OBITUARIES : Lord Schon

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Industrial and academic life in Britain was vastly enriched by the arrival of Jews who fled from Austria and Hungary as well as Germany in the 1930s. Transplanted into a different world, in often horrendous circumstances, they regularly succeeded , in their efforts to justify and improve their place in a foreign society, in reaching heights, and achieving a personal development, which they might never have contemplated in their country of origin. Such a one was Frank Schon. Adversity moulded his abilities.

Born into the Vienna intelligentsia - his father, Frederick Schon, was a lawyer - Schon attended the Rainer Gymnasium in the city, and went on to the universities of Prague and Vienna, to study chemistry. The last conversation I had with him followed thereturn of an all-party Heritage group visit to Prague - he wanted to know to what extent industrial and chemical pollution and massive tourism were damaging the city he had loved so much in his student and early working days. When I told him that we hadbeen taken to the grave of Jan Masaryk, in Northern Bohemia, he said that Masaryk had been the hero of his youth. By what he described as the skin of his teeth, he escaped. In his maiden speech to the House of Lords in 1979, he movingly said: "I was born in Vienna.When I was 19 years old, I got a job with a Central European chemical company which worked with a German concern - the first to develop synthetic detergents. I was based in Prague, then in Vienna, and then ba ck again in Prague in 1937, from where I was lucky to be able to escape with my wife after Hitler marched in on 15 March. I arrived in the United Kingdom on 28 March 1939, exactly 40 years ago today." All the peers present were greatly moved.

With only a few hundred pounds' capital, Schon started as a manufacturing chemist in a broken-down house in London. Among his first products were firelighters made from surplus sawdust and naphthalene. At the end of 1940, he was bombed out in London and moved to Whitehaven, in Cumberland, which was a development area. Here his premises were makeshift. I heard him say how much he owed to a kindly Cumbrian farmer who had been to Austria on holiday in happier times and who gave him a disused cottage at a peppercorn rent. In Whitehaven, as the leader of a team, Schon assembled a small factory, building it into one of the largest units in the world, making synthetic detergent raw materials, and ultimately employing 2,300 people. It was a ground-breaking effort and he learnt much in practical terms about the subject that was to occupy him many years later - innovation in relation to his work on the National Research Development Council of which he became a member in 1967 and Chairman in 1969.

Schon's company, which he called Marchon Products, became a leading manufacturer of raw materials for many products including detergents. In 1943, Schon founded Solway Chemicals, of which he was to be Chairman for the next quarter-century and which brought much-needed employment to the Cumberland area. Maybe part of his loyalty to the area stemmed from the fact that when he was interned as an enemy alien for a few days in 1939, a landlady on the Isle of Man asked him nicely what he and his wife would like for their breakfast. He ended his maiden speech to the Lords: "I do not think that you my Lords, who have been born here, can be conscious of the immense sense of pride that I who came from the Continent with few friends and no resources, feel on thisoccasion. The debt that I owe to the kindness and humanity of the British people cannot be discharged."

But Schon made a considerable contribution to Britain in return. John Cunningham, MP for Whitehaven, said yesterday: "In my view, he was a tremendous entrepreneur; a hugely successful industrialist, lifelong supporter of democratic socialism and a great friend who thousands of people in West Cumbria will mourn and miss."

In 1969, Tony Wedgwood Benn, then Minister of Technology, appointed Schon Chairman of the National Research Development Corporation at the age of 56 in succession to Lord Black. On becoming Chairman, Schon stressed the overwhelming importance of much heavier investment in British manufacturing industry in maintaining the balance of payments. A large switch in resources in Britain into exports in the 1960s had resulted in exports increasing by 4 per cent as a proportion of gross national product while personal consumption internally had fallen by one and a half per cent in the second half of the 1960s. Schon thought it important to buttress the improvement in the balance of payments situation with investment in manufacturing industry to bring under control wage inflation.

He was concerned with "exploitation" of industrial workers who had created defensive and non-cooperative trade-union attitudes. He saw that promoting understanding management was the way to combat such attitudes. As Chairman of NRDC, he believed that theCommon Market was an obvious step in the right direction but hoped that British negotiators would bear in mind not only what Britain had to gain but also what Britain had to contribute. Towards the end of his period as Chairman of NRDC, Schon fa ced criticism by the Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology to the effect that it should be more liberal and easy-going with grants. In 1977 he defiantly asserted that NRDC would not lower its standards to appease his critics. Changes in the role ofNRDC proposed by the Select Committee appeared to him to be based in part on a number of misunderstandings. He hoped NRDC would always show enthusiasm and concern but added: "It is sometimes difficult to leave these impressions with those, unfort unately the majority, whose proposals one had to turn down."

Alas, Schon did not play as active a part in the House of Lords as his admirers would have wished. His last contribution was a question asking how many university and polytechnic science parks were operational in 1988 in the United Kingdom, and what performance criteria were being used to judge their effectiveness in transferring technology to British industry. Lord Beaverbrook, for the government, told him that there were 33 operational university and polytechnic science parks. Their effec tiveness wasjudged by their success in attracting new businesses and generating new jobs. The Government did not control science parks and had not established specific performance criteria along the lines that Schon had suggested. Schon asked sadly how many schemesreceived financial support from industry only and were not government-supported. Alas, the answer was only one, to the dismay of a man who had given his life to building up contacts between industry and academia.

Tam Dalyell

Frank Schon, industrialist: born Vienna 18 May 1912; Chairman and Managing Director, Marchon Products Ltd 1939-67; Chairman and Managing Director, Solway Chemicals Ltd 1943-67; Kt 1966; Member, National Research Development Corporation 1967-79, Chairman 1969-79; created 1976 Baron Schon; married 1933 Gertrude Secher (died 1993; two daughters); died London 7 January 1995.

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