Dr Andreas H Kaufmann, Chairman of the Supervisory Board of Leica, and whose family is the majority owner of the Leica Company, invited us to visit Wetzlar. Good friend and fellow Leica shooter James Kezman also joined the visit. This followed a recent, friendly discussion on Facebook about Leica Manufacturing and Marketing (more on that below), so the trip was arranged rather quickly.
We visited Wetzlar yesterday (October 17th), and it was both enjoyable and illuminating. It was my first time to Leitz Park, an impressive complex.
The main reception area is partly photo gallery and partly a showcase for Leica products. At the moment there is a temporary exhibition showing cameras made by other manufacturers – all influenced by Leica and some bluntly copied! There was also an exhibition of Dieter Huber’s work, and Jens Umbach.
There is also a permanent exhibition of some of the most striking images ever taken, all using Leica cameras. 36 images chosen from 100 years of Leica photography. Impressive, and helpful to a project I am separately doing for PhotoBath on ‘Iconic Images’.
Before meeting with Dr Kaufmann, we were greeted by Michel Razafimahefa, of Customer Service. James had pre-arranged a sensor cleaning, and I had a new Summicron 35mm that somehow had just started to rattle. Michel took these, and the two other sensor cleanings we asked for, to get things sorted.
He was good enough to demonstrate the entire cleaning process, which included a meticulous pre-cleaning of the body and the lens before tackling the sensor. One takeaway – don’t blow air on the sensor to get rid of dust. Suck it out. And always take a dust reference image to highlight where the problems are. Now, maybe readers knew that, but I didn’t. In any event, three pristine cameras and a perfect Summicron were ready in less than two hours. Great service!
Dr K’s PA, Yvonne Rudolph, had organised the day with both good humour and professionalism, and it was nice to meet in person. Next up was a visit to the factory, while our cameras were being cared for. Sven Kupfer showed us around. He is the Head of Leica Customer Care, with responsibility across the world, including the US and Japanese Customer Care centres.
Our favourite quote of Sven’s, when referring to how Leica prospers:
‘There are many strawberry flavours, but people still like to eat real strawberries’.
There is a section of the production line visible to the public through glass – in itself revealing as it showed the calm, dedicated and manually intensive process of assembly and quality checking. Fortunately we were then invited onto the shop floor proper.
“Creating a lens is a lengthy, complex process. As they progress through the factory from cakes of raw glass to measured, polished elements, individual glass elements are painted with a protective black varnish, which is rinsed off before each stage. Only when they’ve undergone final polishing are the components transferred to a temperature and humidity-controlled environment for lacquering and coating.
This is a different approach to that which we’ve seen in other factories, (like Canon’s Utsunomiya plant for example) where virtually the entire process from raw glass to finished lens takes place in a highly controlled clean-room environment.
The logic behind Leica’s method is pretty simple: At least until final assembly, it’s much easier to keep the individual components of a lens clean via multiple cleaning processes as required, than it is to sterilise the entire environment in which they’re handled.”
You certainly begin to understand why Leica lenses are so good – and pricey. Handcrafting.
I had visited the Leica Factory in Porto just a few months ago, where the M10 body is built, before transfer to Wetzlar for assembly. An equally impressive blend of machine and experts, all working to tiny tolerances with rigorous quality control.
The tour with Sven was thorough, showing lens production and assembly. He showed us both ultra modern technology and some of the older style, used depending on the lens. He also included a walk through the customer care department (where my Summicron was happily being sorted out). Our tour took about 45 minutes.
Somewhat to our surprise, Dr Kaufmann had also arranged for us to visit R&D. We were accompanied by project managers Jürgen Häberle and Holger Wiegand, both longstanding Leica employees. Sorry, folks, we signed NDAs so we can’t tell you what we saw – other than there are exciting things afoot.
For those of you that have visited Leitz Park, you know that there is a rather pleasant cafe on the site, so our next stop was for a quick coffee as we were running well behind schedule. Too much to see, questions to ask, and a friendly set of guides.
Dr Kaufmann met us in the main lobby, and we went to his office. As one would expect, Andreas is a thoughtful, knowledgeable man, with great passion both for the brand and the people of Leica.
Dr Kaufmann, a former teacher, took over the ailing Leica business in 2004, purchasing 95% of the company for $85 million. The brand’s subsequent renaissance is well-known. In our conversation, and bearing in mind recent news, Andreas described the investment firm Blackstone (who bought 44% in 2011) as ‘good partners’.
What was most striking, though, was the intensity with which Andreas talked about customers. Like many manufacturers, Leica used to be very retailer driven. Now it is clear that the intent is to focus and organise more around the customer. In fact, that is essentially why we were invited – as customers.
Backtracking to the original FaceBook discussion, it was about the extent to which Leica recognises in its marketing both the importance of the Wetzlar based, German expertise, and that of the Porto organisation. M10 marketing talks of the “exclusively manufactured by the highly qualified specialists of our factory in Wetzlar, Germany”. In the FaceBook conversation, Dr Kauffman was very clear about Porto’s role and others as part of a global supply and expertise chain, and invited us to come see for ourselves.
Portugal has a long history for Leica. The Leitz Family was looking for new production sites as long ago as 1973 – they considered Ireland, Tunisia and Portugal. Porto was chosen given its highly skilled, precision engineering workforce and strong educational system. A very good choice, confirmed Andreas. The subsequent decision to actually build the new state of the art plant was delayed due to the financial crisis. The Famalicão factory, opened in March, 2013, employs over 700 people and is key to Leica’s current success. Dr Kaufmann is clearly very proud of the plant and its people.
The overall ‘Made in Germany’ tag for the M10 accurately reflects the R&D, value added in Wetzlar in the assembly process – and it is good marketing. Still, I couldn’t resist suggesting a couple of points from an ‘old’ marketing hand about the ‘exclusivity’ phraseology. Andreas was a sympathetic listener. That was, after all, how this visit came about.
We then had a much broader conversation. We started with the history of Leitz Park (opened officially in May 2014) and its major extension due to open next June. This will include a 4 star hotel, the World of Leica Experience, the Leica Akademie, a Museum and more. And it’s all being built with the low rise, environmentally friendly and green ethos of the current Park. A top quality campus.
Moving to the cameras, Andreas made an interesting point on pricing and value. In the 1930’s the classic M and a decent lens would cost around 2.5/2.75 times the monthly salary of a German worker. Today, it’s rather less than that, around 2.25 times. Food for thought.
This led to the obvious question – what does the next 3/5 years hold for Leica?
Andreas’ first point was that the M is here to stay and will evolve as it always has done. It’s part of the ‘genetic code’ of Leica (my words). And the SL/TL and S systems will continue to develop. No surprises there.
Surveying the technology scene, it’s hard to see Leica competing in the ‘low price’ AP-C arena – yet it is equally hard to ignore the ‘megapixel race’ at the top end of the market pursued so ardently by Sony, Canon, Nikon and others.
Anyone that shoots with a Q, SL or M10 knows how good those 24 megapixel sensors are – the combination of pixels and processing is the key. But with full frame competitors pushing 50 megapixels, what this means to Leica … well, let’s just say the question was left hanging.
A major point made by Dr Kaufmann was that cameras on mobile phones had changed the game at the ‘lower’ end of the market. And that the new generation of ‘lens array’ double camera phones – think iPhone Plus, and the Huawei models jointly developed with Leica – could show the future. These will rapidly evolve as chips and software develop.
Interestingly, Andreas is on record as saying a true ‘Leica Phone’ would be his dream. He believes that every smartphone is wrong for photography right now, yet it is a device that makes photography accessible to all.
On another tack, he was also excited about the new, reborn classic soft-focus portrait lens, the 90mm F/2.2 Thambar-M, originally from 1935.
He was less excited when I mentioned I sometimes use my Lomography Petzvals on the SL – just not his style, I guess … However we both agreed that the ability of the SL, via adapters, to use many kinds of lenses is a selling point. I even use my more exotic Nikkor’s.
At this point, and my words not those of Dr Kauffman, it seemed clear that, for Leica, the essence of all of this activity was the pursuit of the image, rather than the technology per se.
Andreas was then very generous in sharing some of his future thinking on branding and technology. Can’t write much about that, but suffice to say that James and I came way quite excited about Leica’s future.
Moving from the brand and its technology, it was time for some more personal questions. Which photographers inspire Dr Kaufmann? He offered an interesting choice:
- Dr Paul Wolff, who did some iconic urban and architectural work in the mid 20th century. He’s featured in the Gallery in the reception hall, and there may be a major exhibition.
- Henri Cartier-Bresson, always hard to ignore.
- Jeff Mermelstein, in the modern era. Andreas follows his Instagram feed.
It was also fun to see photos that Andreas had shot on the Q, often his companion, and transferred to his phone, which illustrated his own personal photographic style. Urban, lines, light and architecture.
So it was time to end. We spent almost an hour and a half with the Chairman. You can’t help but like his cheerful yet thoughtful approach – the man is a good listener, and he encourages everyone to ‘walk the talk’ about customers. His passion for Leica is clear.
James and I were very grateful for his time, and we learnt a lot.
In all, we spent close to 6 hours in Leitz Park. Beyond the technology, we were impressed by the team spirit. In my other life, I have spent decades leading at Board level and then consulting on senior management teams. We witnessed a good team at work.
Oh, and other than being offered and taking a couple of reject lens elements as souvenirs, neither James nor I bought anything new at the Leica Store. Yet …