Rolf Schild

Businessman and kidnap victim

Rolf Schild, medical-equipment designer and manufacturer: born Cologne, Germany 18 May 1924; chairman, Huntleigh Technology 1975-2003; married 1959 Daphne Farley (two sons, one daughter); died Luton, Bedfordshire 14 April 2003.

Rolf Schild was a refugee from Nazi Germany who arrived in Britain penniless but built up a company which eventually became Huntleigh Technology, making state-of-the-art medical equipment that has won Queen's Awards for Industry. In 1979-80 he was better known for being, with his wife and daughter, the victim of a dreadful kidnapping.

In August 1979 he was holidaying in a villa in Sardinia with his family. There had been a spate of kidnappings, mostly of wealthy Italians who owned holiday villas on the island. A gang with more villainy than brains, who apparently took his name to be Rothschild, laid in wait when Schild, his wife Daphne and daughter Annabel returned from dining with neighbours. The family were blindfolded, and bundled into a car, and driven for four hours to a cave in the mountains.

Sixteen days later a bus driver picked up the dishevelled Schild, who had been released with instructions to raise a preposterous £11m ransom – far more than the family had. The kidnappers kept changing their minds about how much they wanted, and some British newspapers speculated that the Schilds were far wealthier than they were, thus encouraging even greater demands from the kidnappers. They derided his down-payment of £12,000, burning the money.

Throughout the following winter Schild's wife and daughter were moved from one hiding place to another. When Daphne was released in January 1980, the press kept it secret to avoid prejudicing the 15-year-old Annabel's chances of release. That came in March after the Pope appealed on her behalf. The final amount of ransom paid was £220,000. Two years later, 13 men were found guilty of abduction and jailed.

Rolf Schild was born in Cologne, in 1924, the son of a textile manufacturer. He was unaware that he was Jewish until the start of organised anti-Semitism in 1938, and a year later was brought to England as part of the Kindertransport. Schild learned later what had happened to his parents: deported from Cologne to Lodz in 1940, they were gassed in Chernow in 1942.

In England, Rolf Schild was placed in hostels in Liverpool and Manchester and did factory work. He learned to use a capstan lathe in a government training centre and found work in a factory making film projectors, studying physics, electronics and engineering at night school. In 1949 he took a job with a medical engineering company, New Electronic Products, working on a heart-lung machine being developed by Hammersmith Hospital, and developing transducers.

A friend of Schild at Hawker Siddeley was looking for a low- pressure transducer for a medical application and was impressed with the one that Schild designed and made. Schild said, "This is how engineers work: you piece different ideas from different experiences and put them together. They key is to find the application and create the solution." He had a sixth sense for solving problems, which he called "Fingerspitzengefühl", a feeling in the fingers.

In the early 1950s he left to start his own company, SE Technology, with a friend, Peter Epstein, a valve engineer. Their capital was £100 and Epstein's father's house was security on a bank loan. They soon won a government contract for the Blue Streak intercontinental ballistic missile. By 1963 the company, which employed 300 people, went public.

Three years later they were bought up by EMI and Schild worked on the first whole-body scanners. EMI had little confidence in the project, but changed their minds when Schild sold 50 on a trip to the United States; then one of the directors wanted to take it over from him. Schild left to found what is now Huntleigh Technology.

He was appointed OBE in 1997 and awarded the German Order of Merit for his contribution to Anglo-German relations. The company is now worth £200m, and most of its products – ultrasonic equipment to measure blood flow and foetal heartbeats, pneumatic garments to assist blood flow, hospital beds, and mattresses designed to prevent bedsores – are based on Schild's designs.

Caroline Richmond

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