Why Leica Cameras Will Never Go Out Of Style
Andreas Kaufmann has a genial warmth that one does not always expect from corporate leaders. Perhaps that’s because he led a very different life before becoming chairman of the supervisory board of Leica Camera.
Born and raised in Germany, Andreas and his two brothers inherited Frantschach, a large pulp and paper company owned by their family. But since there was no expectation for the siblings to enter the management ranks, Andreas was free to pursue other interests. In university, he studied political science, history and literature, and later became a founding member of the anti-establishment Green Party. For 15 years, he also worked as a teacher while pursuing various investments.
One of these investments eventually brought him into contact with Leica. The brand had first made a deep impression on him at age 20, when his fiancee at the time came home with one of its cameras. “She said, ‘Look what I have’. And I said, it’s a camera,” he recounts with an affectionate chuckle. “She said, ‘No, look again’. I did. And I said, it’s still a camera. She replied: ‘No, it’s a Leica’. I can still remember the tone in which she said some things, and there was a certain note in her voice when she said that.”
That relationship eventually ended (“It had nothing to do with the camera,” he assures us), but Andreas’ love affair with Leica would blossom decades later. In 2004, he acquired a stake in the vaunted German camera maker. Leica’s exquisitely engineered cameras had redefined photojournalism and street photography in the 20th century, but at that point in the 21st century, it was flailing a little. The all-important transition to digital photography was one challenge, but “the cameras themselves were not a problem”, Andreas asserts. Leica had started exploring digital technology as early as 1994, and has been able to shift its whole portfolio of cameras into the digital category while remaining lauded for its technical excellence.
The refining of its brand positioning, arguably, has been a greater leap. Andreas was attracted to the company in 2004 because Hermès was its main shareholder at the time. The French luxury brand’s first foray into the world of technology was spurred by then-CEO Jean-Louis Dumas, who was an avid Leica user. With Hermès providing its expertise in luxury retail, Andreas set about changing the way Leica sold its cameras—primarily through its own stores, rather than through camera dealerships. Today, it owns 50 of the 83 Leica stores worldwide, with the rest being collaborations with partners.
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“We have to be in control of our brand, our margins, and our customers,” Andreas explains. “It was a slow revolution, but the direct contact with the people who want the products we make has made a huge difference.” He is aiming for organic growth of up to 10 new stores a year, and the recently reopened Leica store in the refurbished Raffles Hotel Arcade in Singapore—complete with a cafe and gallery showcasing images created by renowned photographers using Leica cameras—exemplifies the aura of understated sophistication the brand wants to create. After all, “somebody who enters a Leica store is immediately in the minority”, he believes. “You are elevated into a group of people who know they want the best.”
Andreas is also pursuing innovation on other fronts. In 2016, Leica collaborated with Huawei on the cameras on their smartphones, and launched an innovation lab with the Chinese information and communications technology company. In 2018, Leica started selling its own luxury watches. The company also invests in start‑ups working on potentially game‑changing technologies.
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But tradition still counts for something, and Leica is one of the very few remaining producers of film cameras. However, Andreas reminds us, “we are not a museum and we are not state-funded. If customers don’t want these cameras anymore, we will stop producing them”. After all, as he puts it: “There’s a reason things change. If you look outside today and see only horse carriages, that’s going to be a problem.”