About Fritz Altmann
THE ALTMANNS An Autobiographical Note
I don't know when my Grandfather Joel Tischler established his small-town knitting mill, but I do know that he manufactured cotton socks in 1887, which makes my nephew. Hans C. Altmann a fourth-generation knitter. My mother Karoline Altmann learned machine knitting at a Viennese knitting-machine agency in 1881 when she was 18 years old. She persuaded her father to go into all-wool ladles' fashion items. Sometime thereafter he got tired of the trade, loaded his machines on a hand truck and dumped them from the bridge into the river, a deed that made generations after him envious. Time and again we thought that he was a" wise man. Nevertheless; "my mother, a marvelous, strong-willed, fashion-minded woman with obviously incurable enterprising spirit, founded one of the first knitting factories in Vienna,, a town that subsequently became one of the cradles of the European knitting industries (the oldest: Fanny Lemmermayer. ) There were 18 hand machines which father did the repair work on. I am the youngest and only surviving of five children and was born almost under a knitting machine in Vienna, Austria, in 1908. My oldest brother Bernhard, who was 20 years older than I, joined mother in 1905, when he was 17. He made deliveries on a hand truck and picked up money from the accounts receivable, which was some difficult job in those days. In 1895 my father went to New York and made between 5 and 13 dollars per 60-hour week. Mother refused to move to America, so he returned to Vienna a year later. As it turned out, mother's enterprise was too small for Bernhard’s taste; he always liked big business. He established his own business in 1916 in Switzerland and founded the Bernhard Altmann Knitting Mill in Vienna by 1918, which quickly became the second largest of 40 some mills employing about 500 workers. In 1924 the Soviet Government invited Bernhard to found a mill near Moscow as their partner; we went there with our know-how, staff, machines and material. Roads, sewers and buildings were put up. Within a year there were 1,000 workers employed providing merchandise formerly unknown in the market. A couple of years later the Russians changed their mind; they jailed our customers, and, on the same day, expelled us but kept the factory as a souvenir. I joined Bernhard's enterprise in l925 at the age of 17 working for and with him in Switzerland, Austria, Russia, England and the U.S. until December 1961, shortly after he had died. In the '30s the late A. S. Hooper was our English representative and among the members of our Vienna staff was Robert Polak, now our Northern California representative and his unforgettable mother. In 1937 I married Maria -after having completed (during off-business hours) my studies to become an opera singer. It was the last happy wedding before Hitler moved into Austria. Taking a slight detour over the concentration camp in Dachau and climbing with her one midnight over barbed wire into Holland (the escape was brilliantly masterminded by Bernhard who went to Amsterdam for that purpose and thereby saved my life. We arrived safely in England. Sir Frederic Marquess (later Lord Woolton in Churchill's war cabinet) arranged that the city of Liverpool put up a building for a new factory Bernhard started there and for my immigration without passport. We arrived in California in 1941 where I worked for years as an industrial engineer at Lockheed Aircraft before fate threw me mercilessly again and for good into the apparel trade. Maria, who had no business background, became my most valuable partner and in off-business hours we begot four children (ages 14 - 29 by now) of which none shows inclination for our business. The oldest is a systems engineer at IBM and. fate took revenge: he was assigned to the apparel trade, installing many a system for my customers. In the meantime Bernhard had gone back to Vienna after World War II where the Russians had removed two-thirds of machinery and equipment, but the factory was hardly bomb damaged. Within a couple of years we employed 2,000 workers there and were the largest Austrian exporter. Cashmere sweaters were the main item in these years, and a. domestic plant was built in San Antonio, Texas to satisfy the demand of the American market where every high school girl used to own a collection of Cashmere sweaters. The late A. S. Hooper was Eastern and I was the Western Sales Manager in years when we sold annually in excess of one million dollars in the eleven Western state: alone. Shortly after Bernhard died, his business fell apart. The Vienna mill belongs, like most big businesses in Austria, to the banks, which in turn are government owned or controlled. The name Bernhard Altmann was sold with the Texas plant to Donninger-McGregor, who subsequently used it for men's sweaters only. I started in 1962 to import ladies' knit suits from Italy and Hong Kong and lost during the first years more money than I could make in years thereafter. In 1965, I sold $ 31 thousand; in 1967 when Robert Polak joined me as my first salesman: $ 120 thousand. In 1969 when Leo Mohr ' joined our sales force we went over the quarter million mark with average annual increase in sales between 25 and 50%. Our office and warehouse is run by the stern hand of Miss Petra Kaun, who grew up with our children and has become part of us. In 1971 we approach half million. With the help of a sales force that we are gradually assembling we shall find a niche in the better-priced field catering to the woman with a mature look. In today's American ladies apparel business my name in the label is the only mark left of a legend in knitting.