Les Zellan Exits Cooke

Les Zellan. Photo by Jon Fauer using Cooke Panchro Classic.

Les Zellan is exiting Cooke.

The press release today states, “Leicester, UK – 26 October, 2020 – Cooke Optics announced today that its Chairman, Les Zellan, will be stepping down from the company, and its CEO, Robert Howard, will be retiring, both effective from 31 October 2020.  Tim Pugh will take over as CEO, while Kees van Oostrum, currently a Cooke Optics board member, becomes Non-Executive Chairman.”

A brief review*:

March 1998: Les Zellan entered the Bank of Scotland’s main branch at Trafalgar Square, opened a carrying bag, plunked down two Cooke lenses on the desk of a bank officer, and announced he intended to buy the company. The planned 30-minute meeting lasted for more than two hours. “We were surprised that an American, or anyone overseas, had so much knowledge of Cooke,” Mr. Wighton, the banker involved, said. “He had a clear knowledge of the market and a clear vision of the company.”

July 10, 1998. 7 pm GMT: Les Zellan bought Cooke.

July 13, 1998: After purchasing Cooke, Les was in Leicester the following Monday.

The Wall Street Journal wrote, “In 1998 an American wearing jeans, a bright yellow shirt and a 20-year old red tie, with a beard and a short business plan, rescued the company.”

“Rescued the company?” From what, you may ask? Isn’t Cooke one of the most distinguished lens companies in our industry?

The first Cooke lens was made in 1894, after T. Cooke & Sons of York (makers of telescopes) offered Taylor, Taylor & Hobson the manufacturing rights to a Triplett (3-section) photographic lens that solved the problem of edge softness. The company grew to the point where a majority of the feature films made in Hollywood during the first half of the 20th century were shot using Cooke lenses. Major innovations included the 1921 Speed Pancros (F2.0), and the first production zoom lens (circa 1936).

The Taylor brothers died in 1937 and 1938. The company was renamed Taylor-Hobson. In 1945, it became a subsidiary of the Rank Organization, with the familiar gong logo. But, as Rank’s fortunes dwindled (familiar story—mergers, diversification into real estate, the Hard Rock Café), Cooke lenses became a neglected division of the company. By the 1990s, there were reports that “the place was so run down that sea-gull feathers would float through holes in the roof.”

Cooke Factory in Thurmaston, Leicester, UK. Photo taken in January 2020 by Jon Fauer.

After purchasing Cooke, Les Zellan had a new 20,000 sq. ft. factory built in Leicester with modern CNC machines, a canteen for the staff and plenty of free parking. The brand was revived with the new  Cooke S4 prime lens series. The company added another eight new lines of lenses over the next 20 years — 5/i, miniS4/i, Panchro/i Classic, S7/i, Anamorphic /i Zooms, Anamorphic/i, Anamorphic/i SF, and Anamorphic/i Full Frame Plus.

Cooke’s /i Technology metadata is an open standard that has been adopted by more than 40 industry manufacturers.

Robert Howard joined Cooke in 2008.

Robert Howard. Photo by Jon Fauer.

“Both Les and Robert have achieved what some would consider miraculous with Cooke,” said Tim Pugh, the incoming CEO. “They are highly respected throughout the industry and will be a tough act to follow. Cooke has an unrivalled reputation for excellence and for responding to the needs of its customers. Kees and I are excited to take the reins of this beloved company as we move into the next stage of Cooke’s evolution with the on-going support of Caledonia Private Capital.”

Tim Pugh, Cooke CEO.

Tim Pugh has a background in premium manufacturing and distribution businesses. Most recently, he was CEO of James Briggs Ltd, manufacturers of chemicals, packaging and automotive products—and a company even older than Cooke, founded in 1830 in Manchester, UK.

Kees Van Oostrum, ASC

Kees Van Oostrum is a respected cinematographer of film and television productions. He was President of the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) from 2016-2020. During that time, he guided the ASC to broaden its activities in education and international cooperation.

Chris Marriott, Cooke COO. Photo by Jon Fauer.

Chris Marriott is the new COO, taking over from Alan Merrills, who retired recently.

Les Zellan concluded, “It has been my honor to lead Cooke to its rightful place in the industry. “They say ‘it takes a village,’ and I would like to thank our dedicated staff and countless industry friends and colleagues around the world who have helped to shape Cooke’s product line, giving cinematographers and directors the choices that help them tell their stories in the best possible way.”



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