LEICA – THE MOST MAGNIFICENT SHOOTING EQUIPMENT IN THE WORLD
I came across a rather interesting publication called “The Brander.” It was written shortly before Leica moved to their new headquarters in Wetzlar. According to their ‘About us’ information, “A steady flow of new stories about brands and their creators, generated by renowned journalists and high-end photography - that is "The Brander". The independent publication of Zurich’s branding agency Branders portrays big, small and exclusive brands from all over the world. Feedback? Yes, please.” www.thebrander.com
The article caught my eye and I received authorization to republish it here. The article was written by Franziska Klün with photographs by Henning Bock, translated by Tessa Pfenninger.
Mr. Bock's photographs appear at the end of the article.
Dr. Kaufmann in the lobby of Leica AG in Solms
Once a revolutionary and a Waldorf school teacher, now an entrepreneur and a cowboy: Andreas Kaufmann saved iconic photography brand Leica from going under.Almost ten years ago, Kaufmann, having come into a significant inheritance, jumped in to save the legendary camera manufacturer from bankruptcy after the company failed to make the transition to the digital era. Today, Leica is on expansion course again.
Situated roughly in the middle of the state of Hessen, about an hour away from Frankfurt am Main, lies an unremarkable town called Solms, the seat of the company where the stuff of photographers’ dreams is still being made. One hundred years ago, Leica invented the first small-format 35mm camera, thereby revolutionizing the world of photography. Since the 1980s, the company has been manufacturing its high-tech products in these plain, flat-roofed premises with corrugated facades in Solms. Cameras that Magnum photographer René Burri once described as the most magnificent shooting equipment in the world. Despite delivery periods of up to 12 months for one of these iconic devices "Made in Germany," the waiting list boasts such names as Elizabeth II and Brad Pitt.
To date, however, visitors are still greeted at Leica with the words: "Please don't be alarmed." Conditions inside the building are a lot more primitive than might be expected. The reception area with its over-dimensional silver-colored Leica and shiny showcases lives up to its representative task, but once you pass through, it is like traveling back at least two decades in a time warp. Empty vending machines from a previous era stand about in harshly lit corridors. Through glass sectioning, employees can be seen working in crowded conditions. Wearing white lab coats, they sit bent over lenses and cameras. This is where the famous devices are made, with a single camera potentially costing as much a brand new VW Golf.
Back to the roots
Soon, however, the workforce will be leaving Solm with its cramped conditions and depressing corridors. A new production site is being built in Wetzlar, only ten kilometers away. Next year, one department after the other, a total of 1,500 employees, will be relocated to the large production complex in Wetzlar, back to where it all began. Wetzlar is where, in 1913, Oskar Barnack, the head of development, invented the small-format 35mm camera and helped the company, named Leitz in those days, achieve global fame.
Leading the way back to this hallowed location is 60-year-old Andreas Kaufmann, who is so busy he doesn't even have an office in Solms. He lives in Salzburg, Austria, and is always on the go, which is why arranging a meeting with him here in Solms can easily take up to six months. Kaufmann is Chairman of the Board of Directors at Leica and currently owns 55% of the company. In 2004, when he bought into the company, it was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Asked about this period, Kaufmann says: "I reached a point in life where I asked myself: Do I want to remain a teacher forever, or should I start doing something with the legacy I was entrusted with?"
First revolutionize the world, then save Leica
In his previous life, before Kaufmann rescued this important protagonist of photographic history from ruin, he says his main objective in life was to revolutionize the world. In his student days, Kaufmann studied political science, economics and literature, and wore his hair long. He continued dabbling in politics and was present at the founding of the Grüne Partei (The Greens), a green political party founded in the early 1980s in West Germany. He also taught at a Waldorf school for 15 years.
Kaufmann and his two brothers were left a large inheritance by their aunt. While nobody knows the exact figures, the inheritance was large enough for the brothers to form a holding called ACM with the purpose of becoming stakeholders in undercapitalized German companies, prioritizing those that manufactured in Germany. Leica numbered among those companies.
To be sure, Leica’s problems were entirely self-inflicted. Right until the Kaufmann brothers became stakeholders in 2004, the company managers in Hessen believed that the digitalization of the camera industry was a passing phase they could ride out. Despite having some revolutionary ideas in their portfolio that might have saved them, Leica completely failed to make the transition to digitalization until the year 2006. Under Andreas Kaufmann's aegis, and at a time when cell phones featuring integrated cameras were already quite common, Leica introduced its first digital camera. It took three long years before the turnaround could be declared successful: Since 2009 Leica has been operating in the black. At present, their turnover has achieved almost 300 million euros and some 140,000 cameras leave the manufacturing location in Solms annually. A long and winding road: Apparently Kaufmann’s brothers soon found the road too rocky, and in 2005 they sold their shares. Something Kaufmann doesn't comment on. In retrospect, some say the first phase was sheer madness or a kamikaze mission. Kaufmann himself says: "It was an act of faith."
He believed in Leica, because he believed in the people behind Leica. He says: “What the skeptics didn't see at the time was that we were dealing with highly qualified, extremely committed people who would really be able to achieve something if they were given the opportunity to do so." Kaufmann provided another massive cash injection. At one point he owned 96.5% of the company. Wasn't he ever worried he would end up losing everything?
I'm not afraid to live. Our destiny is in God's hands, so you might as well have a little faith and stop worrying.
And he certainly appears to be very laid-back: Wearing a loosely fitting suit and dark glasses, he exudes high spirits. People who know Kaufmann well say he gives himself no airs and that he is an extremely genuine person. Even under pressure, like on this autumn afternoon, after having traveled long and far by car and plane, with lots of delays, nothing is too much trouble for him. Would you mind answering our questions while you're being photographed, is that okay with you, Mr. Kaufmann? – Sure, no problem, he says, and smiles. He replies in lucid, well-turned phrases and follows the photographer's instructions cheerfully. And despite being pressed for time, he asks some questions about the lenses in use. After all, Kaufmann is a passionate amateur photographer.
When asked about the inheritance his aunt left to him and his brothers, he tells us how they were prepared for it from an early age. "We were raised very frugally. That had a strong impact on how we view money." They received 5 euros pocket money that was all. "People who don't maintain an especially costly standard of living take risks more easily. After all, if things go wrong, you're still alive. So really, money is only a means to an end, a facilitating instrument for my interests." Kaufmann also feels that getting up every morning in order to fight another round to keep Leica on the successful path of the past few years is in part for his aunt.
The capital I inherited was never intended to be spent on consumer goods. It was always clear that it should be invested in business, should be handled in a responsible manner.
Can Kaufmann imagine a life today without Leica, without working? "In our family we say: Cowboys die in their boots." To him, Leica is a long-term project that he will never tire of. In any case, lazing at the Côte d'Azur is not his idea of fun; working makes him much happier. "Retirement is not for me." And then it's time for him to leave again, back to Frankfurt where he has a pressing dinner engagement. With a final cheery smile, he gets into his car and drives off.
I have mentioned on several occasions that one reason for the superior quality of Leica equipment is the fact that it is mostly hand made. The Leica bench made process is totally without any assembly line work. This allows for the various assembly steps to be accompanied by immediate checks and rechecks, something that is impossible to do with assembly line work. The pictures in the Branders article clearly show the total absence of any assembly line, that the equipment is totally hand assembled on individual desks in clean rooms throughout the factory.
From my own visits to the factory I can attest that quality and quality control during each step in the manufacture and assembly of Leica cameras and lenses is paramount at Leica. No part, assembly or sub assembly will ever go to the next step in the production unless they met the rather high quality standards set by Leica. That, combined with tolerances much tighter than those applied by other camera and lens manufacturers assure the superior quality of anything with the Leica name.