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2. The Story of Guiglielmo and Tony

Our roots in New Zealand all started with one particularly ambitious Italian, my grandfather Guiglielmo. With a classic combination of immigrant determination and European passion, he overcame the struggles of a new country and growing family, to make the first steps to where we are today.

Our Italian beginning

With a farming upbringing in the lakeside town of Germignaga in Northern Italy, the sale of the family farm and few prospects for young men saw Guiglielmo became master of his own destiny; he left Italy at sixteen years old with a single lira note, no knowledge of English and the new name of Bill. After working in England wanderlust struck, and his timing couldn’t have been better; Bill caught the last emigrant ship out of England before the outbreak of World War One, in which he’d have surely been drafted.

A taste of wanderlust

Still only eighteen and confronted with the scorching, unfamiliar heat of Australia, he tried his hand at everything from sugarcane to wheat and bananas before finding both business success and a bride. However Italians experienced distrust and discrimination, which fueled the homesickness for Europe that saw him return to England and his brothers for the first time in fourteen years. As the family grew, his pregnant wife Monica spent all day at their restaurant with their children asleep under the counter; restless Bill decided it was time for a change, and bought his family yet another boat passage.

The fledgling farm

Always intrigued by farming, Bill purchased land in New Zealand’s King Country in the midst of the Great Depression. The farmhouse was old and basic, and with pre-war tensions mounting in Europe, Italians were treated with suspicion and hostility - as an enemy alien, Bill’s guns were impounded and mail censored; tempestuous Bill and his flourishing farm weren’t embraced by many locals. In 1940 the family home accidentally burned to the ground, but his natural drive to succeed meant rebuilding, and through sheer determination and hard work, Bill got his farm to thrive. It was soon one of the best in the region, and with his farm and family prospering, Bill purchased another 1000 acres.

First steps into footwear

An understanding and generous man when he wanted to be, Bill would help friends financially. Fortuitously when someone defaulted on a loan, he ended up the owner of three shoe shops. A stranger to retail, he needed his children’s help to run these - one of which was my father Tony, who started at sixteen. After only two years he was a manager, proving naturally adept at retail and persuaded his father to sell him the stores. The businesses thrived even more; Tony began his own shoe factory and established even more stores named ‘Shoetown”. As you can guess, I soon joined him, and the rest is history.

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