Birmingham Chamber’s Jonathan Webber criss-crosses the globe to help companies win overseas business. Ian Halstead sees what makes him tick.
Over the centuries, many noble Englishmen have spent their lives searching the continents for mythical cities, or seeking the truth behind mysterious fables.
However, when Jonathan Webber returns time and again to the sprawling street markets of Africa and Asia, it is on the trail of something rather more prosaic than lost gold mines, or the secret of eternal youth.
He is consumed by a desire to find back numbers of the cricketing world’s famous almanac, Wisden, to add to the hundreds of volumes he already keeps in safe storage.
Given that the hardback version of the first Wisden went for £23,000, and that a full set would set you back at least £100,000, it’s understandable that Webber is seeking the value option to complete his collection.
“The gaps now are largely just a matter of money. You know where they are, but the prices are astronomical,” he admits.
“I once discovered 160 Wisdens in a shed in Egypt, which was exciting, although they turned out to be duplicates of ones I had.
“You always need lots of spares though, in case someone wants a swap, and I do enjoy the thrill of the hunt.”
Webber displays the same passionate intensity for his other great love - local politics. He’s standing in Wolverhampton’s Park Road constituency, where he lives, and for the Liberal Democrats.
“I can’t tell the difference between the two main parties, and New Labour has always been Tory-lite.
“Our family was pretty non-conformist, and I’ve always had that kind of streak,” he explains.
“Even now, at a personal level, I sometimes struggle to cope with authority.
“At a political level, I do worry about the amount of legislation being enacted by the current Government.
“The CCTV networks are making Britain too much of a surveillance society, and I dislike the concept of ID cards, because they change the relationship between people and the state.
“To me, we all have the right to be a citizen, and the state should serve us, not the other way round.”
The words are said with calm grace, rather than the fervour of the hustings, but you can begin to see why Webber’s grand-mother was a suffragette.
Indeed, she and her husband were far more of an influence on the young Webber than his parents, largely down to Webber Senior’s laissez-faire approach to childcare.
“Our family was East End Jewish, and my dad was a genuine Cockney, and really quite intimidating,” recalls Webber.
“He was a very clever bloke, but didn’t really understand children, so I was sent to boarding school from the age of seven.
“Then dad died, mum went to live in France with my sister, and my grandparents became my guiding light.”
It might sound a lonely, and rather solitary, childhood, but Webber dismisses such psycho-babble.
“I wasn’t a particularly dedicated pupil, and did leave at sixteen, but boarding school made me articulate, and gave me confidence, which I have appreciated over the years,” he says.
“I did end up with a sizeable chip on my shoulder at not having a degree, but that was my fault. My school holidays were idyllic.
“I spent the mornings at the MCC cricket school, and most afternoons, I was smashing golf balls around the local course.
“I hadn’t any clubs, but the members were wonderful, and they loaned me enough for a full set of hickory-shafted ones.”
Time spent in Webber’s agreeable company does give the impression of a restless spirit, and it’s a trait long evident.
Content he may have been after leaving school, but settled he was not, and two years on, he left the country of his birth to head for Greece.
The driving force for this odyssey was teenage lust, and given that he journeyed 1,500 miles to sate his appetite, the girl he met by chance in Exeter had clearly caught his eye.
“We really loved each other, we married, had three children, and I lived and worked in Greece for the next eighteen years,” recalls Webber.
“At first, I was teaching English as a foreign language, but after six months I had picked up Greek pretty well, and my girlfriend spotted an ad in a local paper, saying a publisher needed a literary agent.
“It was one of the finest careers I could have chosen. My Greek boss was a real character, was said to have been the model for the lead character in Evelyn Waugh’s novel, Scoop, and had been an interpreter with Britain’s special operations executive in the Balkans, during world war two.”
Webber became the Greek publishing rep for such diverse brands as Disney and the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, and also found himself tasked with turning Kingfisher’s massive output into Greek.
In the early 1980s, his mentor began publishing Greek versions of the best-selling Penguin novels, and other books flooded in from Britain, the United States and Germany.
However, Webber had to move on, because his wife was homesick for her homeland around Salonika, and when the family moved north, he became publishing director for a company with a seriously different back catalogue.
“The firm had been set up by peasants who had fought for the resistance, and all their books were about the conflict, about making bombs, and killing Germans,” recalls Webber.
“When I arrived, they had around 300 titles, of which 280 probably sold five or six copies a year, usually to relatives of people featured in the books.”
Fortunately for the finances of the Webber family, a British diplomat decided his English background, local contacts and fluent Greek were ideal for a new venture.
The UK government was anxious to develop trading ties north of Athens, and launched a new division of the British-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce, to stimulate business links throughout the Balkans.
Mr Webber says: “I was asked to run the chamber, their office was only 30 metres from our house, and I was even given a phone, which was a big deal in those days.”
The locals were enthused by the idea of finding new trading partners, and a series of events, seminars and parties soon filled the Chamber’s calendar.
“My favourite was when we flew in the top wine buyers from Tesco, Sainsbury and Waitrose, to show them what was branded as ’the wine routes of Macedonia’,” says Webber.
“It was a tremendous success, but unfortunately we then discovered that the amount Tesco demanded in samples, to test the produce for taste, quality and consistency was more than the whole production of Northern Greece.”
However, Webber certainly enjoyed his move into trade and commerce, and after five years with the Chamber, joined the Department of Trade & Industry, helping to promote British exports, in 1995.
Two years later, the new Labour administration decided to decommission the Royal Yacht Britannia, which had been flying the flag for Britain around the world, for some 40 years.
“I really thought that was a senseless, and very political, decision, made by people who perhaps saw it as a symbol of the past, but who certainly did not appreciate how important it was for promoting overseas trade,” says Webber, and his ire is evident.
“We held an event on board the yacht, in Greece, and they really were the hottest tickets in town. The Britannia had such a cachet that people talked about the night years later.
“I could have sold the tickets many times over, and the same was true wherever the yacht went.
“To me, it personified everything that we do well - pomp and circumstance and ceremony - and it didn’t half work in getting business people interested in Britain.
“I’ve still never met anyone who could explain just why a new yacht wasn’t commissioned.”
By then though, although Webber’s love affair with Greece wasn’t over, his marriage was, and it seemed a timely moment to return to the UK.
After working with the DTi, he was asked to join the BCCI, where he remains today as international trade director, and director of the chamber‘s India-Pakistan Trade Unit.
The latter venture has become the global portal for trading with South-East Asia, but even Webber admits its remarkable success wasn’t even remotely predicted.
“We created the unit simply to get all the information we had, about India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, into one place, and we later added Sri Lanka,” he says.
Now though, the six-language www.iptu.co.uk site gets a staggering 500,000 hits on its busiest days, attracts between 50,000 and 80,000 unique visitors a month, and has registered users in eighty countries.
“To be honest, it has become a bit of a Frankenstein in some respects,” admits Webber. “It is so big that we don’t know what happens next. It is operated by two part-time staff, which is clearly not sustainable. Its manager, Rupi Nandra, does an amazing job, but it needs significant funding to continue, perhaps through sponsorship, or perhaps as the secretariat for Advantage West Midlands’ India group.”
In May, the IPTU is being relaunched, and the new site will feature separate sections for every one of India’s 27 states.
“The functionality will be quite outstanding, especially when you consider that it is being upgraded in-house, by Rupi,” says Webber.
“For the future though, the chamber will need a new strategy to operate the portal, to continue to generate the maximum benefits, for companies based in this country and in South-East Asia.”
Webber’s demanding role involves leading at least one overseas visit each month, and he reckons he has now visited more than 60 countries.
Which of his many experiences stand-out then?
“My favourite place is Istanbul, which has everything I like; scenery, art, architecture and old books. It’s a great place to walk, and the weather is always warm, without being overpowering.
“The place I was most ill in was Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, and that was all down to the cooking at the Deputy High Commissioner’s home.
“My first overseas visit with BCCI was to Jeddah. The locals took me to Harry Ramsdens, which was bad enough, but I am also allergic to fish.”
His working life has already given him a rich wealth of experiences, and a brimming store of anecdotes, and there are sure to be more ahead.
However, one thing will not change as the future unfolds, and it is certainly no surprise.
“My ambition would be to take six months off, to find an old Royal Enfield motor-cycle, with a sidecar, and to go to India,” says Webber, with a dangerously serious gleam in his eyes. I reckon I could ride from the south to the north, and by the time I’d finished, I’d have found all my missing Wisdens.”