Leica Camera AG has just completed the third stage of its ambitious Leitz Park campus, which represents a very significant investment into the future of the famous ‘red dot’ logo. Paul Burrows was there for the opening festivities.
We attend the opening festivities for the third stage of Leica Camera AG’s ambitious Leitz Park campus, a significant investment into the future of the famous ‘red dot’ logo.
Dr Kaufmann is late. To be honest, I’m surprised he’s finding time to do this interview at all, given how tight his schedule must be just now. Yesterday he hosted around 1000 guests and media at the formal opening of Stage III of Leitz Park, the grand vision for Leica Camera AG he initiated back in 2007 after the Kaufmann family took over ownership of the company.
While we wait for the good doctor to arrive, I’m entertained by Stefan Daniel, who is the global director of Leica’s Business Unit Photo. He joined the company at 18 as an apprentice so he’s well into his fourth decade with the famous ‘red dot’ logo.
“There’s been a few changes over that time,” I comment. He smiles, and nods. “It’s a very different company today,” he observes, adding, “… and there were a few times when I thought it might not survive”. We lapse into a short contemplative silence because I know, as well as he does, that the future for Leica looked very bleak on at least a couple of occasions before the rescue party arrived in 2004 in the form of Dr Andreas Kaufmann. Although he was born in southern Germany, the Kaufmann family made its fortune in Austria – he still lives in Salzburg – in the paper and packaging industry. Andreas trained and then worked for 15 years as a teacher at a Rudolf Steiner school, but his career path changed abruptly when he and his two brothers inherited… let’s just say, a significant amount of money. He started looking around for possible investments and, having already brought a small optics company in the same region, Leica came to his attention. Although a keen amateur photographer, Andreas had never owned a Leica camera, but he once recalled that a former girlfriend excitedly came home one day with a prized new purchase… a Leica. He failed to see the significance and subsequently felt this was the beginning of the end for that particular relationship… so he never forgot the name.
Through their investment company, Andreas and his two brothers initially purchased around 27 percent of Leica, but after a total collapse looked almost certain in 2005, he took the courageous decision to buy the entire camera operation… and on his own too. Not convinced that an ailing camera company stuck rigidly in the film era was such a good investment, Kaufmann’s brothers took their money elsewhere.
They now might be wondering if they made the right decision, because it took Andreas just five years to turn around Leica’s fortunes, most of the various strategies funded by his own money, but as he told the Financial Times newspaper back in June 2014 – as Leica celebrated its 100 anniversary in the camera business – “Money is a tool. It’s not an investment… it’s a passion”.
I was there for the May 2014 opening of the first part of Leitz Park which made Leica’s 100th birthday party a particularly memorable occasion… not just because the company had survived its darkest hour, but that now the future looked the brightest it had ever done. Back in 2014 we were given a glimpse of what else was planned for the complex and it’s safe to say that no other camera company in the world has ever undertaken anything quite so ambitious. However, it’s also important to point out that now Leica isn’t just about cameras… it’s about the brand and the associated
“We technology. do We have technology, but in the end it’s not about the megapixels, but about creating a great picture Which moves you.”
“YOU DON’T BUY AN M CAMERA EVERY DAY. IF YOU COULD, YOU WOULD BE LUCKY, BUT THEN YOU’D PROBABLY HAVE TO HAVE A DIFFICULT DISCUSSION WITH YOUR WIFE AT SOME TIME.”
prestige that partially comes from its heritage, but is now also being bolstered by the current activities.
Stefan Daniels talks of a “brand account” and says that everything Leica is doing now is designed to put more value into that account.
Importantly, he stresses, this means they won’t be considering anything that could potentially take value out of the brand account. The growing number of company-run Leica Stores around the world, the galleries (there are currently 19, with the 20th and 21st to open shortly) and the Leica Akadamie education program are all designed to be brand-enhancing.
Welcome To The ‘World Of Leica’
Leitz Park is situated on the outskirts of the historic German town of Wetzlar, which is about 80 kilometres north of Frankfurt and the original home of Leica. Founder Ernst Leitz – who was an optical engineer – started working in Wetzlar in 1864 and created his own eponymous company there in 1869.
Today it’s considered a major centre for optics and is also home to Zeiss (which makes sports optics here), Minox, Vistec, OptoTech and around 70 smaller companies. Collectively, they represent 15,000 jobs and 2.8 billion Euros of annual turnover so the optical industry is extremely important to the Hesse region’s economy. There are now 1200 people working across the various Leitz Park operations alone.
The 18-square-kilometre Schanzenfeld site was once a tank training ground and was used by the German army up until the end of the 20th century. Now the Leitz Park complex employs those 1200 people and, in addition to the various Leica operations, includes a couple of other tenant companies also involved in optics. A large part of the site has been returned to its natural state, following the extensive planting of trees and the re-establishment of ponds and walking trails.
The completion of Stage III sees Leica’s facility expanded to include a 129-room boutique hotel, a restaurant and a smart new headquarters building which houses not only offices, but also a museum and shop, the company archives, and a large photo studio. Also in the complex are production facilities for two new operations – Ernst Leitz Wetzlar GmbH which was formerly called CW Sonderoptic GmbH and originally set up by Andreas Kaufmann to make Leica cine lenses; and Ernst Leitz Werkstätten which will shortly begin making luxury watches under the Leica brand. There’s not just a synergy here in terms of the skill sets involved (so, for example, the Leica watches have both sapphire crystal faces and backs) but also that, before he moved into optics, Ernst Leitz trained as a watch-maker in Switzerland.
Kaufmann’s vision was always for something much more than just a manufacturing plant, with the idea being to create a ‘World Of Leica’ to actively encourage existing users and potential customers to visit and participate in various activities. These include exhibitions – there are a number of different exhibition spaces in different buildings – and education via the Leica Akademie program which now also has an impressive new home in the complex. The new museum is much bigger than the one in the first stage and will be able to cover a much wider range of historical and contemporary cameras plus other products such as lenses, microscopes and sports optics. The new Leica Store on the site will also be much bigger than previously… and definitely a major attraction if you’re a Leica aficionado.
It’s also Dr Kaufmann’s idea to apply Leica’s expertise – particularly in precision engineering and optics – to other product areas, hence the move into making high-end watches and also eyecare products. The fourth and final stage of Leitz Park will be a dedicated manufacturing facility for high-quality ophthalmic lenses.
At the grand opening of Stage III – which also attracted a number of local and federal politicians – Dr Kaufmann noted that his strict Protestant upbringing meant that he could only modestly acknowledge his achievements with, “We’ve done quite OK”.
Boris Rhein, who is the minister for Science And Art in the Hesse state parliament, countered that, being a Catholic raised in Frankfurt, he could be a bit more effusive and noted, “It’s always been visionaries who have shaped the future of Leica”. He also commented, “What would our society be without photography? Iconic images have changed world history”. And a very appropriate quote from the German poet and novelist Herman Hesse, “In order to make the possible emerge, the impossible has to attempted”.
Nice to see a politician apparently so expertly across his portfolio.
The architect involved in the development of Leitz Park described it as “…a modern acropolis… a modern acropolis above Wetzlar”. Certainly, the longer-term objectives extend beyond just the manufacture of high-end optical products. Tourism is one. The new hotel is being operated by the German Arcona Group as part of its Arcona Living collection of properties which are specifically inspired by artists and poets. In addition to the Ernst Leitz Hotel – which is, not surprisingly, Leica-themed – there’s one dedicated to the 18th century writer and poet Goethe in Berlin, and another to the composer J.S. Bach in Leipzig. This part of Germany isn’t as well-known as, say, Bavaria or Berlin, but there’s actually quite a lot to see and it’s easy to reach after flying into Frankfurt. If you’re interested in history – and not just that of photography either – Wetzlar and environs has plenty to offer. The economic opportunities are there too, particularly building on the optical engineering expertise. Making the most of such a big audience, one local politician took the opportunity to call upon the German federal government to consider establishing an optical research facility in Wetzlar, presumably confident the message would get back to Berlin. With the completion of Leitz Park, stated Dr Kaufmann, “Leica Camera AG has come of age. Leitz Park is a continuation of yesterday and tomorrow”. And it’s not just a random collection of buildings either, but has been designed around the traditional Italian idea of a central piazza which serves to tie together all the different components of the complex while also allowing for a variety of building shapes… including one with a balcony styled to look like the eyepiece of a viewfinder. Kaufmann describes the end result as having “…a pleasing sense of urbanity”.
Building The Brand
When he arrives at my interview (not so very late, by the way), Andreas Kaufman doesn’t look like a man with a million things on his mind. He’s surprisingly relaxed – a bit laid-back even – friendly and chatty for a senior executive, most of whom generally tend to be very hard work for an interviewer.
It seems only polite to start by congratulating him on what he’s achieved with Leitz Park… which he promptly dismisses with purse of the lips and a wave of the hand
“Well, we have a special position at Leica and we’ve tried to
express this a little bit through the architecture… some photographers in the USA are already calling it ‘The Mothership’. I like this expression!”
“You’ve built this brand into something quite special,” I persist.
“With the help of some pretty good people… that’s for sure,” he replies, applying yet more of that Protestant modesty.
“We’re trying to do things a bit differently here,” he continues. “There’s too much emphasis on technology [in the camera industry]. Technology is OK. We do technology. We have technology, but in the end it’s not about the megapixels, but about creating a great picture which moves you.
“In the future, I believe it’s going to be more about the ‘look’. And, in my opinion, the look is all about the lens.”
“To make the pictures look unique,” clarifies Stefan Daniel.
Leica’s long and illustrious heritage is obviously a major part of the brand’s current and future value, but it can also create challenges when it comes to designing a new product.
“How do you balance the great expectations created by heritage?” I ask.
Stefan Daniel answers, “First of all, it depends on the product line we’re developing. If we’re developing something for M we always have to keep the history in mind. Compatibility between the components is super-essential so, for example, a 1955 Summicron lens is still valuable because it can still be used on today’s M10. When we launched the M8 we didn’t put electronic contacts on the lens mount, instead we invented a six-bit optical code so you could retrofit all of the M lenses… or most of them, anyway… so they worked on the digital cameras. And this compatibility means that the second-hand value of a [lens] product never drops to zero… which, on the other hand, also justifies the purchase price.”
“This is totally unique to Leica,” states Dr Kaufman. “It preserves the value and, with these vintage lenses, it also creates the look… so the past is also part of the future, in our case.
“But whatever we do, a Leica should always look like a Leica, so we try to achieve this even with these cameras [he picks up the new C-Lux], which, of course, are not produced in Germany. If we were to start making these models in Germany – and we could – then we’d have to charge a lot more.”
There’s no question the modern Leica is as much about the brand as it is about the cameras so, I wonder, where might this lead in the future?
Kaufmann answers, “Well, watches are near to what we are doing in the M, because when you look into the coupled rangefinder, there are a great many precision mechanical components in there… so there’s a relationship. It’s a different product full stop, but there’s a relationship mechanically. So what you might call ‘line extensions’ these days are possible, but there’s a certain limit, because our key focus is always cameras and optics. But then there are, let’s say on the sides, some potential with products like this – or maybe a little bit different – where you can say, ‘OK, it tells a story about Leica – a German brand based on mechanics, optics, electronics, software, materials and design’. These are the six basic aspects of Leica, so we can do certain other things with them.”
Many prestige brands have extensive merchandising programs – Ferrari being perhaps the most active here – so I ask whether is there potential to expand the Leica brand’s ‘reach’ this way?
Kaufmann pauses for thought before answering, “Yes and no. The thing is, I don’t like the Ferrari merchandise, although I know they earn a lot of money from it. But a T-shirt is still only a T-shirt.”
So does some merchandising enhance a brand or actually detract from it?
“Well, with Ferrari it’s not so much of a problem because the cars are so high-end technologywise that it does not cheapen the brand. In our case – as a German brand – we will be a bit more cautious. Actually, we do sometimes do T-shirts because we like T-shirts, but to create a ‘Leica World’ based on sneakers and T-shirts and baseball bats, I would be against that. But, you know, we have some stuff in our stores, because you don’t buy an M camera every day. If you could, you would be lucky, but then you’d probably have to have a difficult discussion with your wife at some time.”
Stefan Daniel adds, “For us, the border line is always that if it pays into the brand account, we will probably do it. If it takes away from the brand account, we won’t do it.”
Kaufmann continues, “Which means, for instance, when we decided to go into watches, it had to be a very high-end approach where we did everything, including designing the movement which, by the way, has two design elements that we’ve patented. It had to be unique, and we’ve come from the top here. And that’s what we see as the key potential of these side activities… to enhance the brand. But the main emphasis will always be on these [he points to the cameras displayed on the table].”
After 11 years of development, a total space of 27,000 square metres and a 165 million Euros spend (mostly by, it should be pointed out, the Kaufmann family), is Leitz Park now finished, the dream achieved?
Andreas Kaufmann smiles and nods slowly, “I think it’s enough… for the moment.”
The Stage III section of the Leitz Park campus as seen from Stage I which was completed in 2014, in time for Leica’s 100th anniversary celebrations.
The design concept is based on an Italian piazza.
Dr Andreas Kaufmann
Leica’s L1 luxury watch. The “Leica” name on the dial uses the same style and font as on the top of the M6 35mm rangefinder camera.