He's known as a pioneering industrialist responsible for co-creating a business that has spawned hundreds of other companies. But there's so much more to Herbert Loebl’s eventful life, as Karen Dent discovers.
HERBERT Loebl says he would have loved to have been an archivist. The Gosforth-based entrepreneur, exporting expert and co-founder of Joyce, Loebl & Company has always kept meticulous records.
Now many of his books and papers have been returned to Bamberg in Bavaria, the German town from which his family fled to escape the Nazis just before the outbreak of the Second World War.
“I was very concerned that when I die, I predict that I am going to die certainly in the next 50 years, what will they do with my papers and things?” said Dr Loebl, who is now in his late 80s.
“So I said I’d better find a proper home for them now. The lord mayor is thrilled. I put in all the books of Jewish interest, historical interest.
“I always wanted a museum for the Jewish community because that was a very old community going back to before the first crusade in 1096.
“I felt in a lot of ways interested and the history shouldn’t be lost just because the Nazis didn’t want it.
“I’d like to have been an archivist. Imagine being paid for that, looking through papers and things. I think that’s wonderful.”
Around £30,000 has already been raised towards the project and Dr Loebl says the museum will open “when I find the remaining £50,000”.
He arrived in England at the end of 1938 to join his eldest sister who was already here. The 15-year-old Herbert was unable to speak English and went to school in Kent, where he was recruited as a drummer for the cadets.
“Our commander was the physics master and I was very found of him. He was a very nice man,” says Dr Loebl.
“They wanted a stout fellow to beat the drum, so when the cadets came out on the streets I was ‘boom, boom’. It was hot stuff, because I had a lion skin and gauntlets.”
His parents and youngest sister escaped from Germany the next year, just before the outbreak of the war.
“My father was a terrible optimist and I remember when I picked him up at Dover, I said to my father, ‘Where are the grandmothers?’ There were three.
“And my father said to me, ‘Don’t be silly, they won’t do anything to the old’. Terrible.”
He pauses. “It’s not a nice story.”
Loebl senior had owned an electrical engineering factory with his brother in Bamberg to which Herbert was apprenticed. The brothers had been granted visas on condition they started a factory in a depressed part of the UK. Initially, they planned to set up shop near Cardiff.
“There were two commissioners, one for England and Wales, and one for Scotland,” said Loebl.
“My father was invited to come here (the North East). He had booked a factory near Cardiff. But they were determined to have him here, so they invited my father to come and have a look around.
“And since my father had no products ever for the British market and he depended on exports, to Scandinavia, Holland, Belgium and France, and he had absolutely no concept that there would be a war, he booked this factory in Team Valley.
“He was impressed by the commissioner, and that it was nearer to Norway and Denmark. My father decided it was a good idea; he liked what he saw. We went to a Jewish family in Gateshead.
“In those days you saw men with caps, very miserable, very dirty. My mother cried for three weeks.
“My father managed to scrape together some money and bought a huge house in Gosforth.”
By then, Loebl was in London and it cost £1.56 for the train journey to Tyneside to rejoin his family and recommence his apprenticeship.
“I remember getting the key to my father’s factory – my father stood outside and sent me to the headquarters and said get the key. So I was the first man in the building,” he says.
“Occasionally, I had to interpret between a foreman who came from South Shields and a turner and fitter who came from Dunstan. It’s really true.
“I later learned there were seven distinct dialects on the south of the river. The South Shields man spoke almost a different language.”
After the war, he attended King’s College in Newcastle, where he studied electrical engineering. He met Captain Robert Joyce, who was taking the same course in Sunderland, at his lodgings when Joyce came over to find out if anyone had any hints about what would they would be asked in their forthcoming exams.
Loebl opted for electrical engineering with the expectation that he would follow his father’s footsteps, but tragedy struck just before he sat his final exams.
He says: “You must go back to 1949, my father was then 56 and he collapsed and died on the platform at Birmingham Station on the way to the British Industries Fair. I had to pick up his body.
“It was always assumed that I would follow him one day, that’s why I studied electrical engineering, but I never got on with my uncle. He was a little man, convinced that his three sons were far superior to me.
“I graduated three weeks after my father died. I’m convinced to this day that the university passed me through because my father died, not because I passed the exams. I wasn’t very good. I wasn’t prepared for it.
“But recently I got an honorary degree from the university. It’s amazing how things go. I took my PhD when I was 64 – (because of) snobbery, pure snobbery! I think you never stop learning.”
Due to the issues with his uncle, he initially went to work at Tyneside engineering firm Reyrolle, where he says the boss sat and sipped sherry all morning.
Loebl says: “And, of course, the whole area was depending on Reyrolle’s business. We badly needed new industries.”
So he joined up with his friend Capt Joyce and together they established Joyce, Loebl & Company in 1951 to make scientific instruments, with £200 in capital.
Eventually the business employed around 500 people, exported 70% of its products and recent research at Newcastle University reckons the company is directly responsible for the creation of hundreds of other enterprises in the North East, Europe and the US.
“I wanted to become a significant manufacturer of electronic equipment,” says Loebl. Capt Joyce was looking for something more modest.
“I don’t think we ever had a directors’ meeting. He had the confidence in me. He was a man with great humour.
“We set up originally under the railway arches and then in a converted school in Vine Lane. We were local people by then.
“We had no strikes in the school. Shortly after we moved to Team Valley, there was a national strike. My workers were very unhappy about this.
“Bob Joyce didn’t want to fall foul of the unions. He asked all round. By then we had 10 different trades.
“The day after Bob had made his inquiries, a note appeared on our notice board, ‘the following will go on strike tomorrow .... signed Robert Joyce, deputy managing director’. That’s a nice story isn’t it?”
The business was sold to US buyers in 1960, although Loebl remained chairman for a number of years and was awarded an OBE for his services to exports in 1973.
“The chap who bought me out, every year the week before Christmas, there is a delivery of wonderful things from Fortnum & Mason – wine, a huge cheese,” he says.
He then moved into technology transfer, partnering with universities on research, and in 1973, he set up Enterprise North. As the UK’s first voluntary business support agency, it helped 200 business start-ups before eventually being replaced by government agencies.
Loebl, who has two daughters and a son, has travelled worldwide for business, but says he never fancied living anywhere but the North East.
“I wouldn’t have gone anywhere else. I hated London – too big, too many people, too much choice. I wouldn’t have been happier anywhere except in Newcastle,” he says.
“Newcastle people were good to me, and I hope that creating 500 jobs was useful in return.
“When I was able to, I loved trekking in Northumberland. When I was younger, I loved youth hostelling – it was never south of the Tyne, it was always Northumberland.
“I liked Northumberland so much I bought a beautiful bungalow, which I’d modified so that I could see Cheviot from my window and I had the River Aln running through my garden.”
Although he no longer has a house in the country and uses a wheelchair, he still loves to visit Northumberland “whenever I get the chance”.
“The difference between America and Northumberland is that in Northumberland, every few yards, the landscape changes. In America, you can go for hundreds of miles and it’s the same. That’s the thing.”
But he remains a fan of America, which he has visited numerous times.
“My friends have a beautiful house on the beach not far from the house of the Kennedys,” he says.
“I had wonderful experiences. I was there when Kennedy was elected, we didn’t know that when I arrived because of the time difference, but the next morning we knew when the results from California came out.
“I was there when Kennedy was murdered. I remember having lunch with my representative in a suburb of Boston and when we came back, we saw an ashen-faced receptionist saying the president has been murdered.
“We went into the workshops and the workmen were gathering around a radio and we just managed to hear the priest giving the last rites.
“I remember sitting in my hotel on Sunday afternoon after this and there was this man who was supposed to have murdered him between two policemen, and suddenly this little fat fellow came behind him with pistol and shot him. I thought this looked like some B film, it wasn’t real.”
Today, in addition to establishing the museum in Bamberg, Loebl is continuing to use his business flair to help SMEs export through the series of workshops that form the annual Herbert Loebl Export Academy, run in conjunction with Newcastle University Business School.
He approached the university with the idea after hearing Lord Digby Jones giving a rallying speech encouraging more small firms to sell overseas.
“He gave a speech to the Chamber of Commerce in which he said Newcastle is doing wonderfully well in exports but it is done by only 5% of the firms there,” says Loebl.
“I think he was not quite right there because he discounted the fact that if you are a car manufacturer in Sunderland, and you collect from 20 small firms bits and pieces which go in your motor car, it’s counted as an export by the big firm not the little one.
“Nevertheless, I was quite sure that there was something to be done for small and medium-sized companies. My old company eventually exported 70%. I’ve done it, you see. I have been very much enclosed in the bosom of the university. I never expected that.”
He says he has no business targets left – his only ambition is for better health. “I want to get better, I want to travel again,” he says.