The Ilford name went from near bankruptcy to brand leader for black and white films in less than a decade. Viviane Li visits the factory to find out how.
The driver sitting next to me is slightly nervous. The factory that makes Ilford photographic products is just a short drive from a local train station where I am getting picked up from, along lush green tree-lined routes and small town traffic. At our destination on Ilford Way in Mobberly (UK), a barrier raises to let us through.
The experience of visiting film factories makes me think of a tiny person in an oversized suit. Roomy. I can’t help but notice plenty of free spaces in the vast car park. A few years ago, I visited another film factory that used to manufacture Polaroids in The Netherlands, and left with an impression of underused spaces in retro buildings. The absence is always noticeable; the void stirs the imagination. What was the buzz like during the hustle and bustle of peak production?
Film factories, wherever they are, seem to be shadows of their former selves. Drastically shrunken versions of a once dominant industry fallen on tough times, because most of the imaging business had gone digital. The year 2015 is a milestone for Harman Technology Limited (the company that now owns the ‘Ilford factory’), marking 10 years ((Press release: Harman Technology – 10 Years Of Progress, 18 February 2015)) of trading as a company born out of a bankruptcy crisis when the playing field underwent a seismic shift. The current company is a reincarnation of a photographic business lineage that goes back to 1879 ((History of Ilford black and white)). Many long-time household names, such as Kodak (established in 1881 as Eastman Dry Plate Company ((History of Kodak, milestones 1878–1929))) and Polaroid (originated in 1932 as Land-Wheelwright Laboratories ((History [of Polaroid]))), also went under similar insolvency crisis. Though now re-established as regular trading entities, they are still to certain extents trying to find their fit in the modern marketplace. What’s remarkable with Harman Technology, is they proved that focusing on analogue photography can yield a profitable return ((Harman Technology 2013 accounts: £19.68 million turn over, with a gross profit of £5.7 million. Source: Duedil.com)) and did so without reducing their product range (as other manufacturers in similar situations had done). So successful, in fact, that they had been cited as a model for others re-entering ((“Ilford is a model of how to make a film company that exists in the modern day… so we kind of look to them for a similar path.” – David Bias for Film Ferrania, Film Photography Podcast, episode 110 (41:34) )) the market. How did Harman Technology get it so right, under extremely testing times for the industry as a whole?
I close the door on my first ride in a Jaguar. Safely parked in spaces much easier to manoeuvre into than the tightly packed ones at the train station, Mel must have been relieved to leave the steering wheel. He had just driven his boss’s expensive car without putting a scratch on the body, phew! At our destination, I met the vehicle’s regular driver, sales and marketing director Steven Brierley, who took part in the management buyout of the previous business (Ilford Imaging) in 2005 ((Press release: Ilford up to speed, 6 March 2005)) together with five other employees. That was a bold move! But they believed that by lowering costs and focusing on the black and white products, rather than pursuing the highly competitive and less profitable market of inkjet paper, they may have a shot at saving the factory and remaining jobs. “It was our belief, and it still is our belief, there’ll always be a demand for these products,” Steven declared confidently.
Strong brand and products
Many of the products popular then, and still are today, were launched within the 15 years prior to receivership. ‘Ilford’ itself became a name established in photography from 1902, when the company Britannia Works changed its name to Ilford Limited. Digital revolution aside, loyal customers were far from ready to say goodbye! Steven recalls the critical period when the receivers allowed them a few weeks’ window to manufacture products to prove their point, “…our challenge was to get some orders in. And I rang all my customers at the time, and Simon – my colleague – [rang] many of his customers, and said … ‘If you care about the black and white products, if you care about Ilford, now is the time to place a big order…’ And the orders poured in from all over the world – enormous orders!”
It is this demand, be it a niche one nowadays, that determines the analogue film industry’s continued existence. Its story has similarities with the decline of vinyl record manufacturers, when in the late 80s, vinyl sales decreased and digital compact discs surged ((Did vinyl really die in the ’90s? Well, sort of…, Spin, 16 May 2014)). But the reshaped vinyl producers of today are experiencing demands that outstrip their production capabilities ((Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records, The Independent, 27 August 2014.)).
A different, rather than ‘old’, way of doing things will continue, in one form or another, for as long as customers think there is something uniquely desirable in the alternate technology compared to the mainstream, and are willing to pay for it. Commercial photographers may value fast turn-around times; casual snappers may value low cost and ease of use for capturing goofy family moments – digital photography caters to these priorities very well. In the case of monochrome analogue photography, there is an alternative aesthetic that still appeals to certain people. When someone’s goal is to pursue an artistic vision, it can overcome factors commonly perceived as barriers, such as reduced convenience, more time consumption and even higher cost!
What’s more, when a market shrinks, those customers who do remain can be extremely faithful and committed compared to mainstream consumers who, with more competitors to choose from, may be more fickle and price sensitive. These factors make the remaining market a lucrative opportunity to tap into, if a business can make all the right moves.
“Black-and-white analogue photography is the platform to which we are all dedicated,” announced the director of marketing and business development in 2005 ((Press release: Ilford up to speed, 6 March 2005)), Howard Hopwood, as soon as Harman Technology was formed. With that statement, the company staked a flagpole in the territory of monochrome imaging and claimed a leadership standpoint in that segment. By contrast, other competitors were well into their end-game strategies of disinvesting in product promotion and R&D, reducing their product range; whilst at the same time, “squeeze as much money out of the film business as possible” ((The last Kodak moment? The Economist, 14 January 2012)) at the expense of consumer confidence.
But it wasn’t enough just to say it, or to bring back discontinued products. Harman Technology had to put their money where their mouth is, by investing in R&D for new products in order to truly demonstrate their position. For example, launching a brand new paper for darkroom printing in 2011, which the company had not done for more than a decade ((Press release: Freedom of expression. Harman Technology launch the first new Ilford black and white silver gelatine paper for 13 years – Ilford Multigrade Art 300, 10 February 2011)). Only when they did so, could they prove to cautious supporters that this specialised domain had a future.
Whether it is by virtue of market confidence, or bigger suppliers exiting the scene, Harman Technology is winning in its niche, as Steven confirms, “we make the largest volume of black and white film in the world, and have done for a number of years.”
Focus on expertise
Confidence is also instilled by expertise, which they have plenty of by continuing the established knowledge base from the Ilford business. This expertise helps the new company to thrive, through the management team’s laser-like focus. Steven is solid on this point, “…since we took over, what’s important is our core black and white business, nothing else… you’ve got to decide what kind of a business you want to be out of the other side of buying it from receivership. And we said ‘now let’s concentrate on making these core black and white products’.”
The business direction that proved the company’s viability to the receiver, which in turn helped them to get the finances together to buy it, is still the primary driver today. This, together with profitability, guides their decisions on new products and innovations.
Diversify close to home
Knowledge transfer sometimes brings surprising applications. Steven reveals one of their newer ventures, whilst staying firmly within their domain of expertise, “…we are not easily distracted from our task of looking after the core business. Now, we do have some other businesses… we have antibacterial silver that’s used as an antibacterial agent in clothing and other things. But it’s made on our factory like we make our photo emulsions, just for a different purpose. So as long as it’s loosely in the domain of silver gelatine, black and white traditional skills, then you’ve got our interest.” Similar to making emulsions, it involves controlling the sizes of silver nanoparticles in order to control their properties. (Antibacterial properties of silver had been known since around 400BC ((Medical uses of silver – history, Wikipedia.)), but the wider impact of its use in clothing is still being researched ((Conflicting opinions about the risks of antibacterial silver, Phys.org, 31 Jan 2014)).)
Another knowledge transfer project they’d taken part in involved improving aspects of manufacturing for fuel cell components ((Technology – Energy, Harman Technology website.)). This required expertise in multilayer coating, developed from photo film and paper manufacturing. Beyond the core business, some subsidiary B2B services are logistical and turn the spare spaces they have into revenue, such as warehousing and renting out available car park spaces on the factory grounds.
The factory’s current setup, partly a legacy of previous business decisions, is a key part of their success. Steven explains how they are able to adapt to market changes differently to major film makers Kodak and Fujifilm, “…it’s the scale of their business that’s different… ten years ago, there were huge volumes of colour films being sold by Kodak and Fuji. And those volumes today are tiny. The coating plant that still makes those products is the same huge machines that used to run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.” Diseconomies of scale and a faster than expected downturn for colour films caused Kodak and Fuji to drop products like flies.
Monochrome films showed a slower decline by comparison. And because Ilford never seriously got into the mass market colour film sector, but remained a smaller maker of black and white products instead, their setup had more inherent flexibility. “We always had a small coating plant; we were always a niche player. Our plant was designed to be able to make small volumes of films and quickly change from one to another,” says Steven. This allows them to offer a wide range of different products, including smaller volume sellers that are manufactured on demand (for example, ‘SFX 200’ film ((Press release: Ilford SFX 200 returns!, 26 January 2007))). He adds with hindsight, “in a really peculiar way, never going into colour all those years ago did us a favour in the long term, in that today, it’s made us the business we are.”
People and teamwork
Another important factor that makes a business are the people. Because the factory was never closed down, essential expertise and skills stayed within the company. Andrew Cross, operations manager for the emulsion and coating plants, has been working at the factory for more than thirty years, “…a lot of the people that are here are ‘lifers’. You know, they have been here all their working lives… [within this time] we have established a good understanding of the whole business.” The different departments seem well-honed into the daily workings of the factory and the network of processes and relationships involved. Gaynor Hill, manager of the finishing department, explains they also operate with a single-minded goal, “…we all want the same thing. We are all striving towards getting a good product to the customer on time. And nobody deviates from that.”
I leave with the impression that, because the staff working here have known each other for a long time, and had collectively experienced a devastating period when the business went into jeopardy, they are truly working as a team to make sure they’d never be in that situation again. Nowadays, the venture capitalists are long gone. Anyone who hankers to make quick piles of cash have been lured to pastures new. Those who remain are the ones who really want to make films over fortunes. They are here to make it work. To help each other and operate as one focussed entity in order to do so. And that’s the nicest thing you can find at a film factory, wherever it is.