A Tribute to Josef Riediger, Founder of Australian High-End Audio
Following the sad passing of one of the pioneers and forefathers of the Australian High-End Hi-Fi industry, Josef Riediger, StereoNET's Marc Rushton and Peter Familari spoke with those closest to Josef, to get a better understanding of his successful career spanning decades, and the legacy a great man leaves behind ...
The North wind they call the Brickfielder arrived in Bankstown, NSW in the summer of 1987. It came with the malevolent levels of stifling heat and destructive force with which it was infamous.
On the same day, seemingly defying this monstrous, annual force of Australian nature, a slightly built man of medium height was fixated on the upper level of a two-storey shop located in the Bankstown, Old Town Centre Plaza in New South Wales.
His name was Josef Riediger; a name that would become globally synonymous with Australia's most renowned High-End Audio retail precinct and national distribution network.
Momentarily distracted by the force and fury of the Brickfielder, he watched calmly as the hot, arid Northerly sent heavy, cast-iron council litter bins clattering down the north and south terraces of the plaza as if they were nothing more than empty polystyrene coffee cups.
Josef Riediger knew this North Westerly wind. It was an old adversary. Symbolically it represented all the forces that lay between his vision and his will to bring it to fruition.
He had at one time, feared the Brickfielder. But his innate intelligence told him it was better to respect rather than fear your adversary. A lesson learnt working in Australia's brutal outback and one that would later earn him the respect of his clients, and his competitors.
Within five years of renting Shop 44, Suite 1, Old Town Centre Plaza, Bankstown, Josef Riediger had laid the solid bluestone foundations for Australia's most significant audio-video retail and distribution empire. An empire with a multi-million-dollar annual turnover that straddled every state of Australia, New Zealand, and many parts of the world.
The clients which the business depended on came from all the stations of life. Some were Prime Ministers, Premiers, QCs, Barristers, Specialist Surgeons, GPs, and others were pastry cooks, teachers, truck drivers, firefighters, nurses, and even Elle Macpherson. They all liked Josef Riediger, and they knew he returned this affection. They were the mutual friends that gave Australia what it lacked: an authentic high-end hi-fi retail and wholesale destination.
Ask for a definition of what the term “High-End” stands for, and some argue it denotes audio products with reassuringly expensive price tags. Others will tell you it only applies to equipment at the pinnacle of technical design excellence. Still more say it's any product that sounds like the real thing.
Josef Riediger defined the High-End as models with exacting build quality, breathtaking, fresh styling and realistic sound quality. When he found these features in mid to upper mid models, he opened a bottle of vintage wine celebrating the fact he could now share these models with music lovers of modest means.
Realistically, the models Josef thought the best the industry had to offer were very expensive. It took a leap of faith to invest in this quality of workmanship but Riediger who had an uncanny ability to read the market as well as people knew what he was doing.
The Early Years
Josef had immigrated to Australia from post-World War II Stuttgart, Germany in 1969 arriving here with his mother and six brothers. As Josef's business colleague and lifelong friend Flemming Rasmussen relates, they came with just a few hundred German Marks and no English. To save money, the family walked from the airport to Sydney.
Josef's first job was in the desolate outback constructing a 10-mile long conveyor belt that stretched from land to sea loading minerals into ships.
The Brickfielder threatening to demolish Bankstown in that eventful summer of '87 always reminded Josef of those early days in the continent's dangerous red centre. He once told Rasmussen that he was one of a group of twelve men arriving in the arid wasteland to work. Only three returned alive!
Josef would come to have many mature qualities. But if you asked the most intelligent of his business competitors to dissect and analyse this man's subtly sophisticated but always humble personality, and point to the secret of his success, they would all say - imagination, passion and a commitment to always keep his word.
Whether it was studying the Brickfielder or taking a punt on a new hi-fi store, Josef Riediger's imagination always framed the bigger picture.
Eventually, the family moved from the Northern Territory before settling in Sydney. Josef found work in the open, once again, working for Shell Oil. It is true to say that even then, Josef had a hi-fi vision.
At the time he was married to his first wife, Josephine, and they had one son together named Christopher. Josephine also had two children, Danny and Katy, and Josef loved them equally and treated them as his own.
The urge to work on a bigger canvas than Shell Oil compelled Riediger during that auspicious '87 summer to research the possibility of leasing the second story of an existing hi-fi store owned by a colleague called, Rudi Hollander.
Josef's imagination had already harboured an image of a high-end hi-fi outlet in the shop's second storey, which Josephine suggested he call 'The Audio Connection'. The high-end shop above working in tandem with Rudi's shop below that would trade in mainstream audio gear.
It is a testament to Josef's honesty that Hollander would agree to a potential competitor moving in upstairs. But honour would be a trademark of Riediger's life. Josef often commented over the years that if it were not for Rudi and the friendship and advice offered by him, that Audio Connection may never have survived those early years.
In the late 80s just before owning his first store, and with part-time trading after hours going so well, he never shed a tear when Shell Oil announced voluntary redundancies. Josef accepted one. That was the defining moment when this family man had to decide between paying off his mortgage or starting a hi-fi store. History records the hi-fi store won that argument, and the house became the security asset for the business.
Riediger reportedly made many trips to The Old Town Centre Plaza gathering intelligence and making plans for his new store. The day of the '87 Brickfielder was memorable because that was the day Riediger finished his meticulous research.
Taking a pencil and notebook from his back pocket, he compiled the subheadings:
- distance from railway station
- proximity of bus stop
- (check bus and train timetables)
- width and depth of premises
- access to parking
- check for rear entry
- Marion Street and Wattle Street, feeder roads
Ignoring the gale's stifling heat and the smell of acrid, suburban dust, the youngish Josef Riediger wrote notes in his cheap notebook. These would prove to be the last pieces of information that would ultimately determine the trajectory of the business life he had chosen just a few weeks earlier.
In his downtime from the refinery, Josef would feed his two passions, music and audio by trawling through second-hand record stores, the Trading Post, deceased estate auctions, and the traded-in sections of Sydney's hi-fi stores. Christopher Riediger recalls the home's lounge room and spare bedrooms often stacked to the ceiling with products Josef had acquired. He had an incredible ability to purchase only what people wanted, and the products were generally turned over quickly.
An educated collector with an encyclopaedic memory of recorded music and hi-fi brands and models, he kept the best of the vinyl albums and the most beautifully built hi-fi components for his own personal collection. The rest he would trade.
Josef (right) with son Chris (left)
Australia's First High-End Hi-Fi Store Arrives in Bankstown
Whether you approached The Audio Connection from Marion Street on one side or Wattle Street on the other, the Old Town Centre plaza where the store shared a frontage with a collection of other unmemorable retail shop frontages, was quaint but tired. The entire suburb had the look and feel of a place that was bland and unfashionable.
Clients of Josef from Sydney's complacent and opulent northern suburbs would understandably have concluded Bankstown was well past its best history date. They would be wrong.
Bankstown, which is 16 miles south-west of Sydney, was born in one man's ability to imagine, to see the bigger picture. After exploring the Georges River in 1795, Matthew Flinders and George Bass described the verdant beauty they had seen to Governor Hunter, who was captivated and went to see the place for himself. Hunter created a pretty pioneer village there called Bank's Town in honour of Sir Joseph Banks who had sailed with Captain James Cook in 1770.
Throughout its history, Bankstown has been a working man's suburb. It housed an internment camp and a critical strategic air force base during World War II. An industrial wasteland before the war, Bankstown's fortunes improved considerably between 1942 and 1954 when a new industrial hub was created to build Hawker De Havilland's aerodynamically beautiful aircraft called the Havilland Mosquito bomber.
By the time Josef opened his store, Bankstown had about 7,000 businesses. As he strolled through the plaza, he delighted in the Vietnamese, Lebanese, and Chinese languages he could hear there every day.
He celebrated the new immigrants and supported them by eating in their new restaurants every time he could get away from his thriving business. Riediger would often say that his Asian clients were the most educated audio buyers by far. Their passion for finely wrought components and recorded music resonated with his own.
The steady business soon revealed the Bankstown store was no longer large enough to house a growing audio retail and wholesale distribution business. The hunt would begin to find a new location for The Audio Connection.
Anyone wondering how Josef grew his business so quickly only had to follow the man through a working day and night.
A typical day started with dropping Christopher off at school on the way to Bankstown and working through until the last customer left. Even if he managed to get away by 8 pm, Riediger would then personally deliver, install, and fine-tune a customer's new equipment himself. Once home, he would then do paperwork and call his overseas manufacturers to do business in their time zone, generally not getting to sleep until well after midnight.
An early invoice from The Audio Connection, Bankstown
Within a handful of years at Bankstown, Josef's personality and personal integrity combined with his passion for music, quality audio, personal drive, unstinting work ethic and imagination made him the number one High-End Audio dealer in the nation.
The wealthier clients motoring to Bankstown in their BMW, Audi or Mercedes must have wondered why anyone would choose Bankstown as a quality audio destination. In some ways, they were right. If you were coming from the centre of Sydney, the contrast with the Bankstown environs would have been startling.
A few times a month, Josef would call a close friend, Andrew Kovacic, who would arrive at Bankstown in his rickety VW Kombi Van. After cramming traded in equipment into the van, the duo would head to Melbourne.
George Secher of Secher Audio remembers these trips because they were and still remain memorable. Typically, Josef and his mate would arrive at Secher's house in Melbourne about midnight. What was even more remarkable, after unloading the van Josef would relax with a cup of coffee whilst thumbing through a pile of hi-fi magazines.
By the winter of 1997, the Bankstown store could no longer house the increasing number of retail and wholesale products that the business was selling.
Officially, the record shows the idea of an audio distribution network began with the creation of Josef's Kedcorp company in 1989. It had been an essential part of the vision of Audio Connection, Bankstown. The high-end brand that marks that era is Gryphon which was acquired around the same time.
As Gryphon's founder and owner, Flemming E Rasmussen delights in recalling, Gryphon was a young company when an equally young guy with a modest high-end shop in Bankstown phoned him wanting to distribute his products.
Rasmussen recalls telling Riediger two things: first, he did not give his products to just anyone without meeting them and secondly, how would Riediger know he wanted it without hearing it first.
Josef's response was typical and to the point, telling Flemming gently that anything that looked as good as Gryphon gear must sound amazing. He concluded by sharing with Flemming that he loved amazing things.
Rasmussen tells us that he learned a couple of things during that early phone call: that he thought Josef special and a man who knew his Hi-Fi and more importantly, knew his clients. Sensing he was dealing with what he describes as a genuine, warm-hearted man, he gave Josef the distribution rights to Gryphon.
Gryphon joined Martin Logan, Classe, Acoustic Energy, Cardas Cable, Mark Levinson, Apogee Acoustics and Audio Research in the Kedcorp distribution portfolio. But of all the brands that are nearest and dearest to him throughout his career, it is Gryphon he prizes above the rest.
Unlike the summers, Bankstown winters are not hard. The air during the day is mild and the nights cool and clear but not cold. One morning in the faint winter dawn, Josef drove his old car out of Bankstown to go to Leichhardt. After scouting for a larger retail store, he found a potential shop on Parramatta Road.
Lifelong friends, Josef (left), Flemming Rasmussen (right) - Munich High End 2018
The Retail Expansion
Riediger never said if he thought about the symbolism of moving to a suburb named in honour of a Prussian explorer called Ludwig Leichhardt. The Prussian was celebrated in the 1850s for his epic 4,800 km trek searching for an overland route from Southern Queensland to Port Essington on the far north coast of the continent.
As the light rain painted its own patterns of intention on the worn bitumen surface of Parramatta Road and the smell of tar slyly entered his car, it was a good thing that Riediger, his mind intent on all the challenges renting a music larger store entailed, did not give a thought to how and why Ludwig Leichhardt disappeared in the enigmatic and perilous Australian interior on his final expedition in 1848.
Would the new suburb be a suburb too far for the hi-fi man from Bankstown? Would it do a Leichhardt and ambush him with the commercial equivalents of flooded pink salted lakes, water-logged Billabongs, desolate sun-baked plains, and salt pans eroded by an eternal cycle of drought and flood?
Arriving outside 455-461 Parramatta Road, Riediger once again stretched to reach the old notebook he used to compile a profile of his Bankstown store.
Those that knew Josef best are the people closest to him. These include his irreplaceable partner of over 20 years, Maggie, his nephew and company General Manager Nigel Ng, Gryphon's Flemming Rasmussen, Len Wallis, George Secher, and loyal staff such as Janson who has worked as the leading salesman for Josef for almost 30 years.
Of course, many others played a significant role in Josef's life. But each of these has, without prompting, remarked on Josef's ability to read people and to learn from others. Maggie tells a story about the very early days of Audio Connection when the wife of a very well-educated customer had correctly tallied that Riediger had an uncanny ability to read people. He also had a natural curiosity and a desire to research and learn.
Pulling him aside, she quietly told him that while Josef knew a lot about his business and hi-fi, to elevate himself above the audio pack and make the transition to an industry ambassador, he really ought to know about world affairs and history. From the very next day, Josef began reading every news site he could and ensured he read widely for the rest of his life.
This close coterie of family and friends suggest Riediger had researched the history of the suburb of Leichhardt including the explorer's privations. Even before his car had pulled over on Parramatta Road, he already knew most of what he needed to know.
Of particular interest was the suburb's proximity to the heart of Sydney. It is just 5km west of the city's central business district and that, Riediger calculated, gave clients ample means to get to the store.
Proclaimed a municipality in 1871, the suburb has had a rich, working-class history. But Riediger's meticulous notebook shows he understood Leichhardt was changing. It was a thriving multi-cultural mecca, and a had a thriving Italian quarter. Riediger would tell Nigel Ng years later that he loved the fact that the people of Sydney with a good deal of affection called Leichhardt, “Little Italy”.
Whilst Josef knew factually what he needed to know, he had driven to the front of the store to get a personal feel of the area and its business potential. So, he walked up and down Parramatta Road on that tepid Autumn night, hearing the fleeting sound of night birds above the steady rumble of traffic.
It was not long before he concluded that the suburb celebrated its cafe culture. No small thing to a clientele that could visit his store and be taken to Cafe Norton, the area's oldest cafe or any other of the dozens that abounded on Parramatta Road and the adjoining Norton Street.
He would tell his staff years later, that he liked the feel of this unpretentious suburb with its migration of young professionals and their families fleeing like refugees from inner Sydney's obscenely priced housing market. But most of all, he said he and Maggie thrived in a multi-cultural community and celebrated this fact every day.
The deal was done. Josef and Maggie would finalise the move to Parramatta Road after spending ten years at Bankstown.
Josef and Maggie
Maggie and Josef had met in the Bankstown store where she was a customer. They were inseparable, and their personalities as they often are in any successful relationship were a counterpoint to each other. They have been together for over 20 years and married in 2014.
The person closest to this relationship was Nigel Ng, Josef's nephew. Nigel, regarded as a son by Josef and has worked for him on and off over University holidays since 1998, says that if you asked his uncle what inspired his business success, he'd say it was all attributable to Maggie.
According to Nigel, by nature, Josef is a risk-taker. Maggie, with her astute banking and real estate expertise, has been the anchor that has moored Riediger's imagination and natural impulse to roll the dice.
With Maggie's tutoring, the new Audio Connection experienced a meteoric retail and wholesale rise. Maggie was the logistical and financial centre of gravity that saw the pair open another distribution company that would become known as Advance Audio. The idea was that the existing Kedcorp business would import the Mt Everest end of the High-End market, while Advance Audio would import quality mainstream brands.
Within five or six years, growth was so solid, Maggie and Josef had to think about expanding the Parramatta Road location seriously. The solution was closer than either realised.
Reaching the Summit: The Expansion of Audio Connection and Advance Audio
Good fortune and perfect timing allowed Maggie and Josef to expand the business by adding the adjoining building. Suddenly, the store's frontage stretched across the entirety of 455-461 Parramatta Road.
The store was the undisputed capital for high-end audio in the country. Audiophiles and music lovers looking for a particular esoteric brand would find it in Audio Connection or one of Kedcorp's and Advance Audio's many retail stockists, or nowhere else.
At one stage, the Riediger's empire imported more than 55 concurrent brands, including one that Maggie organised from start to finish called Definitive Technology, a quality North American Hi-Fi/Home cinema speaker range.
When Maggie, Josef or Nigel said they specialised in High-End audio, they were correct. Where else would you go to find a $100,000 Gryphon Mephisto amplifier, $160,000 DCS Vivaldi CD player, $350,000 Wilson Audio XLF speakers, $125,000 Clear Audio Statement turntable, $20,000 Clear Audio Goldfinger cartridge or the top of the range Nordost cable that retailed for $35,000 per metre?
The distribution network kept pace with the growth of the retail store, and by 2016 the business bought 509-529 Parramatta Road which became the current evolution of Audio Connection concept that began in humble environs in 1987.
Also acquired was the Advance Audio warehouse located at 8/509-529 Parramatta Road, a huge building continuously stocked to the rafters.
In the Spring of 2018, Maggie and Josef were enjoying a quiet coffee in an outdoor setting that is so wonderfully typical of Parramatta Road. They talked about business and how they had both been blessed by the good fortune of picking the right brand at the right time.
At one stage the Audio Connection empire had stores in Leichhardt, Caringbah, Drummoyne, Hunter's Hill and another on the Sunshine Coast.
Both agreed that paying attention to middle and upper-middle brands afforded by DALI and KEF, two of their imported speaker brands complimented their portfolio of high-end brands. They had strategically serviced the Australian audio market in a way no distributor had before them.
The business decision to close all the retail stores except Parramatta Road was made at the right time. Both could see the damage that online sales would unleash on traditional bricks and mortar hi-fi specialists.
Displaying a business acuity that had served them well for decades, the duo spotted the danger and came up with the solution before most in the industry. Josef would explain how his consultants would spend hours with a client auditioning hi-fi equipment only to learn the client would later go online and buy what he had just had expertly demonstrated, for the lowest price. In response, Josef and Maggie initiated a heavy focus online and used sites such as eBay to counter what they rightly saw as an erosion of their traditional business.
Technology had never been a strong point for Josef, however. When he first started the business a friend by the name of Bernie Gallen gave him a computer, some database software, and books, and told him to set up his business using it. He did not know the first thing about computers, and so he enrolled son Christopher, then just eight years old, to the task.
Through the years and many investments made to introduce technology to the business, Josef and most of the sales staff, hung on to whatever was the latest iteration of that very first database - even in the early 2000s because “it worked”. Josef preferred things that did what they were supposed to do, rather than the latest tech that often over-promised and under-delivered. This approach served Josef well in many areas.
Part of the long-term changes also saw Josef and Maggie investing in the next generation when they appointed Nigel Ng as Advance Audio's General Manager.
Maggie, with an eye for colour and detail, pointed out to Josef the native plants that made Spring their favourite season. Over there were the Arum Lilies. Here, the dazzling Desert Flame. Nearby, close to their table hosts of Bottle Brushes and Waratahs replete with tiny Long-tailed and Zebra finches coexisting harmoniously alongside much larger honeyeaters.
Despite the heavy traffic on the road, the sky had a clarity that gave people, cars, buildings, native creatures, and buildings sharp silhouettes. Josef told Maggie he often looked to the wildflowers and native finches for relief from his work in the outback where he and other poor souls laboured in the heat and humidity building a conveyor belt.
It had been a long trek for both of them. But those close to the pair remark that neither lost their respect or affection for other people and that most of their clients had chosen to become friends.
What both could not know was the exact depth and breadth of their influence on their clients. Many still speak of the avenues to beauty the Audio Connection audio equipment laid out for them as they listened to music that meant most to them.
They also paid tribute to those in the industry that had inspired and helped them both. Josef spoke of respect for Len Wallis. Nigel recalls Josef often visiting Len at his Lane Cove store to get inspiration. Josef says Len is the gentleman of the industry and a man for whom he has the most profound respect and admiration.
Josef's love for amazing brands and products
Spring had always energised Josef Riediger. His working day started at 9.30 am, and as Nigel notes, Josef made himself comfortable while they'd have a quick chat about major events, important outstanding business issues, a general banter about the world and current affairs before he'd head to his own office to start the day.
The routine slowed only a little after Josef had his first heart attack in 2002. Two strokes and diabetes followed in 2018. Yet despite the health challenges, what did not alter one bit was Josef's work ethic, and it's a matter of Audio Connection folklore that Josef turned up to the office in his hospital gown after his heart attack.
More recently, the Grand Man of Australian High-End audio was diagnosed with untreatable cancer.
Even so, he made time to call Len Wallis and chat for about an hour. Wallis says Josef showing his usual courage and ability to endure, had accepted his fate and felt he had lived a full life. He proudly told Len he had not worked a day in his audio business because the experience was always a pleasure.
Len Wallis has known Riediger for more than 35 years. Josef would often call into Len's store at Lane Cove and buy the store's better trade-ins. He would also be allowed to take expensive trade-ins on consignment and pay when they were sold. Wallis says in all that time if Josef gave you his word, he kept it.
Riediger appreciated quality above all other features. Throughout his business career, he traded commodities as disparate as watches, cars, paintings, and fine furniture for hi-fi, adding the most exquisite to his private collection.
This was not the modus of the greedy, far from it. Riediger never wanted more for more's sake. He never ever thought of himself as wealthy, even when the huge size of his business showed otherwise. He collected fine things because in one sense he wanted to preserve them for others to enjoy, but also because he had to feed his passion for the rare, the unique and let it be said, the historical.
This drive to collect never waned. Even at the height of his audio business success, Riediger continued to collect. So much so, nephew Nigel confirms this armada of audio gear and other fine objects required five warehouses where the pieces could be stored safely.
George Secher recalled that you had to go through Bankstown Hi-Fi to reach the stairs leading to the inaugural Audio Connection store. Once inside, the eyes had to navigate a huge space replete with wall to wall hi-fi. Only one man was privy to everything on display there, where everything was, and the history of each product, and that was Josef.
No one knows if there is indeed a Great Architect of the universe. But if there is, he is undoubtedly looking down at Josef Riediger and applauding him for a life well-lived. A life that forged an industry that is still very much thriving today, bringing the same joy and delivered with the same passion Josef lived by, to thousands of hi-fi and music lovers and generations to come. For this, we owe a great deal of gratitude.
Vale Josef Riediger
29/09/1949 – 23/09/2020
One of the veterans of the Australian HiFi industry, Peter was formerly the Audio-Video Editor of the Herald Sun for over two decades. One of the most-respected audio journalists in Australia, Peter brings his unparalleled experience and a unique story-telling ability to StereoNET.