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Crosfield: When Britain ruled the world

Crosfield Electronics led the world in colour registration and scanning for the print industry driven by the ethos laid down by its founder. Pádraig McGarrigle looks back on a company that led the world

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John Crosfield started the company with business partner Dennis Bent in 1947

"John Crosfield was a very personable individual. He was a father figure and there wasn’t anything you would not do to help him,” Lars Janeryd, former deputy managing director, of Crosfield Electronics tells Print Monthly of the man who revolutionised colour registration and scanning for the print industry.

The firm was founded in 1947 by Cambridge-educated engineer Crosfield with his business partner Dennis Bent. Over the next 50 years the culture of innovation and entrepreneurial spirit set by its founder would ensure the name would become synonymous with colour and imaging standards in the print industry.

The Crosfield Electronics shield of honour

At its peak the company employed more than 2,000 people around the globe and, during the glory days of newspaper circulations, Crosfield technology was at the heart of production operations around the globe.

Following a series of acquisitions the culture that was such a big part of its success was diluted and the Crosfield name lost to the industry. Crosfield himself remained active in later life, honoured as an IPEX Champion of Print in 2010, two years before his death at the age of 96.

Robert Maxwell would always claim to be unable to pay due to lack of an invoice. I’d reply, ‘That’s ok, I’ve got one here' - Jim Salmon, ex-Crosfield, managing director

Today the bloodline, if not the name, lives on in FFEI—where the core principles are even being used in medical research and the firm is again pouring money into research and development.

An illustrious history

Crosfield Electronics released its first product, an automatic register control system in 1948 under the futuristic title ‘The Autotron’. Following a successful British Industries Fair, orders came in from across the globe allowing the business to move from Crosfield’s London home for the first time.

It was with the launch of its first colour scanner, the Scanatron MK.1 in 1959, that the company started on the path that led to the product which really made the company.

The Magnascan 450, the world's first enlarging/reducing drum scanner capable of producing fully corrected screened or continuous tone separations to the required size in a single step, came to the print industry in 1969.

When Print Monthly begins asking ex-Crosfield employee, and now FFEI managing director Andy Cook, about the companies most important achievement he emphatically cuts our question off: “The drum scanner, no doubt. He was the architect. The analogue drum scanner in the sixties and the digital scanner of the early seventies. That’s what caused De La Rue to acquire them. Whenever I meet a customer they say, ‘still got the old drum scanner’.”

The famous Magnascan 450 -  the world's first enlarging/reducing drum scanner

Former managing director, Jim Salmon, says Crosfield was a very engaging man, who was brilliant at listening to his customer’s problems and then applying his engineering background to find a solution.
De La Rue purchased the firm in 1974, as much to understand and control what the technology could do in terms of banknote counterfeiting, as what it could utilise it for. The deal was a huge success, with turnover soaring from £6.8m to £245m, and according to Salmon accounting for half of De La Rues turnover and a third of profits.

New product developments around this time included the 1982 launch of the Datrax, an early data transmission device that immediately saw a $10m order from Time Inc. This cut the time it took from finalising copy in New York, to getting it out onto news stands from three days to just 16 hours.

Cold War relations

During the 1980’s one of Crosfield’s largest customers was BPCC and Daily Mirror owner, Robert Maxwell. Unsurprisingly, Maxwell was a hard negotiator and even harder to get payment from, as Salmon recollects: “I used to take work with me and sit outside his office,” he remembers, continuing: “He would always say, ‘I’m too busy’, but normally by about five in the evening I would be reluctantly ushered in. Then, Maxwell would always claim to be unable to pay due to lack of an invoice, to which I’d reply, ‘That’s ok, I've got one here’. He was up to every trick in the book but we always got paid.”

Jim Salmon and Robert Maxwell seal another major order for Crosfield Electronics

Salmon has an encyclopedic knowledge of Crosfield's impact on the print media industry. He tells the story of how the Rejkjavik conference, in the latter part of the Cold War, had a big effect on the anything but cold battle between Newsweek and Time magazines.

We always present it in our corporate presentations and have a big picture of John Crosfield in our reception area. It’s an important piece of heritage for us - Andy Cook, FFEI, managing director

He recounts: “There was talk of ending the Cold War and both publications wanted a good front page picture. Newsweek jumped the gun and used an archive picture of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev smiling. However, the conference was not a success and the pictures that emerged were of the pair sitting stony faced. Time had installed a data transmission system in Rekjyavik and their front page reflected the outcome. It was a huge embarrassment to Newsweek, a short time later they bought a system.”

A key tenet of the company’s success was the entrepreneurial spirit and culture of openness fostered by its founding father. Stan Singleton, who joined Crosfield in 1968, travelled the world for years before running its Northern sales office until 1995. Was this something staff agreed with?

The first Crosfield Diascan installation at Mutawa Press in Damman Saudi Arabia circa 1969. Pictured: (R to L)  Stan Singleton, Crosfield colour specialist Jean Claude Joseph, Turkish and Indian Mutawa Press production staff

“Absolutely.  We would do it through our own directors. When you went out with equipment you obviously had ideas about how to make it better. We could bring it to Lars and could progress it. It was a very interesting time.”
Proof of the firm’s global reach was installations as far afield as Saudi Arabia. At Drupa 1986 the firm took £26m worth of orders (around £60m in today’s money). By 1989 the company was in a position where the then ‘Fuji Photo Film’ and DuPont saw fit to pay £235m for it—then the malaise set in.

Crosfield lives again
The deal was on paper ‘an ideal situation’ according to Janneryd: “I was on the selling team and on paper it seemed ideal. You had two of the biggest suppliers of plates and film and therefore in terms of distribution and coverage it appeared perfect.”

The reality was different though as the difference in business cultures between two global companies soon became apparent.

Jim Salmon (far left) accompanies Crosfield on a visit to FFEI. Managing director Andy Cook (far right) is beside Lars Janneryd

“We were an English company, with an English culture caught between short-term American thinking and Japanese, which has a long-term horizon and thinks very carefully about what it does,” explains Salmon.

He adds: “Those two cultures found it hard to exist. DuPont also decided it wanted to subsume the Crosfield brand within its organisation in the States. US sales went from £115m per annum to £20m in a year. It was a painful transition because all the staff in the US left.”

The unhappy marriage ended when Fuji bought DuPont, before this business division was taken over in a management buy out in 2006 and turned into FFEI—led by current managing director Cook.

Unfortunately, a year previously the old Crosfield site was destroyed in the ‘Buncefield explosion’, but Cook says its heritage lives on: “Crosfield lives on and we’re proud of the fact that we came from these roots.

“We always present it in our corporate presentations and have a big picture of John Crosfield in our reception area. It’s an important piece of heritage for us.”

The demise of the Crosfield name is announced in the trade press


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Tardx   View users other comments

Monday, 29 Jul 2013 21:44 GMT
User since 29/07/2013

Jim Salmon is undoubtedly right that cultural problems played a role in Crosfield Electronics' demise, but the real issue was the disruption of desktop technology. Crosfield and its competitors Dr Hell, Scitex and Screen were selling high cost, high margin capital equipment into a pre-press market that was rapidly moving to cheaper solutions and was itself under threat from the 'democratisation of technology'. Kudos to Andy Cook and his team for managing the transition to today's digital world, but their business is a lot smaller than Crosfield in its heyday.