter! Never you dare eat lunch again while you are in my employ." The boy stood astounded, and meekly pocketed the remains of his frugal meal. What a contrast with the average city boy of today!

In a short while came the chance which brought young Lassetter to Sydney. Mr G. A. Lloyd, of Sydney, while visiting the Melbourne auction mart, was struck with the intelligence of the youthful sales clerk, and offered him a situation, which was promptly accepted.

Mr Lloyd’s office opened up fresh avenues of knowledge, and the new clerk applied himself to his task in such a manner as to win for himself the appreciation and friendship of his employer. Here he became acquainted with the business men of the city – they could then almost be numbered on the fingers of one’s hand – and learnt much about the business methods of the young colony. Among other of his memories of those days, Mr Lassetter often spoke of the time when Mr Lloyd bought gold from the miners for £2 10s an ounce, because the banks refused to believe that it was good. Here also he learnt bookkeeping, among other business systems, and it was characteristic of the man that to his last active day he kept accounts of his own personal income and expenditure.

It was, perhaps, not unnatural that the recollections of his childhood on the farm in Tasmania should have turned Mr Lassetter’s thoughts towards a country life, and his ambition was to own a station. He, however, lacked capital, which was an essential to launching out in such a direction, and with his salary then at £1 a week, his future was, indeed, not financially bright. But what he lacked in worldly wealth he enjoyed in the friendship and unselfish advice of Mr Lloyd, who, recognising the capacity of the painstaking clerk, advised him strongly to go into business for himself.

An opportunity offered about this time for him to join a nephew of Mr Lancelot Iredale in taking over the hardware business established in 1820 by that gentleman, whose daughter he married two years later. "Lassetter", said Mr Lloyd, "take my advice. Go into that business, and you will run round your competitors like a cooper round a cask". Mr Lassetter took the advice, and preliminaries having been arranged, the transaction was brought to a conclusion.

On June 10, 1850, Mr Lassetter thus became a member of the firm of L. Iredale and Co., ironmongers and metal merchants. And from the time he became the "and Co." he made the pace warm and progressive. He did not stick to prevailing methods, but struck out a new and honourable course for himself, till he built up the great business, of which he was still managing director at his death.

Until Mr Lassetter came into the ranks of Sydney merchants there had been no competition as we understand the word 60 years later. Communication with the old world was difficult and irregular; mails were few and very intermittent; and in the colony the difficulty was not to find buyers, but to get goods to sell. So that to the distributor who had the best stocks came the best customers. Mr Lassetter quickly summed up this condition, and he recognised that the happy-go-lucky system of doing only as others did would never enable him to expand his business. So, while others sat on their office stools and waited for business to come to them, he went outside and met it on its road. He always knew what goods were wanted by his customers – always had a market for his stocks – and he devised a scheme for replenishing those stocks before other people in the same line of business were, metaphorically, and often actually, out of their beds. To carry this into effect he had a pony always saddled at his shop door and a boat always in waiting at the waterfront; and when a ship was signalled at Sydney Heads the energetic young merchant galloped off to his boat and hastened down the harbour to meet the vessel and inspect its manifests. This was frequently accomplished before the anchorage was reached, and it was easy business for "Iredale and Co." to get options over such consignments as suited their requirements. So that when the ship was entered at the Customs-house and others went along to buy, they were met with the reply, "It is under offer to Lassetter".

In 1862 the business had grown to comparatively large proportions, and Mr Lassetter entered into negotiations which led to a dissolution of the partnership, the erection of what was then the largest building in Sydney, and the birth of F. Lassetter and Co., afterwards converted into the limited liability company of to-day.

The opening of the new premises on December 7, 1863, was an event of public importance, and was made the occasion of considerable ceremony and much publicity in the press. On the previous day there had been a "private view", at which the Governor (Sir John Young) and his suite, Lady Young, the Premier and Mrs Martin, Sir Wm. Manning, M.L.C., and Lady Manning, Messrs Deas-Thomson, M.L.C., Cowper (Speaker of the Legislative Assembly), Hon. J. Fairfax, Rev. J. West, and many other notables, were present.

Mr Lassetter, who in 1850 first entered upon the responsibilities of management with only a small hardware business, found himself in 1911 the supreme head of a great combination of businesses comprised in F. Lassetter and Co. Ltd., of to-day. Less than 20 years ago only 120 people were employed in the various sections. To-day there are nearly 1000 on the pay rolls, and between them they draw more than £80,000 a year on salary and wages. The postage account of the vast business alone exceeds £8000 annually.

A system of cooperation with the employees was one of the many innovations introduced by Mr. Lassetter. Under this system 5 per cent of the net profits of each department annually is divided among the salesmen; and when a dividend is paid to the shareholders there is a proportionate distribution amongst the employees.

On one occasion, when there was a shortage of coins in the colony, Mr. Lassetter met the condition by issuing copper tokens, which had a large general circulation, and were known as the Lassetter pennies. These were imported in great quantities from England, and were practically accepted as part of the colony’s legal currency. The issue of these tokens was eventually prohibited, and they were all redeemed by the firm, and paid for in the coin of the realm.

It is of interest to note that, in commemoration of Mr. Frederic Lassetter’s diamond jubilee, the staff made a formal presentation to Mr Lassetter on June 10 last year. The presentation took the form of a handsome gold cigar-case, with Mr. Lassetter’s initials in diamonds on the face, and the back bearing the following inscription: "Presented to F. Lassetter, Esq., by his employees on the occasion of his diamond jubilee, June 10, 1910".

Mr Lassetter, in thanking the staff for their presentation, said:- "I am more touched with the loyalty of my staff than with this beautiful memento. Were it not for their zealous labour and intelligence this business could never have reached its present position. It is due to you – I am simply the captain of the ship, who is navigating it, and I would be as helpless as a captain without a crew if I had not such a staff".

The primary cause of Mr. Lassetter’s death was a paralytic stroke, which came upon him suddenly on Wednesday. He lingered until yesterday morning, and then passed away. He leaves a widow, four sons, and two daughters – Mrs Pearce and Mrs Jamieson – to mourn. The sons are Colonel Lassetter, Messrs Arthur Lassetter, F. O. Lassetter, and Walter Lassetter.

The funeral will take place to-morrow at South Head. A preliminary service will be held at St. Michael’s Church of England, Rose Bay, at 11.30 a.m., after which the procession will start for the grave. The business premises of F. Lassetter and Co., Ltd., will be closed to-day and to-morrow as a mark of respect to the dead chief.

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Citation details

'Lassetter, Frederic (Fred) (1828–1911)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/lassetter-frederic-fred-3996/text24355, accessed 22 July 2019.

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