Mark Hodgson said of his father Ross; “I attribute all my success in business to my father’s teaching. Put simply I thought what would Dad do in this instance; and I’d do the opposite, and it’s worked a charm!”
Ross Hodgson’s family are fourth-generation Australian, originally from the United Kingdom. Ross has three brothers; Laurie owns Southern Cross carpet mills in Dandenong with help from Ross; Rod is a Psychiatrist and Les is deceased. Ross’s parents were living in Cotham Road in the inner-Melbourne suburb of Kew when Ross was born on 18th May 1942 while the Second World War was still raging across the globe. Darwin had been bombed just a few months earlier and for many in Australia, this was the most perilous time of the war.
In 1942 King George VI was the reigning monarch; John Curtin was Australian Prime Minister and Colonus won the Melbourne Cup. Besides Ross, other personalities to be born in 1942 were Ita Buttrose; playwright David Williamson; journalist George Negus; racing driver Colin Bond; tennis great Margaret Court and politician Bronwyn Bishop. If you went to the movies in 1942 you would be watching Gone with the wind; Citizen Kane; The Maltese Falcon or Disney’s Dumbo.
Ross’s childhood was one of moving about a lot. From Kew the family moved to Ivanhoe where they ran a dairy. Ross recalls that they used to service a wide area that included Doncaster. The huge Doncaster shopping complex was vacant land back then and Ross used to go with his father and catch rabbits with ferrets while Dad delivered the milk. From Ivanhoe the family moved to Thornbury where they ran a school tuck shop and from there to Cora Lynn where they ran a farm. Ross remembers this was in the Koo Wee Rup swamp and today the town still only has a population of less than three hundred people.
The next move was to Wesburn in Victoria’s Yarra Valley. Wesburn was a forestry town and nearby Yarra Junction has the distinction of being the town where the second-most amount of timber was shipped in the entire World, first place going to Seattle in Washington State, USA. In Wesburn the family ran the newsagency and general store and Ross’s father was the postmaster. Ross tells us that you could go down to Yankee Jim Creek and pluck the fish out of the water with your bare hands; those were the days. He also recalls he went to the Warburton Higher elementary school that was burnt down one Christmas by an unhappy school-mate.
Then it was on to Boronia, then Forest Hill and in 1960 Ross started his own business in Lilydale, an outer-eastern suburb of Melbourne. He was just eighteen years old at the time and had been working for Clausens Furniture and Floor coverings in Ringwood for a weekly wage of £3/7 shillings and sixpence. Ross tells us that he’d left school at fourteen and did his training there, in charge of the mat department. One of his jobs was to do the daily banking so he got to know the bank manager really well. One day the manager asked Ross what he wanted to do with his life. Ross answered “Be the manager of Clausens, and if I get enough money, to have my own business.” The manager sat him down, they opened an account and when Ross saved £6,000 the manager gave him a loan for the same amount.
First business venture
Ross worked two extra jobs to achieve his first goal, one of them a job at a tenpin bowling centre as an instructor. Ross remembers “I left Clausens every afternoon at twenty-nine minutes past five with a minute to walk to the bowling centre, and I was always two minutes late.” Ross never achieved the Holy Grail of a perfect 300-game and only managed 298; “I went to water on the last ball” he laughs. His other job was a milk run. Ross had his first business; Hodgsons Furnishings in Lilydale selling furniture from Australian manufacturers Danish Deluxe; Fler and other major brands. He had the business for eight years or so and in that time worked hard and saved enough money to buy his first home.
Ross has always liked carpet and so eventually he dropped out of furniture retailing and joined Gollins who at the time sold some of the best high-end carpets in Australia. Crossley was a well-known brand and was the largest carpet manufacturer in the world throughout much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Based at Halifax in Yorkshire (UK), it declined due to cheap imports and the factory closed in 1982. Hugh Mackay and Gilt Edge were two other UK manufacturers Ross recalls selling at Gollins. At the time, hundreds of thousands of dollars of carpet would land in Australia on consignment and it was Ross’s job to sell it.
Ross was sent to Sydney as assistant manager of their floor covering division but returned to Melbourne because of the cost of living in Sydney. He joined Sequoia; a local manufacturer, then Trend Carpets and after that, Conargo Carpets as sales manager. “And after that….wonderful….I started out in 1970 on my own,” he said. The business was Drysdale Carpet Mills in Dandenong, named after a breed of sheep originating in New Zealand where both the male and female of the species are horned. The Drysdale breed emerged in New Zealand in the 1960’s when a use for this strong wool with quite a large micron count was realised for carpets.
Drysdale Carpet Mills
Drysdale Carpet Mills were in business from the early 1970’s until 1992. During this time Ross had many fine people working with him. He particularly remembers Effie, a Greek woman who worked the tufting machines. Ross says “She was always ten minutes early every day and was often the last to leave. She was a really dedicated worker and I admired her ethic. She’d be a hundred now if she is still with us.” Ross went mostly for experienced people and while training has always been important to him, for good workers it was not his top priority, experience was highly regarded.
“When I had Drysdale Carpet Mills I was on the road that often I never knew what State I was going to be in. I was consigning carpet into the auctions in Sydney so I had a lot of business there.” Ross would commute between Melbourne and Sydney as much as three times a week and often fly on to Brisbane and further up the coast. He’d bought a property on Magnetic Island and stayed there as often as he could. It was a simple property but had a magnificent mango tree in the front yard. He says “I’ve never had a better lifestyle with better people.” On one occasion Ross had entered a rum drinking event in Mount Garnet, Queensland. Ross was at odds of 30-1 on the last ten minutes and three nips behind before winning it by two and taking the first prize of $22,000. Sixty minutes presenter Charles Wooley had seen Ross at the event and sought him out. Finding out he had the Magnetic Island property, Wooley did a 60-Minutes story with Ross about life on the island and the Great Barrier Reef.
Unfortunately the Drysdale business did not end well and is a low point of Ross’s career. He tells us “I was approached by someone with an offer to buy Drysdale. I rejected his first offer but Magnetic Island and the lifestyle lured me into accepting a second offer. The valuation came in more than the purchaser was expecting and he jumped. He hadn’t the funds and pleaded with me for vendor terms. Against my accountants advice I accepted and spent the next two years on Magnetic Island blissfully unaware while he ran Drysdale into the ground.”
One day Ross got a phone call from his bank manager about several million dollars in drafts and was on a plane to Melbourne at seven the next day. Still with 85% of the Drysdale holdings, Ross was deemed responsible for the debt. Ross recalls “When I got out of the car (the buyer) said “I don’t want it, it’s driving me mad, it’s all yours.” I was left with the mess, he just walked out.” Ross could have gone into receivership but maintaining ‘face’ was more important. And so began a period of two years where Ross demonstrated his commitment to the industry by paying off every cent of the debts, even sacrificing his Magnetic Island property for the sake of his valued creditors.
Ross sold Drysdale to John Sunderland at Quest and in 1993 Ross and his twin sons Mark and Steven started CARPETWORLD. Mark and Steven wanted to get into the flooring industry and so the store in Mornington was purchased. Starting out with a shell and concrete floor Ross says “Looked like dirt,” the shop and warehouse facility has been built up over the years and is now highly regarded as one of, if not the best flooring showroom in the southern hemisphere. The premises even has a room devoted to testing flooring samples for wear, something that’s not done in many other flooring businesses. Other CARPETWORLD stores around Melbourne and country Victoria are independently owned under licence.
Ross’s history at CARPETWORLD lasted only about eighteen months. His sons Mark and Steven along with Marks wife Sue were bringing in modern business practices and Ross thought it time he took a backward step. Ask Ross if he has an email address and he’ll say “What’s that?” He spent some time on Magnetic Island and started a store in Hampton named Rug Living, a business he particularly enjoyed. Steven is also involved with the commercial side of the business and fit out a lot of high end hotels and office spaces for some of Melbourne’s quality construction companies.
Ross closed Rug Living in 2002. Of the rest of his ‘working’ life he says “One day I went into a car wash but it took my money and I didn’t get the wash. I went back the next day and the owner was there. He refunded my money and gave me a free wash so I offered him my services if he ever needed it, saying I was AA…always available. Six weeks later he offered me a position and I ended up working at the wash for ten years.” Ross eventually helped the owner sell the car wash, effectively putting himself out of a job.
Ross sponsored the Fitzroy Football club for four years when it was VFL. He also served on the committee for nine years. The club is now the Brisbane Lions and Ross still follows their fortunes, albeit without the passion he held when they were a Victorian club. In fact, he stopped following them for two years after they relocated to Queensland. Ross had played for a local Australian Rules football team as a junior when he lived in Wandin. He tells us he wasn’t that good but maybe that’s a bit of humility. He was in good company with many players from the Yarra Valley making it into the VFL/AFL. Ross remembers ‘Cliffy’ Stewart who went on to play with the great Ron Barassi at Carlton. Cliff played wing and Ross half back flank so they got to know each other quite well on the field, in fact Cliff’s brother is one of Ross’s best mates.
Ross also started the carpet industry PTA; or the Past Tufters Association, an industry group he set up to increase buying power for smaller manufacturers. At times the PTA placed bigger orders than the biggest individual manufacturer. The group lasted twenty years and Ross recalls getting together for a lunch or at Christmas for “A bloody good time” with the other business owners and their employees.
Looking back on his life in the flooring industry, Ross says he’s known “The most marvellous people like Noel Kiely of Berber Carpets International, one of the most exciting people I have met.” Another well-known industry identity was Maury Camberg who Ross called on when he was working for Trend Carpets. Maury had twelve stores around Sydney. Ross recalls that Maury was “A huge drinker after eleven” and a bottle of scotch a day was not out of the question. Ross tells us that if you didn’t have a drink you didn’t get an order and Ross needed the order and his commission. One day Maury asked Ross what he had to sell so he laid it all out on the table. That day he got an order for 1,250 rolls of carpet, the biggest order he ever got.
John Osborne of Premier Carpets is another character Ross remembers well. John did 90% of the carpets in Kings Cross and Ross and John would have business meetings with a seedy character named Abe Saffron who was also called Mr. Sin and ‘The boss of the Cross.’ Abe was an Australian hotelier, nightclub owner and property developer reputed to have been one of the major figures in organised crime in Australia in the latter half of the 20th century. Like Al Capone, Abe’s only major conviction was for federal tax evasion and for that he served only seventeen months in prison.
Ross Hodgson has spent almost sixty years in the flooring industry. In the 1950’s and 60’s things were done differently than they are today. It wasn’t unusual to have a three-martini lunch and deals were done over a glass of scotch, or in Ross’s case, a Bundy Rum. Ross did business by building relationships and that sometimes called for a social drink. Relationships were important so that the payments came in on time and the orders were often instant delivery. Ross says he loved the industry, very rarely a day goes by when you didn’t have a laugh or met someone interesting. His tips for success is to be enthusiastic, put in the hours and are honest, including paying your bills on time.
Ross has been retired for several years now but will often travel to Queensland for a holiday, even though the property on Magnetic Island is long gone. With Drysdale Carpet Mills he travelled to New Zealand over a hundred times buying carpet yarn. He once had a $100 bet about this and went home to get his ticket stubs; finding out it was in fact 106 times. Ross looks back fondly over his time in the industry and says “I’ve had an absolute ball and there are hundreds of people who have been good to me; the whole industry has been terribly good to me and for that I’m so appreciative.”
Pictured (L-R): Mark, Tom and Ross Hodgson