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40 years in Hamilton through Jenni’s eyes

Our Hamilton branch celebrates four decades on Beaumont Street, as does a favourite staff member.

Thursday, 11 January, 2018.

During 40 years of working on Hamilton’s Beaumont Street, Jenni Papanicolaou has witnessed the boom and bust years. She’s seen the heyday of BHP, and its closure; the devastation of the earthquake and the suburb’s subsequent rebirth; she served the wave of European migrants to Hamilton, and now their grandchildren.

Newcastle Permanent’s Hamilton branch had been open for 40 years as of Saturday, 6th of January, 2018, and the date also marked four decades in the job for Jenni. The branch staff and customers celebrated the anniversaries with a day-long "morning tea" on the following Thursday.  

"I was 17 years old when I started but I swear I must have looked 12 at the time," Jenni said. "I had plats down to my knees. I had just finished my HSC and was going to go to university when the CEO offered me or my sister a job. Both of us were too scared to accept it, so my dad took matters into his own hands. He did a coin toss and it was me who turned up to work on the Monday."

Hamilton in 1978 was heavily influenced by European migrants who came to Australia post World War II, and it remains so to this day. Jenni, who is of Greek decent, said her ancestry helped in her role.  

"I think it was because I could speak fluent Greek that I was offered the job," she recalled. "Many of our customers were Greek, Italian, and Macedonian, and it was a priority at the time to employ a bi-lingual staff to help customers.

"I educated my customers in the basics; they didn’t know how to complete the withdrawal form so they could get their money. I taught them how to fill in their name, where to put the amount, and where to sign. Some of my customers today are the kids, and the grandkids, of people I served when I was still a young girl."

Jenni remembers the closure of BHP. In the glory days or the steelworks, the Mayfield and Hamilton branches managed the BHP payroll. Employees went into the branch to collect their pay and when they did this they paid their loans, took cash they needed for the fortnight and saved the rest.

"My customers today are coming in for home loans, personal loans, to get insurance and to get their overseas money. They still come in to see if ‘Jenni can do better’, which the majority of the time I can because our products are usually better than any other offer in the market." – Jenni Papanicalaou, Newcastle Permanent Member Service Officer

Newcastle Permanent staff member Jenni Papanicolaou outside our branch on Beaumont Street
Jenni Papanicolaou.
A 1996 TV ad featuring Jenni Papanicolaou.

"A lot has changed since then," she said. "There used to be five butcher shops and now there’s one; there were four fruit and veg shops, now there’s one."

When BHP closed almost two decades ago, long-standing customers suddenly had a lot of money from payouts. Many of them paid off their homes and life at the Hamilton branch changed dramatically. 

Memories of the 1989 earthquake that killed 13 people and injured 160 are also stuck firmly in Jenni’s mind.  

"I was here, on Beaumont Street, for the earthquake," she said. "A person died just across the street—which scared me. I thought it was like a war: all the smoke and screaming… we were trying to help people. How none of us (in the branch) were hurt, I’ll never know."

Following the earthquake, Beaumont Street facades were rebuilt and, heavily influenced by the neighbourhood’s links to Europe, the area was reborn as a thriving hub of outdoor dining, bars and boutique shops.  

Changes in finance and how people access their money have been equally as radical in Jenni’s time. When she first started, ‘tellers’ had a $40 float and couldn’t give more than $200 over the counter. Jenni said cash was kept in ‘tins’. Accounts were still managed on a computer in the 1980s but printing was done in a customer’s passbook and on their ledger card. Customers no longer come into the branch predominantly for cash and to pay bills. 

"My customers today are coming in for home loans, personal loans, to get insurance and to get their overseas money," Jenni said. "They still come in to see if ‘Jenni can do better’, which the majority of the time I can because our products are usually better than any other offer in the market."

It’s unusual to hear of someone staying with an organisation for a decade in this day and age, let alone four. But Jenni clearly loves her job.

"I don’t know how it happened, I really don’t," Jenni said. "I owe a lot to Newcastle Permanent. My first pay cheque was $75 in a tiny little envelope and I thought I’d won Lotto. Since that time I have paid off my home and I have been overseas many times. We have a really good team at our branch and I come to work because I love it."

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