I go where others fear to tread

This was the credo of Ivan Hadzhiberov, patriarch of Bulgarian industry
By Dorothea Nikolova

Ivan Hadjiberov

On a hot summer day in the early 20th century a group of smartly dressed English gentlemen, led by the entrepreneur Tom Normanton from Brookside Mills, near Manchester, turned up at the factory of Ivan Hadzhiberov in Gabrovo to check out who dared to compete with them in their best export market.
After waiting a few hours, having been informed that Hadzhiberov was busy, a very dirty man saluted them. Their interpreter said “Run to call Berov and do it fast!”
His answer was “I’m Berov.” A little later, instead of being oiled to his elbows, he came back dressed like a dandy, with a tailcoat and a cylinder hat. The English gentlemen shamefacedly whispered, “But… you work?” and, amazed by what they saw, they increased fourfold the stock credit of the Bulgarian. That same day, he had single handedly repaired a broken machine, while months earlier, with the confidence of a world-class textile producer, he had convinced Normanton and began to weave fine woollen fabrics for him. The partnership continued for years and contributed to the name of Gabrovo in Bulgarian Manchester.

Hadjiberov`s estate

Poster of Hadjiberov after 1905

“The Brits of Brookside Mills are far from being the only ones who had to wait for Ivan Hadzhiberov while he was working alongside his workers,” assert Milen Vassilev and Emil Mihov, the authors of a documentary about Hadzhiberov. The documentary idea came about by accident during a photoshoot. Milen recalls a friend exclaiming “Do you know that you are standing in the very place where the first lightbulb in Bulgaria was lit?” A musician by profession, he had never heard of Hadzhiberov. He wrote the music and started to work on the documentary with the money he made from his club performances.
After the initial photographs he got together with Emil, an historian and photographer who digitises old museum film material and photographs of most of Bulgaria’s archeological discoveries. The work took almost three years, but the search for the achievements of the Bulgarian manufacturers continued. There were a few dozen Bulgarians who, in the late 19th and early 20th century, turned Bulgaria from a backward Ottoman province into the sixth greatest economic power in Europe, keeping it almost unchanged until the end of the Second World War.

Part of Hadjiberov’s complex from a bird’s eye view

He was so far ahead of his time “It’s as though we had a spaceport in the 1950s, and we launched space rockets” Emil says. “More than that, he was relying solely on his own strength, with no support or political protection and with the psychological burden of nearly 500 years of foreign domination “.Milen and Emil’s big dream is a series of documentary films about these forgotten Bulgarian industrialists, who, despite the fact that they were billionaires by today’s standards, lived modestly, invested all of their money in machines and innovations, often travelled second class on the train, worked equally with their workers, ensured social benefits for those in need and gave millions to charity.

Gabrovo industrialists in the early 20th century

IvanHadzhiberov’s story as a entrepreneur began with cart freight before 1878. After the Liberation, in which he was a volunteer, he hired the family water mill from his father. He еаrned thousands of Bulgarian levs, but was dissatisfied. Hadzhiberov wanted not only to live, but to be successful. He modernised the water mill and in 1890, offered the unthinkable in Bulgaria – high quality white flour without bran.A year later his drive for success took him to an industrial exhibition in Frankfurt, where he came across the ideas of Galileo Ferrari, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla and from where he brought a dynamo and his first five looms.
He had finished only second grade at junior high school, something like today’s 6th grade, but adjusted the gears in the mill by himself and started the looms. This invention led to the first use of electricity for industrial purposes in Bulgaria. And when soon after that, Berov realised that he needed more driving power, he decided to build a power plant – an heretical and even crazy idea for his time. He did all the geological studies, drawings and network diagrams himself.
Ivan Hadzhiberov was the man who lit the first light bulb – then still with a carbon fibre and very close to Edison’s prototype. He electrified Gabrovo by paying for all the town’s electricity. His fellow citizens not only accused him of being allied with the devil, but also blamed the electricity for stopping women giving birth and chickens laying eggs.

Image showing the factory interior

Being aware that investment in the wool-textile industry spins fast and can soon make a profit, the entrepreneur from Gabrovo boldly put his wife’s inheritance into production. He furnished his factory entirely in the English style and it gained an award for being the first private courtyard factory for fine wool fabrics. He started importing the latest machines and trained working hands. He created a private school with professional teachers for his workers and their children. He provided free education and healthcare, accommodation and food. He created a unique factory complex, unparalleled as a structure to this very day. In addition to factories, there were dwellings for his workers and an English park with running deer, fallow deer and pheasants. In order to keep his trained employees, Ivan Hadzhiberov set up a cultural centre, a fruit and vegetable garden, tennis courts and even a summer ice rink. The first three ice hockey championships in Bulgaria were played there.
Because of all this, his fellow citizens decided he was going mad. The rumours reached the point where his bank stopped funding and his company had all its assets distrained. Then Berov went to Turnovo and with a gun he forced the director of the bank to cancel the distrain with the words: “Credit or a bullet for both of us.”
“He was rich, but before everything else he was a man”, said Milev. He helped with money for every servant’s wedding, the bride received a dowry, and the groom a decare of land for cultivation. If someone stole something, he gathered all of the workers in two rows and instructed the guilty person to pass between them so they could see him. “

Milen Vassilev and Emil Mihov

His production won gold awards at exhibitions in Paris, London, Liège, Antwerp and Athens. In wartime, when interest in fine fabrics ceased, he started to produce woollen fabrics for the army. When his factory burned, he built a new one. He worked shoulder to shoulder with his men until his death in 1934.
Communist power, however, did everything it could to erase the memory of Hadzhiberov, but he was still appreciated for what he had done and his factory continued to work as the woollen textile factory “Georgi Genev”.
Hadzhiberov’s relatives and heirs could not set foot in Gabrovo for decades. They managed to do so only after 1989, when they said they did not want any money but only to “keep grandfather’s chimney smoking.” However, their grandfather’s chimney did not withstand the pressure of employee-buyout privatisation and, in 2000, the smoke finally stopped.

The guest house of Hadjiberov nowadays

Today, in place of the guest house where the English textile magnates bowed their heads to Hadzhiberov’s dedication, there are only ruins, the remains of his favorite frescoes and a few ceramic bulb holders. This once unique complex is inhabited by more dogs than humans, the wind blows through the broken doors and windows, and the paved courtyard is just a memory
A small carved inscription with his name, almost unreadable after all these years, and the chimney are the only traces of the man who, during his life, was called the Patriarch of Bulgarian industry.

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