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November 15: Samuel Klein’s Casas Bahia Empire

Lawrence Bush
November 15, 2016
Samuel Klein, who survived the Maidenek concentration camp and became the creator of Brazil’s largest retail merchandiser, Casas Bahia, was born in Poland on this date in 1923. Klein, one of nine children, lost his mother and five younger siblings to Treblinka. He escaped from a forced march in 1944, lived for a number of years in postwar Germany, then emigrated with his father and a sister to Brazil in 1951. Klein began working as a peddler, selling clothing, sheets, and towels from a buggy -- and permitting his customers to pay in installments, with interest, which has been the ongoing key to his company’s success. In 1957, he opened his first shop; today there are more than 500 Casas Bahia warehouse stores, specializing in home appliances, with over 23 million customers. Casas Bahia is named for the state, Bahia, from which most of Klein’s working-class customers came. “While most mainstream Brazilian retailers shun the poor,” writes Miriam Jordan in the Wall Street Journal, “the former peddler courts them assiduously. Mr. Klein’s stripped-down stores are located in some of the most deprived neighborhoods of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. His clients include freelance masons, hot-dog vendors and blue-collar workers whose average monthly income is $190, below the national average of $290. Surprisingly, their default rates are lower than the market average, too, and their loyalty intense -- a combination that has turned Mr. Klein into a billionaire.” Klein died at 91 in 2014. “My talent is trusting the poor and giving the poor good service. Many poor have a better character than the rich. I was poor once.” --Samuel Klein

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.