Sir Kenneth Corfield, businessman - obituary July 05 2016
Businessman who developed the Periflex camera and advocated technological advances in industry
Sir Kenneth Corfield, who has died aged 91, was a pioneer of British camera design before becoming a leading industrialist as chairman of Standard Telephones & Cables.
The name of Corfield is particularly associated by photography buffs with the 35mm Periflex camera developed in 1953 by Kenneth with the assistance of his brother John. Designed to improve on market-leading Leica models from Germany, the Periflex featured a small periscope to aid focusing, as well as a conventional viewfinder. A large order from the Maharajah of Mysore boosted early sales, and a range of more sophisticated Periflex cameras, lenses and accessories followed.
In 1959 the Corfields’ Wolverhampton premises was due for demolition, and a decision was taken to move to a new factory at Ballymoney in Northern Ireland to take advantage of industrial grants. But cheap Japanese equipment was beginning to flood the market, and the Germans were cutting prices in response. Short of the capital needed to develop competitive new products, Kenneth Corfield sold a majority interest to Guinness, the Irish brewer.
Eighteen months later he reluctantly left the business to return to England as a director of the engineering group Parkinson Cowan, which he helped to expand and rationalise its operations. In 1966 he moved to the American conglomerate ITT (then under the ruthlessly acquisitive leadership of the tycoon Harold Geneen), where he was promoted to vice president for Europe, based in Brussels. Among ITT’s long-standing British subsidiaries was Standard Telephones & Cables (STC), of which Corfield became managing director in 1969 and executive chairman from 1979.
Corfield Periflex camera
STC was a world leader in submarine cable systems, a pioneer of optical fibre and a major supplier of cabling and exchange equipment to the state-owned predecessor of British Telecom. But it ranked third in the UK market behind GEC and Plessey, and after ITT reduced its ownership to a minority stake in the early 1980s, Corfield embarked on an ambitious strategy to leapfrog his competitors.
Research activities were stepped up, and investments made in semiconductor production and radio technology. The City was surprised, however, and doubtful, in July 1984 when STC launched a £400 million bid for ICL, Britain’s last “national champion” in the field of mainframe computer manufacturing, which had survived a financial crisis three years earlier with government help.
Corfield was a prominent and well-respected advocate of technological progress in British industry, and it was his conviction – ahead of his time – that telecoms and computing were on convergent paths; the two companies, he said, “would make a wonderful match”. But ICL was engaged in a losing battle against Japanese and American giants, and its international ranking was rapidly falling. As the takeover dragged STC into losses, a rights issue followed, and shareholders called for a halt to expansion and change at the top; Corfield, with other members of his management team, resigned in August 1985.
Kenneth George Corfield was born at Rushall near Walsall on January 27 1924 and was educated at Elmore Green High School in Bloxwich, where he was head boy. His fascination with photography began with the acquisition of a Kodak Box Brownie when he was 10; he learned to develop his own prints, and at 16 he was a prizewinner at the Walsall Photographic Society.
Kenneth’s iron-founder grandfather was an influence in his decision to make a career in engineering. On leaving school he was apprenticed with a local firm, Fischer Bearings, while studying mechanical engineering at Wolverhampton and Stafford Technical College; he went on to work for ICI Metals.
According to an early profile in a local paper, Corfield was blessed with “one of those rare brains… which absorbs knowledge like a sponge… In fact his mind works as effectively as the cameras he uses in his spare time”. He acquired a name as a lecturer to photography groups, and in 1947 he set to designing his own enlarger exposure meter, to reduce wastage of photographic paper and chemicals in the developing process.
Production of the “Corfield Lumimeter” began in the attic of the family home. As orders grew, Kenneth and John (later joined by a third brother, Stan, and by their father, retired from the building trade) rented a workshop and formed KG Corfield Ltd. Some 5,000 lumimeters were sold in 1949, and the brothers developed other new products, including a telemeter rangefinder and an optical exposure meter. Less promising was the Corfield 2x2 Slide Projector, which reportedly “got rather hot after half an hour” and had to be discontinued.
Kenneth Corfield with his collection of classic cameras
But having reached its peak of success in the late 1950s, Corfields came to a sad end a decade later. As camera production became increasingly unviable, Guinness redeployed the factory to make car components and beer kegs until it was finally closed in 1971.
Kenneth Corfield was knighted in 1980, for services to exports. In his later career, he was a non-executive director of Midland Bank, Britoil and a numerous other companies. He was chairman of the Engineering Council and vice president of the Engineering Employers Federation as well as president of the Institute of Directors, vice president of the British Institute of Management and a CBI council member. He also worked with government on radio spectrum reviews for defence and civilian uses.
In the early 1980s, in his home workshop in Hampstead, he built a prototype for what became the Corfield WA67 wide-angle camera – used particularly for architectural photography. He also helped rescue Gandolfi, a 100-year-old family company in south London that crafted traditional large-format cameras in mahogany and brass.
Corfield maintained a London office and a busy portfolio of commitments well into his eighties – including the chairmanship of Tanks Consolidated Investments (formerly Tanganyika Concessions), whose holdings included an Angolan railway company for which he often had to procure track repairs and equipment.
He married Patricia Williams in 1960; she survives him with their daughter.
Sir Kenneth Corfield, born January 27 1924, died 11 January 2016