Cartier-Bresson was one of the great ambassadors for black and white film. Coincidentially he passedaway in 2004 when Ilford was in deep trouble.
Ilford also launched some cameras and colour film from the 1940s and on.
But the company flagship was always the niche product black and white film.
Since film was a consumablegood, there was always demand for it back in the analogue era.
Though the firm met some competition with the rise of theJapanese companies in 1950-1970, itstill remained healthy and profitable.
With the rise of digital imaging in the 1990s, the photo communitystarted to discuss whether and towhat extent film would be replaced by digital cameras.
"I use both, but I can put myheart into film. I dont think well ever see it totally disappear.“ // Hideki Fujii, director of theNippon Photography Institute, a Tokyo-based photo school
"The fact is, people prefer film.“ "The look and feel of it puts it on a different level to digital output.“// Steven Brierley, sales director at Ilford Photo of Britain, 2006
Though it was far from obvious thatfilm would die, Ilford still decided to stop putting R&D into it.
In the mid 1990s, the Swiss branchof Ilford in Marly started to explore the area of inkjet paper and nanotechnology.
The Swiss branch had been inthe colour segment of film and had always been more technologically advanced.
Maybe such investments could helpIlford to survive in the digital area?
Doing so was a bit risky, since noone really knew whether this would create any revenues at all.
For about five years, theseinvestments did not contribute at all to the business of Ilford.
The Swiss group started off by focusing on colour film but continuously moved away from this and towards papers for digital prints.
In this period, they went from basic research into full production of inkjet paper which enabled filmquality. It turned out to be a huge and growing market.
At the same time, the core film business started to decline rapidly.
The explosion3025201510 5 0 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 Number of film and digital cameras sold in the United States (guess which one is digital!)
In 2000-2004, the film businessdecreased at about 10-20 percent annually.
Given thatthere are a lotof fixed costs related to production, this implied huge losses for Ilford.
While the Swiss branch kept growing, the old, traditional Ilford faced extinction and several layoffs took place in these years.
Profits kept rising in the digital inkjet printing whilethe old business collapsed.
In the first seven months of2004, film sales declined with a mortal 26 percent. Up to this point, more than 50percent of the UK employees had been fired and thecompany had accumulated a debt of £40 million.
In mid 2004 the companybecame insolvent and was restructured through a management buy-out.
The new ‘old’ Ilford kept producing black and white film and even re- introduced some old products.
The company is now owned by what is called Harman Technologies Ltd (Harman was the founder of Ilford) and is traded under Ilford Photo.
They’ve found a niche where film can survive on a small scale.
The expanding Swiss branch was soldto Oji, a Japanese paper company and has kept growing ever since.
They still use the llford brand and sell some colour film as well.
“Oji’s corporate strategy is to build global networks for existing products and to develop new product capabilities to meet the demands of the changing marketplace. The acquisition of ILFORDin July 2005, meets this overall strategy.” // From the webpage
Summing up: the old Ilford survived in adifferent shape after a lot of downsizing and a few ownership changes. The Swiss business prospers today afterhaving developed inkjet printing paper.
A lot ofshareholder value must have been created from thestrategy to go for inkjet paper and nanotechnology back in the mid 1990s.
The manager in charge of the Swiss and British sites had to decide whether to spread resources thinly or put them all in one uncertain basket.
He was brave enough to go forone basket, and this turned out to be crucial for the company.
In a fast-moving industry which is heading for a digital revolution, hedging and playing low-risk does not seem to be an option.
SourcesThe British Journal of PhotographyCredit SuisseIlford Chronology