In the shop established in 1873 you could buy newspapers, walking sticks, umbrellas, toys and smoking accessories, amongst other things. Through the shop window you could catch a glimpse of the centre of Roermond, a historic city that lies where the River Roer joins the Meuse, on that narrow strip of Dutch land squeezed between Belgium and Germany called Limburg. However, Limburg continues to the West, beyond the Meuse and the Dutch border, and there, in the Belgian city of Bree, only 30 kilometers away from Roermond, Jean Knödgen, a German, had started to make clay pipes in 1846. An enterprising Johannes Henricus Gubbels may have sold these in his shop in Roermond, alongside his other smoking accessories and umbrellas, seeing that the pipe maker worked not far away.
Johannes ran his business for a long time together with his wife, Dijmphna Hubertina. After her death (1896) he got married again to Anna Maria in 1899 who bore him two children, and when she in turn was widowed in 1911, continued the business and opened other shops in Roermond under the name “Widow Gubbels-Plum”. In 1924 her two children, Antonia and Elbert Gubbels established the “A & H Gubbels” company, which specialized in the wholesale trading of smoking accessories. At that time Elbert was just twenty and enjoyed roaring around the city in his Chrysler, only the third car to be purchased in the city at that time. It had not been bought on a whim, but to enable him to reach further afield for his job, as he would visit all the shops within a 12-kilometre radius that sold smoking accessories, as well as suppliers. Meanwhile, the pipe factory in Bree now had a new owner, as at the end of the 19th century Jean Hillen, Knödgen’s son-in-law, had bought the company, and subsequently had contacted French artisans in the area of Saint-Claude. They supplied him with briar wood, and Jean would finish them off. Thus, he was able to offer more modern pipes in style and material, alongside the traditional clay pipes. By 1924 Hillen was probably perfectly capable of creating pipes from briar wood on his own.
Elbert Gubbels extended his business up to WWII, getting his supplies mainly from France and England. However, wars are no friend to trade, and Holland was invaded by German troops in May 1940, so the family fled north. They tried to eke out a living by buying and selling what little there was available. Following the end of the war in 1945, they returned home to pick up the business, an arduous task as material was lacking and importing material was almost impossible. It was in that period that Elbert Gubbels, now the sole owner of the business, decided to follow Jean Hillen, by becoming totally independent and producing everything himself. The future factory started off with two machines and three French artisans in a small workshop. Over in Bree, a factory already existed and Hillen’s sons also worked there – Jos was in charge of sales and Albert, production. The latter had been an interpreter in the British army during the war and had succeeded in establishing numerous international contacts. Thus, thanks to this, it was easier to start exporting to various countries in the period after the war. The brand name that was sold abroad was simple, but perfectly expressed the company: Hilson, namely Hillen and Sons.
However, Gubbels had no brand name, yet, and was not even seeking one, making do with the acronym EGRO: Elbert Gubbels Roermond. They thought of increasing the number of machines, personnel, working space and quality of product. At the same time, however, the output was increasing, making it necessary to expand the market. Experience and the wholesale network were no longer sufficient, and a brand name was needed in order to increase sales, especially abroad. At that time the Dutch company, “De RijK en Zonen” was doing badly. It was located in Amsterdam and traded a variety of wholesale products at an international level. It was not a large company, and frankly not so interesting, but it did sell British-made pipes with a sought-after, glamorous brand name well-known in many countries. Bought in 1956 together with the whole De Rijk company, Big Ben was the brand that the Gubbels coveted. Subsequently, exports soared overseas, in Europe, the USA, Canada and many other countries worldwide, boosting production. Meanwhile, Hilson’s business was flourishing, producing a wide range of well-crafted, creative pipes. These products were selling well in Europe and elsewhere, thanks to their excellent reputation and good value for money. On the other hand, the Gubbels’ production was more traditional in style: natural or black briar models, straight or bent in line with the classic pipe design – apart from one exception. In fact, in that period the Pipo pipe was issued, a very small “nose-burner” designed by Alfons Gubbels, Elbert’s son, who had by that time joined the business together his brother Jos; Alfons was in charge of production and Jos, sales. Although Elbert did not approve of the pipe’s unorthodox style, nevertheless the Pipo pipe was highly successful, selling world-wide, including in America. At the end of 1972 Gubbels inaugurated a bigger factory, attended by the Governor of the province of Limburg, who granted the company the much-coveted title “Royal”, in the name of Queen Juliana. Thus, the company name became “Elbert Gubbels en Zonen – Koninklijke Fabriek van Tabakspijpen” (“Elbert Gubbels and Sons – Royal Dutch Pipe Factory”).
At the end of the 1970s, there were only two pipe factories in the Benelux countries – one on each side of the River Meuse. Only 30 kilometres separated the two companies. Two factories, two backgrounds, two businesses, two families and two brands.
These were two different, but also complementary enterprises. The Gubbels company tended towards the classic and traditional pipe model, while the Hillens were more creative. The former sold well in America, while the latter were popular on the German market. However, both enterprises produced high-quality workmanship and it almost seems as if they were destined to meet. Thus, in 1980 Gubbels bought Hillen, as the latter was experiencing serious financial difficulties. The difficult decision to move all machines, material and experts to the other side of the River Meuse was probably compulsory, as well as logical, although these did not have to go very far. The two halves were finally united, producing wonderful and exciting results. Gubbels, who had taken over Hillen, was in turn won over by the company’s culture and history.
Initially, the two brands had some difficulty in co-existing. For instance, some Big Ben pipes of that period could be confused with Hilsons and vice-versa. The initial period of adjustment was positive, characterized by a high output. However, something was changing in the world of pipes and the market crisis meant that quite a few things had to be re-considered. It was not enough to increase quality in order to compensate for the drop in quantity – new incentives had to match high-performance products increasingly. In about 1990, Alfons junior (technical production and design) and Elbert junior (sales) joined their father, Alfons senior, thus carrying on the family tradition.
Since then the company has striven for excellence in every aspect of their production – organization, machines, marketing, but above all in their mission, which is to offer an increasingly discerning clientele unique pipes. Thus, since 2008 Rainer Barbi, the famous German pipe maker, has been contributing to production and had the task of remodelling the Hilson brand. Moreover, another great pipe maker, Former, has recently decided to offer Gubbels his creative sensitivity, art and some of his time. Besides manufacturing Big Ben, Hilson and other more minor brands, the company in Roermond has also worked in partnership with other companies to create or refine unique models, such as Porsche Design (from 2005 to 2013) and Bentley (currently in progress).
Gubbels today is what everyone expects of a pipe manufacturer, although of course it is a factory and not a craftsman. Nevertheless, this does not mean that machine-made models are mass-produced when the machines themselves are up-dated and “intelligent”, capable of creating variations and custom-made models, and human craftsmanship is also involved, when the owners themselves often apply their skills. Indeed, they take their relation with pipe makers so seriously that the latter have a special area set aside for them in the factory with all the essential tools. This is the place where manufacturing meets creativity, where the best artisans are regularly invited to offer their skills.
The history of the Gubbels company is the story of four active, competent generations that through applying effective strategies have each succeeded in contributing to turning their great-grandfather’s small business into the thriving company seen today.
Special thanks to the Gubbels family for their precious contribution
Milan, March 2014