Denis Rebbeck (1914 - 1994):
Denis Rebbeck followed his father Sir Frederick Rebbeck as Chief Executive of Harland & Wolff, the almost iconic Belfast shipbuilding firm. He was born in Belfast and educated at Campbell College, a large school in the east of the city. He then studied at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he was keen on the mainstream sports there of rowing and Rugby. On graduating in 1935 with a BA in Mechanical Sciences, he joined Harland & Wolff, where he was to remain for the rest of his career, although his first work was building marine diesel engines under licence for a Danish firm, Burmeister & Wain, in Belfast.
His father was already Chief Executive (he had been appointed in 1930) and the firm was heavily engaged in war production; Denis's responsibility was the production of heavy gun barrels. In 1946 he became a Director at Harland & Wolff, in 1953 he was appointed Deputy Managing Director and eventually, on his father's retirement Managing Director, 1962.
Though Harland & Wolff was undoubtedly a major "player" in world shipbuilding, nevertheless, from as far back as the early 1920s and the death of Lord Pirrie, the head of the firm, in 1924, and for a variety of reasons including internal ones, it was in gradually decline. There were persistent industrial relations problems, production costs were not competitive on a nationwide basis and certainly not well placed to compete with Asian and Scandinavian rivals. A lot of enlargement work was needed to accommodate what could or should have been a key model for the firm, namely the very large crude oil carriers increasingly in demand throughout the world. Rebbeck, in his 1966 Message to Shareholders, pointed up restrictive practices and the number of days lost to industrial disputes as the principal cause of the company's decline. Rebbeck managed to obtain government help in the form of a loan, but only at the expense of his own position, as government aid was dependent on more direct government control. Rebbeck retired in 1970.
Alongside his stewardship of the company, he pursued, earlier on in his career, academic qualifications and distinctions including the degrees of BLitt from the University of Dublin, MSc from Queen's University, Belfast the same year, and a PhD from Queen's in 1950. In 1943 he had received the Ackroyd Stuart award of the Institute of Marine Engineers and for his rôle in the Northern Ireland part of the Festival of Britain in 1951 he was appointed CBE. He sat on or chaired numerous committees, and not just within or related to the industry, and was widely in demand as a consultant and director; he regularly gave papers to distinguished professional bodies.
He was tall in stature (photographs of him showing visitors round plant show him the tallest in the group) and as his sporting activities might suggest, of stocky figure. These and his sociable nature made him a popular as well as respected figure, and he was known as "Big Denis" (a typical if hardly original Belfast nickname - in contrast to his rather smaller father, who during an industrial dispute was addressed, though not maliciously, by the strikers as "ye wee man ye").
He died at his home in County Down at the age of 80.
|Born:||22 January 1914|
|Died:||19 May 1994|
Dictionary of Irish Biography; Kevin Johnston: In the Shadows of Giants, Dublin, 2008; Belfast Telegraph, 8.12.2005: “The first apprentices’ strike in the yard” (Wilson John Haire)
© 2017 Ulster History Circle