The Bridge Interviews
This month’s interviewee is someone who has combined a highly successful career in business with supporting and re-establishing one of our oldest industries. Does that ring any bells?
Laith Reynolds is Australian by birth but has lived in more countries than most of us have even visited. He was born in York, Western Australia, a little to the east of Perth. His father had joined up at the beginning of the First World War and served at Gallipoli and in Egypt, France and Belgium. He joined in a group of 38 of whom five survived the war. He then became a farmer but had to give this up during the depression of the 1930s. Laith’s mother was one of the first girls to have graduated from grammar school in Western Australia and then became a teacher. Laith, the youngest of seven children, spent his childhood in several small towns and then went to high school in Perth. He did an apprenticeship in the two-way radio trade and joined Philips where he rose rapidly through the ranks of management.
He also joined the Anglican Youth Fellowship and became a server at St George’s Cathedral in Perth. Through the fellowship he met Jan, to whom he has been married for 54 years. They have two sons, a daughter and four grandchildren. St George’s at that time had the only set of English change ringing bells in Western Australia. It was at this time that Laith’s fascination with bells and bell ringing took hold.
Laith and Jan moved to Indonesia where he spent four years developing the Philips two-way radio business. The family all learned to speak Bahasa Indonesia, the official language of the country (they have 700 others), and Jan took a degree in Indonesian Language and Studies. The family still speak Indonesian to each other, and on the morning of our interview Laith had surprised some Indonesian visitors to Burford by addressing them in their own tongue.
In the late 1970s the family moved back to Australia and Laith began a new career as an entrepreneur, developing mines and mining districts. Mines, he explains, are abandoned and redeveloped in cycles. They rarely close because the deposits have been worked out. More usually they do so as a result of other factors such as company failure, labour disputes, political interference or falling commodity prices. For example many gold mines closed in the inter-war period because the gold price was pegged at an artificially low level.
Next they moved to Vancouver while Laith helped to reopen a closed mine in Montana and get it listed on the London Stock Exchange. After this they lived in Hawaii where he developed coffee technology and ran a coffee plantation. He attempted to develop a form of genetically modified coffee that would be caffeine-free. However this was seriously affected by efforts from the Green movement to prevent the development of genetically modified organisms (GMO). It is a little-known fact, he says, that the Green movement was funded by manufacturers of agrochemicals who feared that the introduction of GMOs, which were genetically resistant to pests and diseases, would obviate the need for their products. The results have been disastrous as pathogens fight back and develop immunity to the chemicals, just as bacteria acquire resistance to antibiotics.
Warming to his subject, Laith explains that a single variety of maize used to last for ten to fifteen years but now will barely survive a year before either a new variety or a new chemical is needed. The only wholly natural food left in the world is Brazil nuts. The Brazilian cocoa industry was virtually destroyed through excessive use of chemicals to attack the Witches’ Broom fungus that reduced the life of trees. Eventually the fungus became uncontrollable and killed the industry there.
Further moves took Laith and Jan to Singapore, China, Bangladesh and London before they arrived in Burford. Before we come to that, let us talk about bells.
Change ringing on full swing beams is a mathematical folk art of the English-speaking world, basically the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, North America and South Africa. Some rather similar bell-ringing goes on in places in Northern Italy, and that’s about it. Laith has been involved in more than 20 bell restoration projects. The first was at St George’s Cathedral in Perth. In Hawaii he helped install bells in the Episcopal Cathedral. One of his biggest projects was the Bell Tower which sits alongside the Swan River in Perth and was originally designed for the Australian bicentennial celebrations in 1988, but was built for the Millenium. St Martin-in-the-Fields church in London was planning to recast its peal of 12 bells. Laith arranged for them to be reconditioned, sent to Perth and installed in the new Bell Tower. In return seven tons of Australian copper and tin were sent to the UK to be turned into new bells for St Martin’s. There are now seven bell towers in Western Australia.
Laith was president of the Australia and New Zealand Union of Bell Ringers and served on the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers in the UK. He was made a Freemen of the City of London for his work on bells in the capital.
Until recently there were only two bell foundries left in the English-speaking world, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London (dating back to 1570) and J. Taylor & Co in Loughborough (“Taylors”) which was operated by the Taylor family from 1784 but had roots going back to the 14th century. Taylors was gradually going downhill following the death of the last member of the Taylor family. Laith and two other senior bell ringers thought it was important that there should be two foundries. When Taylors eventually went into receivership, they acquired control of the company and rebuilt and refinanced it. It now employs around 30 staff and has a full order-book. It is a very old industry and requires 13 different crafts to carry out the various stages of casting, tuning and hanging bells. The company employs apprentices and the plan is to make it safe for the next 50-100 years. Historic England have made a grant towards this as the foundry is one of only two Victorian industrial buildings in the Midlands still used by the same company in the same trade (the other is a pottery in Staffordshire).
The latest project was to install a set of eight bells in St George’s Memorial Church in Ypres, which was built to commemorate over 500,000 British and Commonwealth troops who died in the three battles in the Ypres salient in the First World War. The bells were cast at Taylors and were delivered to the church on 30 August on two lorries, a Thornycroft and a Dennis, which saw service during that war. The seventh bell is inscribed to the memory of the ANZACs – Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (Laith’s father took part in the second and third battles).
Jan has her own special interest which is family history. She researched both their families. Her own parents were first generation immigrants to Australia, one from South Shields and one from London. Laith’s family have been in Australia for many generations. His roots go back to Scotland, Ireland and various parts of England including Cornwall – Laith is a Cornish name. Jan has since gone on to investigate other people’s families and has seen the remarkable effect it can have on them to learn about their origins and identity.
Laith and Jan discovered the Cotswolds when staying with friends in Shipton-under-Wychwood. Later, when working in Bangladesh, they took to spending a holiday each year in this area, often in Hook Norton. Eventually they settled permanently in Burford, attracted by the shops and other facilities, the house that they found and the warm welcome they received. “Burford is the best place to live, and we have lived in a lot of places” says Jan. The presence of a church with a ring of eight bells was another attraction, and Laith joined the band of ringers. They are always on the lookout for new members, he says.
Laith is also a keen Rotarian and has belonged to Rotary wherever he has lived. The Burford and Kingham branch is undergoing a renaissance and is involved in many community projects including planting on the roundabout, the Christmas lights in Burford, sending emergency supplies to disaster areas and supporting Contented Dementia. He emphasises that the view of Rotary as consisting of middle-class businessmen is at least 20 years out of date. They, too, are keen to find new male and female members. And in between all these activities he compiled a huge collection of Australian books, maps, atlases and art although the collection has now largely been dispersed.
Laith is a serial entrepreneur and he tells us that Perth is an entrepreneurial city. He says the English view is that you shouldn’t fail in business whereas he shares the American view that if you haven’t failed you can’t be trying. He also said that “You have to step outside the norm or you are always working for people who control the norm.”
What things he has done is he most proud of? He mentions improving gold recovery techniques and his GMO work. More recently he and his family helped to start a business which has developed new methods of detecting cancer, and identifying the type of cancer, from testing blood. The company, Volition RX, is based in Belgium, works with various worldwide universities including Oxford and is listed on the New York Stock Exchange. This system will change medical practices significantly. And, of course, his work with bells. Even his telephone and front door ring with the sound of church bells.