Like most young men, Leo Cusack was in a hurry to get his driver’s licence when he was 17. But unlike most men who are keen to make their mark on the road, it was so he could help his family shift furniture around.
That’s how it was when your family ran the furniture store in Canberra, Cusack’s. Everyone helped. Be it working Friday nights and Saturday mornings when you were a youngster, it was just what you did.
For Leo, who helps co-run the store with his brother managing director Peter Cusack, it has, and always will be, a family concern. It is also the Canberra region’s oldest family-run store, with Stan Cusack, their grandfather, opening its first doors back in 1918 in Yass.
“My brother Peter runs things while, although I’ve always had a foot in this camp, I’ve done a few other things over the years as well,” Leo said.
“I went to the ANU and studied commerce, then I went on to Duntroon where I was an infantry officer in the army for some time … but I always came back here.
“I suppose there was a degree of succession planning but in the 1990s other members of the family went their separate ways while we stayed with the furniture business.”
Leo didn’t know his grandfather Stan, who died in 1971, but has heard many stories of the man.
Emigrating from Ireland in 1854, the Cusack family chose Australia to be their new home after Stan left school at age 14 to work in his father’s sulky manufacturing business. It was a successful operation, with the company supplying the carts throughout Australia and overseas.
It was through the business that Stan learned the carpentry and upholstery skills that led him to open his first business in 1918. By 1926, he had a chain of furniture stores across the southern region.
Stan was just 18 in 1918 when his father went guarantor for him, to the tune of 200 pounds, so he could start the business. When land releases began in Canberra in 1924, he secured a block in Manuka on the corner of Franklin Street and Flinders Way. He rode his motorbike from Yass to Canberra that day to attend the sale.
“The story goes that he ended up swapping that block with a guy who got the corner block – so it turned out pretty well for him getting the best site for the shop,” Leo said. “That block is where Public Bar stands today.”
Turns out Stan was also quite the entrepreneur. “He even ran a funeral director business. The story goes that they processed [former Prime Minister] Curtin’s body and put it on the train to Perth.
“All went well for them until the Depression hit in 1929,” Leo said. “The furniture that was available then wasn’t much chop, but because my family had a background in coach building, they managed to enhance the furniture. Back in those days, they could turn their hand at anything.”
But when the Depression hit it struck the Cusacks hard, and all the stores except for Canberra closed.
The company re-established itself in the boom time that was the 1950s, with the furniture industry proving to be one of the most lucrative with so much new business and home building going on in the region.
But the good times didn’t last. In 1976, a fire destroyed the landmark huge Kingston store. Yet, 12 months later, the Cusack family had rebuilt and reopened.
“It was quite an impost but the banks gave us tremendous support. And the staff even offered to go back to work without wages – it was that sort of loyalty they gave us.
“My Dad thanked them but that was never going to happen.”
The business moved to its current location in Fyshwick in 2011.
Although it’s not easy running a family business these days, Leo attributes the success of Cusack’s to loyalty from the region’s clients it has served for all these years.
“We have a lot of returning customers,” he said, “which is quite rare these days. The furniture business is an increasingly difficult sector to be in, but we still have a core group of Canberrans who come to us first and we do our best for them.”
The business celebrated its 100th birthday in 2018. Does it have another 100 years in it?
“Who knows?” Leo said. “We’re all getting into our 50s and 60s now, the next generations are doing their thing, different things. I’m not sure we’ll find that lineage in the future, but it will always be a Canberra place.”