Dion’s years at Glendermid


Prepared by Ruth Foster, Heidi Ombler and Noelene Ombler. Ruth’s family were neighbours and have been friends of Dion and his family since they arrived in Sawyers Bay.  Ruth worked with Dion for 30 years.  

Dion worked at Glendermid for 44 years, from January 1946 to December 1989.   

Dion started out by learning how to operate every machine in the factory and becoming familiar with all procedures in the making of leather.  His first job of responsibility was as Supervisor of the chrome tanning and leather finishing department in 1953, and his role expanded greatly over the years; in 1965 he became the manager of the tannery and later the general manager.

35 years after he started, there was a crisis when the staking machine broke down. This machine pummels hard leather to make it soft. An important order had to go out, and production was at a standstill.  There was only one person in the whole tannery who was trained to operate the old Slocumb Staker, a devil of a machine! The Glendermid General Manager rolled up his sleeves again, and worked for two days. Staff took turns to go and see the boss working the old Staker. Even Noelene was called down from home to watch as he moved steadily and rhythmically over each hide. She was very impressed!

Huge changes took place over the years – changes to mechanization and automation. New technologies and new markets opened. Dion was brave and courageous in his modernization of a tannery whose methods were established way back in 1881. He travelled, and learned first-hand, new methods in the tanning industry. Innovation and perseverance were hallmarks of the work done by both Dion and the close-knit tannery family.

There were changes too, with the increase in the number of women employed. For Sawyers Bay and Port Chalmers, jobs for women at the tannery offered support to many households in the community. Local women worked from 9 till 3pm – school hours which enabled many women with school aged children.

A stable staff was a notable feature of Glendermid’s and lifelong friendships were made. Many people worked there for 20, 30, or even 40 years.  Some families had multiple members, or several generations of the family, work there over the years. This is testament to the sense of community that was nourished there by the insightful guidance of the management.  Dion welcomed a colourful crowd!

He was special to us all. He set high standards for himself, worked hard and expected the same from others.

Dion was hugely respected within the tanning and footwear industries as well as the leather research institute, and helped in the development of the Tanning Industry Training Board courses for certification. He took a keen interest in diversifying the kinds of leather produced, including hides for export.  As a result, Glendermid remained solvent longer than many other tanneries were able to in New Zealand.

Care and welfare of all employees was paramount to Dion. With his assistant manager George Wilkes, they offered work and guidance to patients from Cherry Farm and encouraged all staff to help them fit in, and feel safe and welcome.  They were forerunners in the move to support these men venturing into the outside world after institutionalization.  Dion and George were also generous of heart employing people who found themselves in trouble with the law.  The tannery gave stability to many and served the community well. 

In 1989, Dion, or Hec as some called him, retired. In 1990, P.P.C.S took over the tannery, and it closed in 1994 having flourished there for 113 years.  

Polytech and the New Zealand Institute of Management

Prepared by Noelene Ombler.

We now rewind to 1951 after Dion had been at the tannery for 5 years. He was studying for his New Zealand Institute of Management diploma, at NightTech, one night a week for four years. He got top marks for NZ in his first year. He went straight on to teach different stages of the Diploma for 24 years, writing the teaching manuals as he went along.  People, to this day, say ,” I remember Mr Ombler from years ago when he taught me at Polytech.  He made it possible for me to have the job that I have today.”  One of those was a Bank Manager.

He was patient and helpful with pupils for whom study was strange and difficult.  I can vouch for this as he tried to teach me Sales and Marketing.  Those were the days when you didn’t get Higher Secondary School leaving certificate, or University educated students in Polytech classes.  I can remember that my class was made up, mostly, of apprentices trying to better themselves. It was definitely not an easy task.  His skill as a tutor was evident by the very high pass rate attained by pupils taught by him.

– Trevor Payton

I first met Dion while studying for the NZ Certificate of Science at Otago Polytech.  Our tutor took us to the tannery.  I can still remember the enthusiasm that Dion showed as he took us on a tour, and the way he interacted with the Glendermid staff. 

His influence was a large part in my decision to apply for a job at Glendermid’s, where I worked in the laboratory for a time.

I next met up with Dion as a student of Supervision, the first stage of the NZ Institute of Industrial Management Diploma).  Again Dion displayed his natural enthusiasm for the subjects with a depth of knowledge that influenced so many people and assisted them into management positions.

He remained an active member of the NZ Institute of Management and related organisations where he was a popular figure.

I was fortunate to work at Glendermid’s again in the mid-1980s and once more be influenced by Dion's natural lively and enthusiastic approach.

– Lindsay Miller