Rob Levin is a much-loved and respected icon of the flooring trade with almost 50 years in the industry. His philosophy? “Be honest, do the right thing, be helpful to others no matter the cost and be happy to embrace change.”
Rob Levin and his business partner Sam Grande ran Mr Carpets for over forty years in three business locations, all within only half a square kilometre, just east of Melbourne CBD. You could say Rob’s as recognisable a character of the flooring industry as anybody in the business. He’s as highly regarded as anyone; he’s loved by his family and his employees and held in high esteem by his business acquaintances. He’s an honest man who always does the right thing for others no matter what the cost, a mark of a true icon of the industry.
Rob’s family originally came to Australia in 1823 with the Levin side arriving from Lithuania in 1890. In only a few years the family will celebrate 200 years in Australia! Rob was born here in 1943, the same year as Molly Meldrum; politician Philip Ruddock; Ian Chappell; Judith Durham and radio host Alan Jones; all heavyweights in their various fields. Rob was the youngest of three children and remembers a very happy childhood.
Rob was fortunate to attend Wesley College but decided to leave after year eleven. He said, “I had no great skills in science or maths, but I was very interested in the humanities, subjects like history, English and languages and I certainly liked working with people.” Like many personalities in the flooring industry, Rob also possessed strong sporting prowess and, at 16 years of age, played soccer for Slavia in the State League as a goalkeeper, and had quite a significant cricket career with a local club, north eastern Maccabi.
Are you being served?
After leaving school Rob won a cadetship at Myer and started working in the menswear department. In those days he was required to wear a gentleman’s hat at work. He soon moved to Roger David, also selling menswear. During his time there he completed a sales management degree at Swinburne University, eventually moving out to start his own menswear business with stores in Melbourne City and Prahran.
The next five years or so were frantic. Rob got married, had two children, Jane and Michael, but was struck down with glandular fever which kept him away from his business. As a result, in 1973 Rob decided to close the two stores and started out afresh with Vinyl Fair and Exhibition Carpets in Collingwood, as General Manager, his first exposure to the flooring industry. It was the same year Don and Kay Currie started Don Currie Carpets and they became close friends.
During his time at Vinyl Fair a young man, Sam Grande, attended an interview for a sales job. Rob saw something in the young man and hired him. Eventually, in 1979 Rob and Sam went out and started Mr Carpets in the inner-Melbourne suburb of Clifton Hill. Sam’s role was to manage the estimating and installation side of the business and Rob’s was to use his people skills at the front of house, maintaining purchasing and retail sales and the administration.
After five years at Clifton Hill Rob and Sam moved to the first of two significant Melbourne landmark buildings. The first was the Lyric Theatre in Fitzroy, one of Melbourne’s very first theatres that has only recently been reimagined as a series of chic apartments. The art nouveau building screened silent films from the 1920s to the 1950’s. They were there for six years and in 1990 moved to the Austral Picture Theatre in Collingwood. That building is historically and architecturally significant to the locality of Collingwood and the City of Yarra. It’s where Mr Carpets is currently located, and it makes a perfect showroom and warehouse.
The recession we had to have
In October 1987, the international Stock Market Slump saw markets crash around the world. By July 1990, Australia had entered severe recession leading to Paul Keating’s now infamous comment. By April 1991, unemployment in Australia was nearing 10% and rising. Rob remembers that in the year’s 1991 and 1992 eight of the top ten commercial flooring companies closed down. He said, “I wasn’t going to go the easy way, to close and start again later on. We worked hard to trade through it. We were effectively broke, but we got through in the end.”
During this time Don Currie and Rob copped huge debts but worked with their creditors and the trade to pay everyone back. Rob recalls, “I didn’t take a holiday for seven years. Looking back, it was the most trying time of my career but also the most satisfying. One thing you can’t buy is a good name and we worked very hard to keep ours.” Rob singles out some of the people who helped them through the recession including Michael Oakley of Victoria Carpets; Peter Hepples from Feltex and Arthur Shaffir of Invicta; as well as Bill O’Halloran, who started his business in their premises in Clifton hill and was also a great support at this time.
Chairman of the Board
Mr Carpets joined Floorworld in 1991 when the group was established, with Rob right at the centre of things. Rob was a founding member with Greg Smith and others, including Gary Breen (Dandenong); Doug Trickey (Ballarat); Bill Tsapatsaris (Thomastown); and Kevin McAuliffe (Camberwell). The group now boasts more than 40 stores Australia-wide. Rob served as Chairman of Floorworld for an impressive 16 years, traveling to Domotex in Hannover and Shanghai; Surfaces, Las Vegas; and Neocon, Chicago, as well as countless suppliers around Australia and the world.
This not only expanded Rob’s incredible circle of contacts but also help him keep up with the latest trends. Rob says, “When we started it was mostly wool carpet, some polypropylene and domestic and commercial vinyl. The woven carpets were hand sewn and laid on horse-hair underfelt. The changes kept coming – nylon and solution dyed nylon both emerged. Commercial broadloom carpet has mostly been replaced by carpet tiles, which continue to evolve. We now have engineered timber flooring, laminates, hybrids, LVT and recycled rubber!” Computers meant estimating software and no more written cheques and purchase orders.
When Rob started out, he recalls, “There were 57 carpet mills in Australia and New Zealand, now there’s only seven or eight.” Over the years Mr Carpet have always supported local brands and do so to this day. Sam and Rob managed to rebuild their business into a highly successful operation, both in the commercial and domestic sectors, winning awards for some of their installations.
The next chapter
Sam Grande has recently retired, and while Rob has wound back, he’s still keeping his hand in, working from home or the shop as needed with his new partner Jason Brophy, who Rob mentored since he started as a salesman with Mr Carpets in 2001.
The business continues with the same integrity as always with Jason at the helm. Rob said of his dear friend and long-time colleague Sam Grande, “We couldn’t have achieved what we did without the amazing efforts and work ethic Sam always gave to the business and our customers, many of who have been coming back to us for years.
Outside of work, Rob enjoys spending time with his extended family (including his two grandchildren); playing a round of golf; working with his local Rotary International chapter (where he is renowned for his joke-telling that starts each meeting); attending cultural events like the opera, ballet and theatre; and of course, following his beloved St Kilda Football Club (that’s a lesson in resilience right there). His positive attitude is evidenced by the fact that he still holds out hope to see them win their second premiership!
Looking back over his almost five decades in the industry, there are two things Rob is most proud of – the longevity of his business relationships and the dedication of his team. “I can’t stress enough that the most important thing in business is to do the right thing and to treat your people well. We have people working with us now who have been with us for fifteen years or more. Along the journey more than twenty team members have achieved long service leave. A business is only as good as its staff and our team is as good as it gets”.
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Pictured: (L-R) Michael, Rob and Jane