Leica, a heritage success story, Made in Germany

In an exclusive interview to CPP-LUXURY.COM, Mr Alfred Schopf, CEO of Leica Camera AG has shared his strategic business philosophy and the secrets behind the success of the iconic German luxury brand.

Despite stiff competition from Japanese camera makers, Leica has been seeing a stunning revival in the past year. Which are the main reasons?

The name Leica is still associated with the quality seal ‘made in Germany’ in many people’s minds. It is a fact that we have now been combining technological innovation with traditional values for a whole century. This also includes that we manufacture our products according to our ‘factory principle’ and use only the best, highest-quality materials. In contrast to some of our competitors, the cameras and lenses we make do not simply drop off the end of a production line; instead, they are all manufactured and tested by hand. The brand does not rest on the laurels of the legend that was founded in the 1950s and 60s, but rather it rejuvenates its image time and time again with exceptional lenses and mature, high-end digital products. Examples of this are our M full-frame rangefinder camera and the S-System in the professional medium-format segment, to name but two. But Leica also covers a broad spectrum in the world of compact cameras. Our customers simply appreciate the value, long life and sustainability of our products. For instance, you can still mount an M-Lens from the 1950s on today’s Leica M. And the results will be fantastic.

What are the DNA elements in Leica Camera which have boosted Leica’s image?

We do indeed speak of a Leica DNA – and it is an integral part of all our product lines. This includes not only our commitment to always providing the highest technological standards and the best lenses, but also our policy of adapting the design of our cameras and lenses with utmost care and according to functional aspects. A Leica has a high recall factor. And a design cannot be perfected beyond perfection. In fact, it is often copied. In the case of our transition from analogue to digital technologies, we constantly paid particular attention to the preservation of the attractive design – but without any compromises in terms of quality, function or imaging results. A Leica must always be practical, simple to handle and intuitive to use. In the hands of a photographer, it is a tool that must produce optimum results in every situation. A Leica is a Leica, and will always be a Leica.

With the launch of new products, you also launched an innovative and unique retail concept (i.e. New York). Tell us more.

At present, we have around 50 exclusive Leica Stores around the world, and we intend to increase this number to around 200 in the coming years. This brings us much closer to our customers, allows us to pay more attention to their needs and lets them discover the Leica experience in an entirely different way than would be possible in large and impersonal retail outlets. Identification with our products is much stronger in a Leica Store – for customers and store employees alike. What’s more, our stores also offer essential accessories and information about photography, for instance in the form of in-store libraries. We stage exhibitions of high-class photography and make our Leica Stores a place where photography enthusiasts meet.

How does Leica Camera relate to lifestyle?

The value of a Leica is experienced as soon as you take one in your hand. It is perceived in the perfect finish, the choice of materials and manufacturing expertise that has grown and evolved over the past 100 years. The red dot, Leica’s trademark, stands for a century of photographic history. The art and reportage photography of Leica photographers have created visual icons of contemporary history. Many public figures, actors and actresses, crowned heads and legendary photographers called and call a Leica their own. This all adds to the unique charisma of the brand. A little of this charisma may rub off on Leica customers, or at least some of them feel it does. Each customer becomes a member of the Leica family. This makes our products status symbols and expressions of a lifestyle characterised by exacting values and the pursuit of perfection. I have nothing against this at all as long as our products fulfil what they promise in terms of quality and functional excellence.

With an increasing number of luxury brands implementing cross promotions/collaborations with brands from different sectors, do you see such opportunities for Leica Camera in the future?

We already work together with manufacturers from other segments, for instance in the world of fashion and the luxury segment. The spectrum here reaches from Hermès to G-Star. We also work on exclusive products with world-famous designers. An example of this is our collaboration with the fashion designer Paul Smith on the creation of the Leica X2 Edition Paul Smith that is available as a special model. We also joined forces with Sir Jonathan Ive and Marc Newson, the iconic designers from Apple, on the design of a unique, one-off model of the Leica M for the charity organisation (RED). The Leica M for (RED) was sold by auction at Sotheby’s last year for 1.8 million US dollars, the highest sum ever paid for a digital camera. The proceeds were donated to a charity fund for the battle against AIDS and other epidemics in Africa. Leica is open to collaborations of all kinds, whether it be for a special model or a single collector’s piece.

Please give us a definition of luxury ‘made in Germany’ from your perspective?

In three words: heritage, quality, craftsmanship. Let me expand on this. In 2013, Leica was ranked in first place of the Top 50 luxury companies in Germany. This was determined by the Munich Business School and the professional services company Ernst & Young. The criteria for this position were, amongst others, long-standing traditions, powers of innovation and technological excellence as well as premium finishing by hand. And that is precisely what Leica Camera stands for. That is my definition of true luxury. The elitist expression of luxury, where the product gets a pretty label and the price is blown up to 15 times the manufacturing costs, is nothing for me. A good name has to be earned. That is what I call luxury ‘made in Germany’.

Where do you manufacture your products and how important is this geographical source?

In the case of compact cameras, we collaborate with our partner Panasonic. For the pre-production of components for our system cameras, we have our own factory in Vila Nova de Famalicão in Portugal. There used to be many watch and clockmakers in the region, so we were able to tap a long-established source of expertise in precision engineering. In the meantime, we have been working hand in hand with our colleagues in Portugal for over forty years. Research and development, final assembly and product testing is carried out exclusively in our facilities in Solms, in the German state of Hesse. These are now much too small due to the intense demand for our products, and in May 2014 we will be relocating to our new, ultra-modern factory, not far away in the neighbouring city of Wetzlar. The city is literally the birthplace of our company. In 1914, it was here at the Ernst Leitz Werke Wetzlar that Oskar Barnack designed and constructed the world’s first successful 35 mm camera, called the ‘Ur-Leica’. Our return to our roots reflects the enduring importance of this location for Leica. The new factory is also a clear signal to the region, which has a long optical and photographic tradition.

Which were your most successful products in 2013, and what novelties are you planning for 2014?

In 2013, the market saw the launch of the Leica M as the successor to the M9. This was without a doubt a quantum leap in the rangefinder camera segment. The M was so well received by the market that I feel justified in speaking of a rangefinder renaissance in the compact system camera segment. Our original concept has been a success in all respects. From a standing start at photokina in Cologne, the world’s largest photographic fair, the first few months after the event brought in pre-orders to the value of 100 million euros. This impressively confirms that the path we had chosen was right. 2014 is another photokina year. With this being the centennial year at Leica Camera AG, you can certainly expect plenty of surprises and new products at this showcase event. Of course, none of which we can speak about at this point in time.

What would be your near-future expansion plans?

Leica Camera AG is in a situation of ongoing growth, with regard to revenues and the number of people we employ. Our schedule will see the expansion of our portfolio with innovative products and the development of new customer segments. We will continue with the systematic realisation of our retail concept and open more Leica Stores and Boutiques around the world. Having only recently completed the construction of ultra-modern factories in Portugal and Wetzlar, Germany, further new factories are currently not an item on our agenda. The two we have should be sufficient – for the time being.