John Lines and three generations of his family have run the Symonds St Drycleaners for the past 25 years. Of Ngapuhi and English descent, he discovered just 18 months ago that his father didn't die in the war, as his mother was told.

1. Your wife, son, daughter and grandson all work in this shop with you - what's the secret to family harmony?

My oldest son used to work here too but he's getting his degree now, at Unitec. We have fun, even when we're fighting. Of course we fight sometimes but we mostly get on pretty well. The only one we really fight with is the wife. It's about respect. Respect for each other. We spend a great deal of time together. Last Sunday we all went to Parakai, to the hot pools. For my 70th birthday in February the kids have hired a big boat down at the harbour. A family stays together through the children, I reckon. You keep them close and don't let them go. I've got 20 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

2. It's pretty hot in here today - what do you do when it gets really warm in summer?

We open the doors. And we've got three big fans. But you get used to it. I worked at New Zealand Drycleaners for a year before I bought this shop so I knew what to expect. And there's a lot of icecream - the dog likes the icecream.


3. Who taught you how to work?

I was spoilt by my mum and I was a cheeky little s***, so when I was 9 I refused to go to my school in Dargaville and she convinced me to go to my uncle's farm. I suffered there - got hit by boards, batons. He beat me with a black cable and I was covered in welts. Some of [the beatings] I deserved. When I was 16 my stepfather came and got me. He was exceptional - a former Ratana minister, he and I got on really well. But I'd learned to work on the farm and later I went bridge-building all over the North Island, then cleared bush with my stepdad for Auckland's dams.

4. What happened to your real dad?

My mum was Ngapuhi - a very beautiful lady. Got married four times - my dad was the second. He was a Pom, a sailor she met here, but in 1945, when she had my older sister and me and was pregnant again, she got a telegram saying he was missing in action, presumed dead. Eighteen months ago, my wife told me she was investigating my English side and found that a man with my father's name, born on the same day as my father, died in 1959, not 1945. It doesn't bother me. Next time I go to England I'll see if I can find his grave and piss on it. But things were different in those days, after the war. He married and had his own family there.

5. Where did you learn about textiles?

I got a job at Onehunga Woollen Mills when I was first married and had two kids. I was there for 15 years until Brierley took it over. I was a supervisor - had a company house which we paid $4 a week rent for. They were a great company to work for. But Brierley took it over and gave us a month's notice to move out of our rented properties and sold them off. So I took my super and went and bought an icecream truck. I was with Claire by then and we became frozen food distributors. Paid off all my legal bills from my divorce, bought my wife out of our Mangere house and built our turnover up to $500,000 a year, selling frozen vegetables, chicken pieces, icecream into retail stores. I learned how to be my own boss. Love it now. Would never work for anyone else again. After three years we were losing money so we quit. Ended up in drycleaning.

6. Why did you buy this shop?

Brierley again. They'd planned a casino for Symonds St over the road. We came here in 1989 expecting to have thousands of staff working in a building just over there but it never happened. This business had been shut for six months, had a terrible reputation, so we had to build it up from scratch. I'd invested everything in it by the time we realised the casino wasn't happening.


7. How did you give your kids your work ethic?

They'd come to the shop after school and in school holidays. They always worked too. We'd give them a mountain of ticketing to do. I tell my grandson now to bring his 3-year-old son in here so I can teach him to work, too. Ha! I don't believe anyone in New Zealand should be on the dole or not working. There's work around if you want it.

8. What's the most expensive garment you've cleaned?

We get jobs from all over New Zealand. People send us their clothes from Queenstown. One guy has been with us for 18 years and spends $500 every eight weeks or so getting his shirts all done. I've done French silk blouses worth thousands of dollars. Not so many fur coats these days, but I've just had a go at this mink, which was my wife's grandmother's. Wedding dresses don't worry me. The industry has suffered a bit lately - a lot of the good old drycleaners have died or retired and not all of the ones coming in want to learn the trade properly. It's a science. You can't just pick it up like that.

9. How long should a garment last, do you think?

I have six shirts which I wear to work and get drycleaned every week. My wife bought them 15 years ago at Farmers. They're not expensive - they're cotton polyester, a very hard-wearing fabric. In the past two years I've probably only spent $100 buying one vest, but I have a lot of clothes. I play bowls and have 10 pairs of creams. I've got close to 30 pairs of trousers. Some are 30 years old.

10. What fabrics should people avoid?

Silk is beautiful but don't buy it if you sweat a lot. Perspiration is very hard to get out of silk. Wool is a wonderful fabric, too, but a 60/40 polyester blend is great - we made a lot of that at Woollen Mills, which went to Cambridge Clothes and was locally manufactured into suits. They are very good suits. Hard-wearing. I say to the yuppies: buy a hard-wearing $800 suit, not a Boss $3500 one which you'll only wear once or twice a year. I have an Italian handmade suit that I bought 15 years ago and wear once or twice a year. It looks brand new.

11. What will you be doing at 90?

I hope I still have my gun licence - I used to shoot ducks and pheasant and pigs - and my driver's licence. I had a beautiful boat once but sold it to take the wife to Scotland when I was in a darts tournament there. My son has never forgiven me for selling that boat. I have a mate who's still working and he's 101 so I might be working. Working keeps you going.

12. Any life regrets?

I've had a pretty good life. The only thing I'd change is maybe strike Lotto so I could relax a bit more. If I won Lotto I'd refurbish this shop. That's what the kids are frightened of - that I'd spend the money on this shop and keep them working.