The Stahmer dynasty goes back to Bill’s great grandfather in the goldfields of Creswick in 1867. Stahmers Carpets is the oldest floor covering business in Australia and the 71st oldest registered business in Australia’s history. Bill’s son Matthew is now the fifth generation of the family business.
Bill’s story is one of hard work; sporting achievement; fights and two stints as a guest of Her Majesty. It’s been a wild ride but it’s not over yet. At seventy years of age Bill Stahmer still has a lot of living to do, now that the business based in Moorabbin is safely in the hands of his son Matthew.
We caught up with Bill on a recent trip to Australia for a full right elbow replacement, the result of a collision between his Yamaha scooter and a tour bus in Phuket, Thailand where he has lived for the last 12 years.
Bill was born in Elsternwick, Victoria to father Lester Henry and mother Hazel Doreen. His grandparents on his father’s side were Robert Henry and Alice Whitely and he remembers his Grandmother fondly. He recalls going to Creswick to spend holidays with his grandma who lived there. Her driver would pick him up at the railway station in their Dodge Desoto, “I had the best roast dinners there” he said.
Bill lived in Caulfield most of his life where as a young boy, everyone around had stables. He says “I was always up at 5 to ride to the Caulfield Racecourse, and also helped with the milkman!”
Bill has one older brother, Robert who he hasn’t spoken with in twenty five years, although when they were young they enjoyed similar pursuits and when married, lived around the corner from each other. Bill went to school at Caulfield North Central School but it didn’t end well.
In year nine he was ‘thrown out’ after the Maths teacher caught him betting on the horses. Bill said “I was the class bookie and the teacher caught me following a race on my old transistor radio. I admit there was some pushing and shoving, most of it from me but Mum was called and they thought it best that I leave.”
He delivered telegrams for six months and then one day his father “Yanked me out of bed and took me to our carpet warehouse at 67 Chapel Street Windsor where I started sweeping the floors,” he says. “We were situated at 72 to 74 Chapel Street but in 1956 we bought an old Moran and Cato grocery shop opposite at 67 Chapel Street and in 1960 moved in fulltime. Those were good days for a boy, the Linoleum and 69 CM Body carpets were moved with Piano trolleys and wooden Hand Trucks, so we used to have Billy Cart rides around the floors and ramps; and hide in the mattresses.”
Bill recalls “My father knocked me around a bit, but was much easier on my brother Robert. Dad had gone to war where he served in landing craft all the way up the N.E Coast of New Guinea. He left a non-smoker and non-drinker and came back doing both. He never spoke about the war; it must have been very traumatic. As mum said later, he would walk around at night and talk to the walls! The government sends you away to fight and then does nothing for you when you return. My mother’s father served in Gallipoli and unfortunately passed away near destitute and drinking. Dad’s father passed away at the end of 1939 before the war, so Dad took over the business. He also bought the family home in Caulfield from Bill’s grandmother. With the advent of tufting Machines our business changed. At 15 I went out with one of our 4 carpet layers and learnt installation; laying carpets for another 21 years!”
Bill learned how to sew 27-inch ‘body carpet’ with a hand-held Singer sewing machine he still owns. He tells that he went to night school at Pascoe Vale Tech where they ran a Carpet Laying Course for 2 hours a night, once a week. He says he couldn’t do the maths so he failed but it doesn’t seem to have affected his business sense. He recalls “During my year at night school in 1966 we had a session at the Myer workroom at Flemington Flats. They had 44-gallon drums filled with blue tacks, I was amazed at the scope of their operations, and sadly they closed down several years later.” Bill recalls the time Dad took him to visit the Invicta Carpet mill where Arthur Shaffir showed them around. Bill was impressed that Arthur seemed to know the names of every one of the seven hundred people who worked there, mostly women. Bill dealt with all of the greats: Invicta; United Carpet Mills; Godfrey Hirst; Minster; Quest; Hycraft; Homfrays; Tascot Templetons; Brintons; Feltex and Victoria Carpets who he describes as ‘one of the best.’
“I recall my father taking me out to meet some of the people he dealt with, even when I was at school. When you were in the boardroom you would be given tea and biscuits, then the buying would take place. Bartering was an education in itself; in those days everyone carried stock, there were no Franchises, your buying was paramount. The Jewish fraternity was a large part of our business and Ted Lustig comes to mind. Ted built the Hilton Hotels in partnership with his brother in law. He was a small, mean man but I respected the fact that he came to Australia in rags after the Second World War and ended up a multi-millionaire.” Later, Bill remembers Ted owed a balance of $170 after a development in Toorak, saying he didn’t have the money. Visiting him on a Friday he recalls Ted saying “You may call me mister Lustig” to which Bill responded, “And you may call me mister Stahmer; and I will be paid.” Bill said “I can be as nice or as rude as anyone.” Bill hounded Ted for three months until he finally paid up.
During those early years Bill started to take some serious interest in cricket and lacrosse. At 14, he went to the M.C.C Dowling Shield under 16 training and represented Melbourne as a wicketkeeper and top order batsman. He played Lacrosse at Caulfield and started cricket with Caulfield Sub District although never reaching the senior 11. He does recall joining the club where Shane Warne started. Other top shelf cricketers Bill came across were the very likable Glenn McGrath and the one and only Dennis Lillee who Bill describes as “A real gentleman,” and Brad Hodge.
Outside of the carpet industry Bill has made quite an impact in Australian sport. Lacrosse is a game passed on by the North American Indians and was once a significant sport in Australia played on such great venues as the MCG, SCG, the WACA and Adelaide Oval. It hosted its first international tour of a Canadian team in 1907 where over 14,000 spectators witnessed a game of lacrosse on the MCG and other great venues. Lacrosse Victoria first mentions Bill in the 1967 Victorian team losing to South Australia. Bill was 18 at the time and went on to play fifteen consecutive years including the 1968 and 1970 Champion teams and the All-Australian team to defeat a touring U.S.A. team.
In 1971 a special consideration for selection was the players’ previous reputation concerning behaviour and conduct. The committee was all too aware of the poor reputation brought upon by some Australian lacrosse players on the 1967 tour of America and Canada. In later years Bill Stahmer didn’t improve Australia’s reputation at all. He recalls “Near the end of our tour of the States I was billeted with an American club player whose friend ran a bar up on Long Island. I was with our Goalkeeper; a guy named Evan Jones, whose nick name was the Reverend Evan. We spent the afternoon drinking beer with Schnapps Chasers and by the time we got to the New York City Mayoral Reception we were tired and emotional. One thing led to another and I deliberately tipped a drink over the senior coach. It didn’t bother me; he was one of the most disliked Coaches you would come across. The following day they were going to send me home, but the team backed us up, saying if we went, they went! I got to stay and then played my best lacrosse in the last 4 games including an unfortunate loss to England; Australia’s first ever!”
Bill played for Caulfield Victoria and in 1975 co-captained the State team. Bill was in the Victorian team for 1977 championships and his brother Robert was manager. The overseas team for 1976 also included Bill. The Australians got little or no outside help on their expenses, and most of them used up savings and borrowed money on the trip, which cost each of them several thousand dollars. Having played twelve matches, they had lost only three. In 1980 Bill was again on the team and was head coach of the 1989 team to Japan. In 1990 the Victorian and MCC coach Bill Stahmer was again selected for the national side. In all, Bill played for twenty-eight years and coached for thirteen years.
In contradiction to Bill’s past behaviour, Lacrosse Victoria reports of Bill as National coach that ‘Bill believed in discipline on field, off field and anywhere in between. His no-nonsense requirements were not always immediately understood by players selected from other states, but he communicated well, and got his messages of discipline and fitness across to members of Australian teams very soon after they came under his influence. Bill Stahmer was aghast at the attitude of some of the players. It was felt, not least by him, that some of the selected players had a far better opinion of their own skills than reality warranted. As Stahmer had shown in Victoria, and at the MCC club, he was a man of ruthless and resolute action. He immediately removed a number of players from the touring team on the grounds of lack of commitment and courtesy. He felt that fitness trials held in Adelaide were a disgrace due to the degree of fitness achieved by some players and their general attitude. Among younger players he found a certain complacency and readiness to allow older players to fall out by attrition, rather than forcing their way into selection by superior skill and endeavour. This tour underlined the task that lay ahead of the Australians, who won 5 of the 9 games played against the American team.’
Bill’s Dad passed away twenty-five years ago when Bill was forty-five. Nine years before and while they were still in Chapel Street, his older brother walked out after a physical altercation with their mother and moved to Mission Beach. “Dad changed the will and Robert got a lot less than he expected” Bill said. And so, Stahmer’s Carpets fell under the control of Bill Stahmer. Their work is mainly commercial and their clients included Metricon Homes until they changed suppliers without even a word to Bill, who values respect in business but didn’t get any him-self on this occasion. Bill says “My pet hates of the industry are manufacturers who supply shops who then close their doors; open up again and get re-supplied, howbeit at an additional cost per metre. I also never liked manufacturers who lie about project prices when all along someone else has price protection.” Bill also has a dislike for several major suppliers who he says “Are all lies and bullshit, there’s never any problem with the product, it’s always our fault. They shift the goalposts.”
Bill had his fair share of run-ins with the constabulary and has spent two occasions in custody. Once as the result of a scuffle with police at Adelaide railway station for which he received two weeks and the other, a term of thirty days. He recalls with a laugh, “A mate, ‘Rags’ had come home from a tour of Vietnam; in fact he was still in his jungle greens. We headed straight to our local, got pissed, fought with the local garbos and the coppers, got arrested again, overnight at Malvern police station then fronted court on assault again! Both let off with bonds.”
On another occasion after an end of season trip to Adelaide, the team spent the Monday at the Beaconsfield hotel St. Kilda. Bill recalls “A mate’s brother called in and said he would drive my mate ‘Fat Harry’ and I home. His name was ‘Slim’, a big government meat inspector who worked at the abattoirs. After more drinking we hopped in a car and Slim took off. We got to Elsternwick then all of a sudden there was a police siren and lights and we got pulled over by a motor cycle cop. I thought we were in big trouble when Slim jumped a fence and did a bolter; it turns out the car was stolen. I chested the copper who then pulled his gun and told us to stand up against the fence. Pretty soon there were more cops, the chopper and a dog squad. The dog got slim hiding under a house six houses up the street. Fat Harry and I were up against the fence when this attractive police woman came up and Fat Harry said, ‘I’ve seen you before’ She asks where and he said on TV, Miss Piggy. Next thing we were poleaxed against the fence, you could say she wasn’t happy.”
And then in 2004 Bill’s life literally turned upside down. In Patong Thailand on holiday, Bill was caught up in the Boxing Day Tsunami that killed almost a quarter of a million people across fourteen countries. Bill recalls that he was still in bed at 9:20am when he sensed that something wasn’t right. “There was water all over the floor and the room stank like a sewage overflow. Then I heard a high-pitched whine like a truck would make. Suddenly the wall exploded and the wave smashed through and pinned me against the back wall of the bedroom. I’d drawn the curtains so the glass didn’t cut me up but it was like being in a washing machine” he said.
Compared to many others Bill was lucky, only receiving minor injuries. He recalls looking for his mate Kevin McGrath but couldn’t find him; and helping a woman with a severed foot before the second wave hit and they had to take refuge on the roof of a nearby hotel. It turns out Kevin was getting a massage when the masseuse warned him and he got away. Bill spent the next two days helping the locals to move bodies, something he will never forget. Officially listed as missing, Bill returned home ten days after the Tsunami and broke down at the airport. The fact is that Bill still suffers from the effects of that day, even after fourteen years!
Bill returned to Thailand the April following the Tsunami and saw some property for sale. Suddenly, out of no-where he decided this was for him and bought a block. Prices had plummeted after the tragedy but this wasn’t the reason he bought the property. He now has a two-storey home there and has been retired a year and a half now. Sitting in a Tuk-Tuk one day he realised “This is for me” and returned to Australia to hand the business over to his son Matthew. He still suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder but feels the lifestyle Thailand offers will do him good.
Bill has been in their current premises for twelve years now. He bought it from the Pellicano family. “Over the years I’ve worked hard, even after late nights and early mornings, I’ve still been at work on time. I’ve got a great team around me and I’m blessed with two great kids. I’ve been out of the business a year or so now, I admit that I haven’t a clue what’s going on here anymore; give me a pencil, paper and a rule and that’s all I ever needed, but it’s all changed now,” he says.
Friends and legends
Ask him who he looks up to and Bill jokes “Me! I’ve had many so-called friends who’ve only been too happy to back-door you but I did admire a lot of people in the industry, particularly Arthur Shaffir at Invicta Carpets; Wolf Fink at United Carpets; Michael Oakley of Victoria Carpets and John Sunderland at Quest Carpets. I’d also like to mention the Bramwell brothers and ‘The Don,’ Don Curry and his family. Don Curry is a notable exception” he says. “Don’s retired now, he was fantastic and we were great friends. We colluded on many jobs so if a customer went to me first, Don would add on another thousand or so in his quote so I would get the job; of course I always returned the favour. Wolf Fink was also a character. I met him once at a function and he asked which car was mine. I said ‘the Commodore’ and he told his partner to sell me whatever I wanted, that I had money. He thought that all those carpet guys with expensive cars never paid him.”
Over the years Bill has met and enjoyed the company of some of Australia’s finest sports personalities. His ‘friends’ include Glen McGrath; Doug Walters and Stuart McGill from cricket. From AFL Wayne Carey; Glen Archer and Brent Harvey of North Melbourne, a player Bill sponsored in 2007. In golf its Miguel Jiménez; Adam Scott and Peter Thompson. From Formula One it’s Mark Webber who he spent a weekend with on a yacht at the Monaco Grand Prix. His loves are his family who he says “In life is number one,” the MCC; his safari’s; the North Melbourne Football Club and travel.
Bill loves to travel, something he got used to while representing Australia, in fact he’s been to the United States twenty times, including several times to present Lacrosse clinics. Something he’s done a lot of is safaris in Zambia, Tanzania and Kruger National Park. He’s done 3 canoeing trips down the Zimbabwe at Mana Pools and tells us the story of the time “I was tipped out of the canoe on my first trip by a hippopotamus, absolutely frightening. On another trip in the same area I found a snake in my tent, that was hair-raising also” he says. He’s going again this year and loves to shoot animals. With a camera, not a gun, something he feels is “not sport.” A believer in the circle of life, Bill loves the outdoors and says “I could go around an 18-hole golf course without hitting a ball and I’d be happy.”
Bill’s been in the midst of a major natural disaster; has been threatened by union officials; has carried a shotgun for his own protection; has been imprisoned; stabbed several times and even almost had his nose bitten off. But his story is also one of representing Australia; running a great business; of family and long-time friends; of his beloved cattle dogs; of belief in the industry he is so proud of. From humble beginnings to marching behind the Australian flag in Perth at the World Lacrosse Series, one of the proudest moments in his life, his is a story of achievement and in a way, a lust for life.
Pictured: Bill (right) and Matthew Stahmer.