John Ellis: Mountain climber revived fortunes of long-established Norwich’s engineering firm, Heatrae.
08:27 23 January 2014
One of the longest-established engineering businesses in Norwich was given a new lease of life by former managing director, John Ellis, who has died aged 72.
When he joined Heatrae Sadia, it was loss-making and thought unlikely to survive. In his first year, the order book dropped 40pc. As the enthusiastic mountain climber, who spent his childhood in the Lake District, he said later that there was only one way to go. He devoted the next 17 years to putting the business, which had been started in 1920 in the centre of city making electrical fires, back at the top.
Born in Luton on December 6, 1941, he was three when his parents bought a guest house near Lake Derwentwater. While at Keswick School, he went on an Outward Bound course, which involved spending one January in an unheated hut, without any hot water. It was to foster his love of the outdoors.
He gained five O-levels and, at his father’s instigation, went to Rugby as one of 1,000 apprentices on a five-year mechanical engineering course.
There, he met his wife, Valerie, who was at Coventry Teacher Training College, and they were married for 47 years.
He became apprentice of the year and went into the motor industry with Ford as a production controller. He also worked for Chrysler and a Danish tractor company in Barnsley.
When he came to Heatrae Sadia as managing director in 1981, he had only visited Norfolk once before on a camping holiday at Sheringham.
The business expanded its range with a number of acquisitions including Amega Plastics, Aqualisa Showers and Dreamland Electric Blankets. It also developed products such as the Megaflo, now the industry standard for high pressure hot water cylinders.
In 1988, he moved up a peg to become managing director of Yale & Valor’s water heating division – taking under his wing, newly-acquired companies such as Ely & Gibbons, Pulling Electronics and Proscon. Other highlights included the firm’s 70th anniversary in 1990 and creating 40 new jobs in 1994.
He took early retirement at the age of 55 as his heath declined, leaving with much regret a job that he had really enjoyed.
Living in a 16th-century thatched cottage at Saxlingham Nethergate, he was persuaded to turn his business expertise to help the local community – turning another loss-maker into a thriving community asset. He was chairman of the Playing Field Association for 12 years and led fund-raising efforts for a new playground and also to acquire a meadow. A new safer path from the playing field to the primary school, was also achieved. Another of his initiatives, which involved planting about 1,000 trees was a successful community achievement.
A keen walker, he was often seen with his beloved golden retriever, Bella, who reached 18 years, around the village.
But mountain and fell walking was his main interest, either in the Lakes or in Scotland. He completed all 282 Munros, peaks of 3,000ft plus, and also 221 Corbetts, which stand at more than 2,500ft.
He enjoyed walking holidays in the Pyrenees and Wales and climbed the Three Peaks of Yorkshire. He also completed the Alpine high level route from Zermatt to Chamonix, which was particularly challenging.
He leaves a widow, Valerie, and two daughters, Nicola and Suzanne, and three granddaughters, Natasha, Rosie and Emily. He is survived by his elder brother, George.
A service of thanksgiving will be held at St Mary’s Church, Saxlingham Nethergate, tomorrow on Thursday, January 23 at 2.30pm.