21 Years of Service: Wishing Peter O’Connell a happy retirement

Some big changes are afoot at Douglas this October as we farewell our long-standing Production Manager Peter O’Connell.

At the same time we’re welcoming one of our former apprentices, Adam Greville, to pick up the Auto & Marine mantle.

Peter O'Connell from Douglas Hawkes Bay with his Outstanding Service Award from OFPANZ

Peter O’Connell received a special Outstanding Service Award at the 2022 OFPANZ Awards in recognition of his contribution to the industry and its apprentices. He was left speechless when the award was announced.

Thank you Peter for all your hard work!

After 21 years with Douglas and a full 49 years in the upholstery business, this month we farewell a friend who has given an amazing amount of service to the industry.  

Peter was with Douglas in its early days in 2001, starting out in the small workshop with Maree and Peter Douglas. The business has changed hands twice since then!

Prior to Douglas he’s had an interesting career including being one of the first apprentices to sit the newly-created upholstery Trade Certificate exams in the mid 1970’s.

He’s seen a lot over this time, so we’ve sat down together to see what we can learn from his tremendous experience, and share some with you here.

Tell us about life before Douglas?

I grew up in the industry as my Father was a motor trimmer and had the family business in Wairoa, where I spent a lot of time working after school.

I really wanted to be a mechanic and I loved cars. But that was hard for a guy with hearing issues – in those days most of the mechanical diagnostics were done by ear. These days diagnostics are done by electronics, but in the 70’s you had to listen for the knocks and my ears just couldn’t hear them!

I grew up around auto upholstery, it was comfortable to me, and I enjoyed “making stuff”. So, it was a natural choice, although I decided to take a different route as a furniture upholsterer to begin with.

What roles led you here?

After my apprenticeship I moved home to Wairoa and became Foreman in the family business, which had expanded into furniture manufacturing alongside auto marine & canvas. Some people might remember the awarded Clyde-Style Furniture range which was predominantly leather diamond-buttoned chairs and couches. It was here that I trained my first three apprentices.

In the 80’s I joined EJ Treacher Ltd as a Foreman, developing and updating designs and training a further four apprentices. Eventually this led into a fun side job, running an adult education course at Havelock North High School. It was so popular it turned into two nights a week and I lasted 14 years at it!

O'Connell Furniture Specialists image from the 1970s

Peter’s family’s business in Wairoa, established in 1967 by parents William (Bill) and Margaret.

Douglas' award winning team in 2010

Some of the team and apprentices at Douglas celebrating their award wins in 2010 with their mentor Peter O’Connell (in front), as well as previous owner Mike Konig (back right).

You’ve trained a lot of apprentices!

I’ve always been passionate about passing on the skills and keeping the industry going. In total I’ve trained 18 apprentices, including 11 apprentices in my role at Douglas. Additionally there have been others like Matt, Ken, Elaine and Cindy who are skilled fabricators but decided not to do an apprenticeship.

Over the years our apprentices have won awards for their work and several have achieved Apprentice of the Year, which is something I’m very proud of.

Tell us about the industry?

In upholstery and canvas we interpret and manufacture visual concepts. It’s basically the stuff people dream up, then we create. It’s not your go-to trade like a mechanic or a builder which people think of instantly – it’s more of a left field, niche trade.

This means the industry has to work hard to attract talent and gain awareness in the workforce. It’s a great industry with lots of scope for creativity! And the businesses within it are pretty supportive of each other and share knowledge, especially through our involvement with the Outdoor Fabric Products Association of New Zealand (OFPANZ).

How have you seen it change over the years?

Many trades businesses have had to adapt to changing market conditions in order to survive.

Canvas fabrication companies used to specifically make tents, outdoor covers and canvas-based products. Then you had motor trimmers who did cars, boats and aviation upholstery. Now a lot of those companies have gone, and the rest have remained viable by merging the two types of work into one operation.

We have seen this at Douglas go further where it went from auto & marine, into shade sails, and then got more into PVC and commercial work. We also moved more into the transport industry as it evolved, with the development of curtain-siders, truck tarps and that sort of thing.

We used to say supply custom tonneau covers for every ute in a forestry businesses, but now the car manufacturers have brought out their own suite of tonneau cover products.

That’s why we’ve had to look for other avenues where we could apply our skills to.

We still manufacture a lot of custom tonneau covers for utes and we support the car yards with that – a lot of people still have that special requirement they can’t get off the shelf.

A gallery of work

Along with the team, Peter has contributed to a lot of top quality and award winning auto & marine upholstery at Douglas over the years. These are just a handful of examples.

Where is the industry headed do you think?

Sorry, I didn’t bring my crystal ball! I really have no idea where it’s going to go.

There’s always going to be a need for the type of work that we do, for example the agricultural industry are always going to need repair work and replacement covers. I also see there will be a need for special covers, customised for unique NZ-engineered, NZ-made items. Frost fans are an example of that.

Also, while machinery has a place, someone is still going to have to fit the carpet into the boat, so there is always going to be a need.

There is also going to be a growing need with the environmental / eco movement. We have seen growth in water collection, effluent ponding, damming, a whole new area of development has happened, and will continue to evolve. There will definitely be further opportunities that come about.

I can also see there being a lot of replacement work that happens for this country, and more environmentally friendly fabrics being innovated to phase out existing fabrics. This is one of the key things we have in our mind as we think about sustainability at Douglas. Think about all the awnings on the houses and caravans out there at the moment. People aren’t going to want to throw their awning away, they’re going to want to re-purpose and reuse it.


We feel there may be a few people from over the years who wish to pop along and give Peter a good send off.

Come and join us on Friday 7th October for drinks and nibbles here in the Douglas showroom, we’d love to have you. 4.30 pm – 6.30pm, 413 Queen Street West, Hastings.

Please RSVP to suzanne@douglasinnovation.nz for catering.


“Having worked with and been trained by Peter O’Connell showed me that even though his background was mostly furniture related, there are several skills he possesses that transfer across this and probably many other industries. He has a passion for and is very good at teaching. His tutorship is an instrumental part in who and where I and many others in this industry are today. Very thankful for all the lessons learnt. If ever there is a problem he is the man you would want to be there to show you how to fix it.”  – Owain Jones, Hawkes Bay Trim & Canvas

“Peter is a credit to the industry. A lifetime of knowledge about sewing, welding and all manner of other useful skills. But Peter has also lived a long life outside of work. Some of the life advice he has offered up has helped me through hard times and for that I am truly grateful. A good boss and a better human.” – Jason Muir, former Douglas staff member

“I doubt there is anyone in New Zealand who has had more apprentices pass through his workshop than Peter O’Connell, or been asked for and offered help to so many different companies in this amazing industry – always the patient and knowledgeable coach.” – Mike Konig, former owner of Douglas

The Douglas team on Awards Night

Peter with some of the Douglas and Sunshade Group team at the OFPANZ Awards in 2022, celebrating after several award wins. Alexi (second from right) has been trained by Peter and remains with the business to head up our outdoor screen-making process. Adam Greville (not in the photo) will lead the auto & marine side.


In his own words, he’s off to “do nothing, just relax and enjoy life.”

After all the years of dedication, we’d say he deserves it.

We would like to thank Peter for leaving our workshop in the very capable hands of Adam Greville who will be leading our auto and marine upholstery, and Alexi Faulkner leading our screen fabrication. Both Adam and Alexi did their apprenticeships under Peter and we know he has trained them well!

Enjoy your retirement Peter!

Suzanne, Pete, and on behalf of the entire team.