Tradition stretches into 8th decade at Tommy's Upholstery

Twenty-six years ago, Doug Thompson warned the North American auto upholstery and trim industry that it would need to roll up its sleeves in order to survive as auto manufacturers improved their products.

At that time, the then-manager of Tommy’s Upholstery in Victoria told an international “restyling and trim expo” audience that demand for trimmers was on the wane due to the improved quality of auto manufacturing and the materials they were using.

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These days, Thompson — who at 74 still works mornings at Tommy’s, though he sold the company to his daughter, Wendy, and her husband, Chris Mandorla, in 2015 — says the industry faces new challenges.

He has never worried about the business dying, but there are issues. “I guess I figured people will always have to sit on something and they want to be comfortable,” he said. “And people are more demanding with their comfort now. A lot of people used to just put up with a car seat they didn’t like. Now they want it fixed.”

Tommy’s Upholstery is 70 this year and, judging by its full bays and a line of completed convertible projects in the parking lot waiting to be picked up, there’s still plenty of demand. But it has had to evolve plenty over seven decades, and will have to continue to be flexible going forward.

“I still love this business, and I love that my family are in it,” Thompson said, noting Wendy and Chris represent the third generation of the family to run the shop. And their two kids, Ben, 16 and Adam, 11, are often in the shop helping out.

“But it’s bittersweet. It is wonderful to keep it going, but I also know the pitfalls coming down the pike,” he said.

The pitfalls still include the quality of trim in new vehicles. Upholstery doesn’t fade, or wear as quickly, it holds up to ultra-violet light damage better than ever and carpets and fabrics are more durable. But there’s the added problem of attracting new skilled workers to the field.

Victoria has the second lowest unemployment rate in Canada at 3.8 per cent. But the real wrinkle is the fact upholstery is on its own in training new workers.

Thompson, who has been working in the business since he was 14, said the government does not offer any kind of help in developing trimmer apprentices any more, saying the trade is no longer in demand.

“So we’re on our own,” he said, noting they have for years been training raw recruits who are getting harder to find.

“We used to look for someone with design capabilities or artistic flair when we did more custom work. Now I look for someone with mechanical ability and is able to use hand tools,” he said.

They still offer a four-year paid training period to take workers through installation, sewing, design and custom fitting. It’s the kind of job Thompson said is ideally learned on the job.

And that job has definitely changed. Tommy’s is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year having evolved from seat coverings into a business that does all kinds of interior trim, convertible roofs, leaky sunroofs, trimming down or padding out seats for cars and motorcycles, marine seating, specialized furniture work, refurbishing dental chairs and custom manufacturing of bags, pads and protection for clients such as hospitals and airlines.

“The business continues to evolve. We are very versatile,” said Thompson. “We do a lot of different kinds of stuff.”

That’s probably why they are still around after 70 years.

Thompson said not long ago there were six “fully fledged trim shops in Victoria, and now there are two.”

At their peak in the 1980s Tommy’s employed 12 people; now they are down to six, though they are hiring.

The company was started by Tommy Thompson, Doug’s father, in 1949. Tommy had learned the trade while working for Thomas Plimley who sold and serviced cars. Plimley also repaired horse-drawn carriages, and that’s where a 14 year-old Tommy took to upholstery.

He would work from his home for a few years, and did a lot of work on Saanich police vehicles in the 1940s, until the police told him he would need to get a shop.

Tommy started with rental space in a body shop at the corner of Pembroke and Douglas streets before moving to Princess Street close to where they are now.

In 1966, Doug joined his father, expanded the business and bought their building at 748 Princess Ave., off Blanshard Street. It has been expanded three times since.

In 1976, Doug bought out his father, though the elder Thompson would continue working at the shop into his early 80s.

That’s what Doug is hoping to do as well, and he believes the connection he and Chris have with the city is important to the health of the business.

“In Victoria, there’s still a small-town attitude,” he said, noting people like to know who they are dealing with, which is good for the long-term health of a business.

“I think it will continue to change as long as we can get people to learn the trade,” he said. “We are so nimble that when a new project comes along we can try it.”

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