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Photo by: GLORIA DEUTSCH
4ever here?
By GLORIA DEUTSCH
27/12/2012
Eric Milner still has his sights set on making a smooth transition to life in Israel.
 
Eric Milner left South Africa in 2009, bringing his entire family with him – his wife Shirley, daughter Janine with son-in-law Robin, two sons, Greg and Craig, and three grandchildren.

He also brought his entire leather cleaning business with him and was soon busy cleaning the leather seats of the Knesset – “you can’t imagine the amount of dirt that came out of them,” he says – and settled down in Haifa to what he hoped would be a good aliya.

Shirley and Janine went into the chocolate business, buying a franchise and opening a shop in Kfar-Saba – but before long the sweetness turned sour. They felt they had been misled by the contract they signed, and not being able to read Hebrew proved a serious disadvantage.

“We felt very bitter about the whole thing and wanted to go back to Johannesburg,” they say, “but the grandchildren are very happy here and they are the reason we are still here.”

They are still amazed that the children, 11, nine and six, have settled in so well and that the older ones take buses alone, something they would never have done in South Africa.

For the moment, until Shirley can find another job, Eric’s business is the sole earner in the extended family, (except for Robin who works as an electrician) but he feels with his nearly 30 years’ experience of cleaning leather furniture he has something to offer, especially since he strongly feels the local practitioners of the craft don’t share his knowledge and experience.

“My company was the only one in South Africa and we worked for all the top business companies. We even cleaned the furniture of the prime minister’s residence and got to meet Nelson Mandela,” he says.

He started in the business because of his love of vintage cars, of which he owned seven when they lived in South Africa. They all dated from the ‘Fifties, and his favorite was a 1957 Mercedes Benz 220S, which came first in national competitions on two separate occasions.

“I was the vice-president of the Mercedes- Benz club for southern Africa,” he recalls.

Thanks to his passion for old cars, he researched in depth until he found the best material and method for cleaning the leather seats – and the results were so good he decided to make a business out of his new-found knowledge. The result was “Plush Auto Leather Cleaners” which, when they came to Israel, was renamed “4Ever Leather.”

Ironically for a man whose love is old cars, in Israel he won’t even drive and goes everywhere by bus.

“I’m a wreck when I see how people drive here,” he says. “We prefer to be passengers.”

After they arrived in Israel the entire family moved straightaway to Haifa, because they had heard back home that one could get the cheapest rental and best quality in the northern city. And they love Haifa. “We are beach people, and every Shabbat we are there, at the beach,” they say.

Establishing the leather-cleaning business took a lot of hard work, with Janine acting as secretary, contacting many different hotels through persistent e-mails, offering free demonstrations of their work until they were booked by several prestigious hotel chains to clean their furniture as an on-going process.

Getting into the Knesset was hard going, and they had to work very hard to persuade the maintenance manager that the job needed doing at all and that they could make a difference. It was also difficult in the literal sense as their arrival, together with all the necessary equipment, engendered great suspicion on the part of the security people. But they did eventually get in, spent the whole day working solidly on the golden-brown leather chairs and left the place gleaming.

They got such a shine on the prime minister’s chair that the television crew which was also there at the time complained that it would not look good on screen and asked them to reduce the shine a little.

“When we work we don’t talk to each other, and we don’t stop to eat,” says Eric. “It took us from 9:30 a.m. until about 3:30 p.m. to do the job.”

He proudly carries a portfolio of recommendations from several five-star hotels as well as from the Knesset, in which the strong work ethic of the family is mentioned, as well as the excellent results. Eric emphasizes that when leather is too far gone and damaged they can’t work miracles on it, but can still make it cleaner.

“It’s nice for us to work with a good product,” he says, “but if it’s very old and in a bad state we don’t get the result we would like.”

One of the things he misses from South Africa is his rifle collection, which he was not allowed to bring.

“In the end I failed even trying to bring in my special hunting rifle,” he laments. “I like to hunt and I planned to go to France and hunt for wild boar there but couldn’t get permission from the government after trying for months.”

It’s not been the smoothest of paths for the Milners, but they are determined to make a go of it. Janine now calls herself Jenni – since she discovered that her name sounds exactly like a certain West Bank town. It’s just one of many adjustments they have had to make in their new life.
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