A few weeks ago I was offered the exciting prospect of interviewing Dr Herbert Loebl at a business event in Newcastle. A legend of the industrial North East, Herbert is much loved and revered by colleagues and associates at Newcastle University Business School.
Now 89 years of age, Dr Loebl founded Joyce, Loebl and Co with Robert Joyce, a fellow graduate in electrical engineering from King’s College, Newcastle (now Newcastle University) and the son of an unemployed Jarrow shipyard worker. Together, Joyce and Loebl started their first company, specialising in electronics and scientific instruments, under a railway arch in Newcastle in 1951 with £200 worth of capital.
Today, there are four companies in the region that grew from the original Joyce, Loebl and Co: Loebl; Sevcon, of Team Valley; Applied Imaging, based at Times Square, Newcastle; and Phasor, based at Sunderland Enterprise Park.
As Herbert is 89 and a little hard of hearing, the format presented some challenges, but I was determined to make it work.
The logistics of getting him there were thoroughly investigated by Claire Turnbull and Lynda Craig from Insider’s fantastic events team – wheelchair access, taxis and seating for example. The breakfast was staged at The Biscuit Factory in Newcastle, an art gallery and venue and the staff there were terrific.
Before that however I needed to meet Herbert and understand how I could make the stagecraft work. Two weeks beforehand I went for tea with him at his gorgeous house in Gosforth, a smart suburb of Newcastle. I let him talk and worked a few things out. He has a terrific sense of humour and a real charisma, and this was essential to convey. Getting him to speak, especially if he was nervous or unsure, would fall flat, so I talked through some of his life’s highlights with him and had some ideas of how we could make this work.
My idea was to read three extracts from his autobiography – and then ask him for a recollection after each one. I got agreement from his carers – the people who know him best – and sent him the three extracts with the follow-on question. One was about his escape from Nazi Germany, another was about electric cars, the final one was about the ambition of businesses in the industrial North East to export.
It all went really well. He came very prepared, as you’d expect from an experienced engineer, and added some flourishes. What pleased me most though was the esteem and hushed respect people had for him. This was exemplified by the way the other panel members in the discussion that followed kept referring back to the points he had made.
I feel very strongly that we have to respect the views and experiences from the past. Sometimes it is hard work and to do so is inconvenient. This was proof that it’s always worth thinking differently and taking a risk.
The coverage of the event is here, and here.